Coming out of anthropology, I have always been interested in social and cultural interaction, identity, and how we display ourselves in a public venue. Because brands are focusing more and more on social media as a significant point of marketing, it becomes increasingly important to understand the nuances of who is actually speaking and being spoken to in a virtual environment. How do self-presentation strategies impact who we choose to be in a social media space?
Anthropologist Erving Goffman used the imagery of the theater to portray the importance of social action. But unlike others who have used this metaphor, he took all elements of acting into consideration. A person’s main goal is to keep his coherence, and adjust to the different settings offered him. In other words, whether in the real world, the virtual world, or the juncture where the two meet, we negotiate what we let people know about ourselves and how we feel about a brand. And this has implications for how we consider incorporating social media sites into the branding process.
Take gender. Marketers frequently target based in part on gender. Second Life software doesn’t allow gender to be left undefined. However, unlike real life, the virtual environment allows players to switch genders fairly freely. One survey shows that only 10-15 percent of residents switch gender on a regular basis. The implication is simple – how reliable is Second Life as a marketing tool when the target market isn’t what it seems?
Second Life is an extreme example insofar as it relies on establishing a fictional self in a fictional world. But what about Face Book? Does this idea of performance hold up under scrutiny? Yes. Picture choices, blog entries, and the brands we brag about (or rail against) take on a constructed element that reflects a state of performance outside the scope of face to face interaction. People become “experts” based on their writing styles, their image choices, and their frequency of posting. People take extreme positions on a brand as a way of establishing credibility. The web is an inherently creative space and while people like to see themselves as rational, objective players, human beings are rarely as rational as they think.
So what is a brand to do when it comes to social media?
- Difficult as it sounds, step one is to quit worrying about control of the brand. Since people are essentially using the brand as a way of directing attention at themselves, it makes more sense to simply engage as much as possible and talk about what you do well.
- Focus on maintaining a consistent brand message instead of reacting. People respond to consistency in part because they understand that the people we encounter in social media suffer from what amount to mood swings, bad days, etc.
- Be willing to create buzz, even if some of that buzz is occasionally negative. Mediocrity breeds indifference. Learn to be comfortable with extremes.
Finally, remember that people want to have a reason to discuss your brand and will find a way to do it whether you like it or not.