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How to make social ideas

If you want people to talk about your business and brand, you need to explore making social ideas.

How to make social ideas

A guest post by Ben Phillips, a skateboarder trapped in the hairdo of a post-ironic digital strategist wandering the Continent, making ideas so social they like each other’s statuses on Facebook.

If you’re reading this, then it’s likely you work in advertising, media or marketing. If so, then your working life consists of coming up with, selling and executing commercial ideas. Mark has posted in some detail about ideas (How to explain an idea) before. This article intends to extend his thinking on the topic, focusing on a specific type of idea that’s particularly in vogue: the social idea.

We’ll cover:

1. The definition of a social idea
2. Why social ideas are important
3. Five ways to create a social idea
4. Your view on how to create social ideas

Part 1: Definition

Social idea: a novel concept that enables a unique, participative form of interaction between 2 or more people.

As an illustrative (and brilliant) example WWF’s Earth Hour is a social idea for many reasons, but most notably because it encouraged people to get together, and host lights-out events.

It’s important to differentiate between social objects and social ideas. A social object is what people talk to each other about. If you and I see a sporting event and talk about it, the sporting event is the social object. However, the sporting event isn’t necessarily an idea.

All social ideas are social objects but not all social objects are social ideas. Clear?

Part 2: Why social ideas are important

Before we get practical, social ideas are important for 3 reasons.

1.We are super social apes

Humans are designed to be social. We are shaped through interaction with others from the moment we are born. Most of our lives are made up of other people (not brands, business or political concerns) and most of what we do is determined by this context. (For more, read Mark Earls’s ‘Herd’).

Social ideas align with intrinsic human qualities.

2. People are saturated with one-way advertising messages

The prevailing consensus is that 3000 one-way messages hit us each day. If you aren’t creating an idea that fosters interaction between people, it’s likely you’ll be lost in the wash.

3. We’re more connected to a greater peer set than ever

It’s important to state here that social ideas live between people, not on social networks. However social networks are a fertile ground for them to come to life because of the ease and scale of our connectedness.

So – for these 3 reasons (these are just a start), social ideas demand consideration.

Now let’s consider practical ways in which we can create them, with a few examples along the way.

Part 3: Five ways to create a social idea

Way 1: Create something that enables people to tell a story about themselves in a unique way

One of the most observable human insights from dinner party environments and digital social channels is that people absolutely love to tell stories about themselves. When this is gratuitous it becomes hugely polarizing, but it’s also pivotal to creating and growing social connections with others. We tell a story about ourselves, they listen, they tell a story about themselves, we listen – a relationship is formed. There are about 1.8 million status updates posted to Facebook every minute. Irrespective of how cynics will label this torrent, the behavioral trend is glaringly obvious.

From a brand perspective, if we can give people a way to tell a story about themselves we can channel this fundamental desire, and they’re going to want to share this with friends and family. However, since we are in advertising and evil [Only Ben is evil - Mark], we have to sell something, so we must consider a product attribute or the advertising idea in the composition of the narrative.

One of the best examples of this recently is the campaign for the Intel core i5 processor. The product positioning is “Visibly Smart” – the chip delivers a stunning visual performance. So we combine the positioning, with our consumer insight “people love to tell stories about themselves”, sprinkle some creative magic and we get Intel’s Museum of Me. The Museum of Me is a “visibly smart” and incredibly cool way for me to tell the story of my Facebook social life that I naturally want to share with others and tell people about.

Way 2: Give people a platform to create something, to remix something, to personalize or customize something

When we create something, not only do we have a sense of ownership over it but we’re often proud of it. Do you remember when you were young, and you’d create finger painting masterpieces in kindergarten? You’d run home to your parents and excitedly show them what you’d done in the hope that it would adorn the kitchen fridge. Whilst the manifestations of this behavior have changed, I think the psychological drivers remain largely consistent. When we create stuff, we want to share it with others and the fruits of our creativity will be the reason we talk to other people.

The spectrum of creation is essentially unlimited, but again the creation should relate to the advertising idea or a product truth. Two wildly different illustrative examples here. (Disclaimer: I work for the agency that developed the first campaign.)

1. 13ème RUE ‘Je Tue un Ami’

13ème RUE is a crime entertainment cable television station in France. To increase the number of viewers, they developed a campaign with the advertising idea “Uncover the detective in you”. The digital creative execution Je Tue un Ami (I kill a friend) enabled participants to create short murder mysteries involving their own friends (their friends were killed in a particularly graphic fashion which added to the appeal). This unique platform for enabling creativity nurtured a personal involvement with the advertising idea and helped turn the site into a hit (no pun intended) with over 20 million unique visits.

2. Walkers ‘Do Us a Flavour’

In the UK, Walkers Do Us a Flavour is a more family-friendly approach to creativity. I’m not sure of the exact articulation of the advertising idea but the simplicity of the creative platform (suggest a new flavour of crisps) as well as the incentive (£50K + 1% of the flavour’s profits for life + fame) delivered one of the biggest social ideas in British advertising history as participants and on-lookers discussed and sampled the various suggestions. The numbers were pretty astounding: during the height of the campaign period, Walkers was selling 12 million bags of crisps a day.

Way 3: Start a movement or a debate

When you start a debate, when you start a movement, when you go against the grain, you’re creating a talking point. You’re challenging people to consider their point of view, and implicitly encouraging them to share that point of view with their peer set. Outside of a campaign perspective, this is also a particularly effective community management technique (for example, “Coca Cola is better with ice. True or False?”).

A couple of points. First, I think this is one of the more difficult methods to do correctly. Second, as with the first two principles we’ve discussed, the debate should relate to an advertising idea or a brand belief. Again, two examples here.

1. Kenneth Cole’s ‘Where Do You Stand?’

Kenneth Cole’s ‘Where Do You Stand?’ campaign asked a series of controversial questions of users about gun ownership, gay rights and protests. The participation rates were strong, and the campaign generated significant amounts of PR. That said, and I’m not intimately familiar with the Kenneth Cole brand, the debate seems to focus more on controversy for controversy’s sake, than on a consistent brand belief.

2. Dove’s ‘Campaign for Real Beauty’

Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty created a participative debate that challenged society’s views on women and questioned conventional notions of beauty. This was a debate that corresponded directly to the brand belief “Real beauty for real women” and through the course of the debate, participants were acutely aware of what the brand stood for and what it believed in. From a brand belief perspective, I think Dove’s focused debate is more effective than Kenneth Cole’s. (Disclaimer: Unilever is a client of the agency I work for.)

Way 4: An idea or challenge that requires co-operation or rewards working together

The vast majority of human accomplishments have relied on our ability to work together. When we work as teams, we not only achieve brilliant things that would have been inconceivable had we been working alone, but teamwork also delivers a shared sense of purpose and camaraderie between team members. In addition to the fundamental benefits of social ideas that we spoke about at the start of this post, ideas that require teamwork nurture camaraderie, and when that camaraderie is an exploration or a demonstration of an advertising or brand idea – the results can be pretty impressive.

There are plenty of brand games and Alternative Reality Games that operate on this principle but my favorite case is Coca Cola’s Friendship machine, a social idea that requires real-world physical co-operation. The brand idea here is ‘friendship’, with the product acting as an enabler and a facilitator of this. The execution rewards teamwork between friends (with two-for-one Cokes) and gives both participant and viewer a warm, strong association between Coke and friendship.

Two side-points:

1. As we spoke about at the start of this post, social ideas live between people, not on social networks. This is a fantastic example of a real-world social idea.

2. The numbers for this campaign from direct participants are relatively small, but the strength of the idea has ensured that it’s touched hundreds of thousands online.

Way 5: A mechanic that has an incentive to share

“Incentives are the cornerstone of modern life…And understanding them—or, often, ferreting them out… is the key to solving just about any riddle, from violent crime to sports cheating to online dating.” Steven Levitt, Freakonomics.

Our discussion of incentives here is less about an idea per se, and more about the system in which the idea operates. The system refers to how people interact with the idea: what they do, where they go, how they interact, the user journeys etc. There can be any number of systems that give people a reason to talk to each other and spread the word about a campaign.

As an illustrative (and the most common) example.
The idea: Your dog could be the next official mascot for brand X
The system: The dog with the most votes/views/Likes is the winner (or makes the shortlist). Every submitted dog has its own unique URL and vote counter.

Without exception, campaigns that have strong, simple incentive tiers (like the above example) are enormously successful from a volume point of view. Irrespective of the category, the prospect of fame, or victory, or prize, coupled with the system of most votes/views wins ensures rapid and wide-reaching ‘talk-ability’ of the campaign and its content.

A couple of caveats here:

1. Numbers aren’t everything and the system is not the idea. You can have a system that’s fantastic at touching millions of people, with an idea that does little for the brand.

2. When you’re creating these systems, it’s best to put a time limit on the voting or “advocacy” period. Week after week of “vote for my poochie in this campaign” is likely to frustrate and annoy rather than touch and inspire. Without tight time frames, it’s like a retargeted banner campaign without frequency capping – you’re acutely aware of a banner following you around the internet and your opinion of the advertiser adjusts accordingly.

Part 4: Your view

These five approaches, as well as the definition, are very much a work in progress. They are intended as a starting point in an exploration of a certain type of idea. With that in mind, I’d love to hear your thoughts on social ideas and the principles you use to create them.

Ben Phillips is a senior digital planner. He works between BETC EuroRSCG in Paris and EHS 4D in London.

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