J. Walker Smith – The Future of Advertising is Social

J. Walker Smith, Executive Chairman, The Futures Company

The future of advertising will be one thing above all else – social.

Admittedly, with social media dominating the headlines this seems all too obvious.  But social media are but one reason why the future of advertising is social.

The bigger reason is the changing and paradoxical nature of social relationships.  The view emerging from research into social connections is that, increasingly, we live in a world of weak ties.  Social networks are best understood in terms of weak not strong ties.  Even our strong ties are weaker than before.  Weak ties shape the ways in which people engage in everything, commerce included.

To speak of weak ties makes it sound as if people are isolated and disconnected.  Not true.  The reality is that people are reinventing their lives in full, satisfying and highly connected ways in the context of weak ties.

Indeed, the heartening paradox – and the overarching, operative marketplace dynamic – is that weak ties are sewing the seeds for stronger connections.  This is scarcity at work.  Too little of something people want gives rise to a boom in demand for it.  Ties are weaker but the desire for social connection is as strong as ever.  So in a world of weak ties, people are focused more than ever on social engagement and the social currency that goes with it.

Critics have made much of the fact that many people feel lonely and that more people are living alone.  The Internet is often blamed as a prime culprit in social isolation.

But facts belie these criticisms.  There is no evidence that loneliness is on the rise or that the Internet is isolating people.  People who live alone socialize more, interact more with strangers, and are more involved in civic organizations.  Greater online social engagement is associated with more not less offline social engagement.  Loneliness is a phenomenon that tends to cluster not spread.

Weak ties are not bad; they’re just weak.  But too little attention is given to weak ties.  Advertisers are almost wholly focused on strong ties when it’s weak ties that typify life today, and, paradoxically, are making everything more social.

Technology intensifies social influence.  The more new media grow, the more social our lives will become.  Our networks will get bigger.  More information will be shared.  The scale of information we share will swell exponentially.  Confronted with more, we will be ever more aware of our connections with others and of their influences on us.  We will spend more time monitoring our connections.  Indeed, we will depend more and more on the guidance of others to help us sort through the ever-growing deluge of data flooding our lives.

It is not as if advertisers have ignored the context of social influences, but over the past decade an accelerating phase shift has been underway.  Social influences have moved from the background to the foreground, becoming a primary consideration, not a secondary factor, leading to an elemental change in the character of the marketplace, the importance of which cannot be overstated.

This is where advertisers and researchers are behind the curve.  Social influences filter every message these days, and will do so even more in the future.  Yet, marketing and advertising models from hierarchy of effects to conjoint and discrete choice focus on the individual to the exclusion of social influences.  Diffusion, two-step flow and word-of-mouth models put primary focus on individual agents and little on the networks of connections and context that bind people together.  Media buying models target individual consumers, oblivious to the context, conversations and cues that determine how and whether an advertising message gets through, and at what cost.

The social future of advertising has several important consequences.  First, research will have to do a better job of cataloging the social influences bearing on the ways in which individuals interact with advertising.  Social connections must be regarded as data no less vital than standard demographics.

Second, advertisers must target conversations not individuals.  It is less common for people to encounter advertising head-on.  Conversations have become the pathways by which people encounter advertising.  People talk about it, solicit opinions about it, watch parodies of it, hear stories about it, do research on it, compare and contrast it with other advertising, and even add their own personal touches.  Advertising that makes for good conversation is what works these days.  Being heard worked in the past, but nowadays such shouting comes across as intrusive.  The key now is being talked about.  Media work their magic through networks not individuals, and thus advertising efficiency is best maximized by leveraging social influences.  Share of voice is giving way to share of conversations as the relevant metric.

Third, marketers will need to learn more about orienting the attention of consumers.  It will prove easier and less costly to focus consumers on alternative reference points and social influences than to change how they think.  This means moving from persuasion-based to attribution-based marketing, with a focus on shifting how people think of themselves rather than how they think of brands.  When people see themselves in new ways, they adopt new reference points, pay attention to new cues and attend to new social influences, eventually changing their behaviors to be consistent with their new sense of self.

Finally, advertisers will have to accept that brands will not be at the center of any conversation.  Instead, brands will have to deliver opportunities for people to have the kinds of conversations they want – with other people.  The imperative for advertisers is to avoid butting into conversations and instead to facilitate the kinds of interpersonal conversations people want to have.  Interactions per se must be a key brand benefit.  Only that will make a brand relevant and valuable.  The locus of value in the social economy is social engagement not brand usage.  Advertisers must embrace this social future and focus on conversations for the sake of conversation.