The social media shopkeeper


There was a time, in your great- or great-great-grandparents’ day, when almost every necessity was bought in bulk. Stores weren’t even self-serve. You walked in, asked for a quantity, and the shopkeeper packaged it up.

Products were not “brands” at that time. Merchants were. You trusted your local middleman to source quality goods, and to not adulterate them. That’s all you had to go on.

Adulteration was a huge issue in the Victorian age. So much so that when packaged goods started appearing in branded cans, etc., the trust shifted to Heinz, Kellog, and all the other early brand names. The self-serve shop, where the consumer could choose for his or herself from a number of competing brands, came soon after, and advertising took off as a way to help build reputation for each manufacturer and label.

In the past few decades, branding has become more sophisticated. While Coca-Cola was first trusted for its promised health benefits and consistency, over the generation its brand grew to include lifetimes of memories associated with its consumption.

Newer brands were forced to catch up to embedded ones. Some succeeded. As media and consumers matured, brands become more and more anthropomorphized — we talked about their “personalities” and how people “experienced them”.

For years we’ve tried to get our clients to understand brands in terms of identity. Branding is often pedaled as a science, but it is much more intuitive than that. Branding accesses our very nature as social animals, taking advantage of the good feelings we get out of loyalty and admiration towards other human beings in our tribe. But in the case of companies and products, the personality traits are conjured up in an anthropomorphic emotional construct. We “like” favourite brands. We “trust” them. And most importantly, we make them part of our tribal identity.

If there’s one thing everyone wants to be in the modern world, it’s special. We’re each one among billions, but we strive to stand out by reducing our world to a series of social groups where we can be appreciated. Great brands like Mac or Volkswagen already had communities of users years before social media existed. But just as any fetishist can find his mate on the Internet, so can any brand find its followers.

This is the world that social media entered, a few years ago, and branding has become more humanized and personal than ever before. People interact several times a day with strangers providing a “voice” for Skittles, or beer. (This can be a problem, too, like when a hired Tweeter for Chrysler accidentally posted a crude personal tweet, slagging Detroit drivers, on the corporate feed.)

When a company has a charismatic CEO who embodies the brand, it becomes even more personal. And dangerous. Like Kenneth Cole’s Egypt tweet, or when Go Daddy CEO Bob Parsons vlogged about shooting an elephant.

Despite these cautionary tales, most social brands just go on building followers in an uncontroversial way by offering fans and followers useful information, insights and offers. Sure, there are going to be customer service crises to be dealt with — in public — and the occasional troll to slay, but nothing that a well-trained community manager can’t deal with.

Overall, by creating a more diverse and intimate relationship with social media communities, personalities, products and companies can build more human dimension and trust into their brands. They can become the trusted shopkeeper who answers questions, tells stories, offers a place for customers to connect or gossip. Especially if they don’t break the illusion by going for the hard sell!

And yet, many people still try to close sales on social media. Twitter is one of the worst, where followers and followed frequently try to make sales offers on the feed. They are soon dropped.

On Facebook, salesmanship takes the rude form of talking about nothing but yourself. Ever dated a person like that? Not for long, I’ll bet!

And then there are the actual spammers: people who infest walls, threads, and blog comments with offers of business. Door-to-door salesmen. Beyond rude!

So then, you might ask, how are social media supposed to increase your ROI?

Like the shopkeeper, you are there to advise. To offer a service to people you know, based on their individual needs. “Hi Mrs. Jenkins, we got in some of that tea you like,” is all it should take. She’ll tell you what she wants when she’s ready.

It’s not that social media do not impact sales. It’s that they do so subtly and respectfully, by informing customers and having a real relationship with them. And when you get this right, they will come to you.

“Join the conversation!”

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