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The Elements That Give Social Media Meaning

It pays to think of social media as emotionally engaging and easily sharable objects – and not as words and pictures.

By Michael Rander, Dan Wellers | 5 min read

Technology makes it easier than ever for people with shared interests, desires, and demands to come together into digital communities. The internet makes it easy for these communities to take collective, cooperative action almost instantaneously for little to no cost and with tremendous potential impact. For a community to form, though, individuals need a catalyst to bring them together. These catalysts are known as social objects.




The anthropological concept of social objects first reached the digital world in 2005, when Jyri Engström, developer of a proto-Twitter platform called Jaiku, defined digital social objects as the building blocks of online strategy. In the digital world, a social object is any digital artifact that people can share and interact with, such as tweets, Facebook updates, blog posts, images, user reviews, or music playlists, to name a few. The more mass interest and participation a digital artifact attracts, the more successful it is as a social object.


Too much of brands’ social media content today is mere one-way broadcasting with nothing of value to share. Social objects, on the other hand, establish an emotional connection with customers and prospects. By releasing a continuous current of content that entices customers to share these objects, and to create their own in reaction, the company reinforces the emotional bond. Without social objects customers want to share, brands are missing out on a critical element of the relationship.




Digital social objects need a handle

Every social object has at least one “handle,” that is, something people can grab onto and discuss. Simple social objects, like a one-sentence tweet, may only have one handle and therefore might or might not engage large numbers of people. A complex social object, like a music video, has many more handles for discussion, such as the song, the band, the actors, and the imagery. The bigger and more complex a social object is, the more attention and interaction it’s likely to attract – or, as Engström vividly puts it, the more powerful its “social gravitational pull.”


A social object with enough social gravitational pull can turn customers into contributors, imbue a brand interaction with greater meaning, and meld a group of individuals into a community. Yet most companies aren’t even aware of the concept’s potential for driving core strategic goals. Nor do they understand that their products become social objects with or without them. People will talk about a product or service regardless of whether the company participates, so diving into the conversation is the only way companies can hope to guide and learn from it.



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To create successful digital social objects, companies have to turn what they do into something customers can gather around, something they can use to interact with each other as well as with the organization or brand.


For example, an app that lets people share their running routes doesn’t create social objects until other people run those same routes and use the app to offer their own opinions, suggest ways to make them better, and recommend similar routes.


Similarly, a company that delivers prepared meal components creates a small social object by letting customers review the ingredients and recipes as well as the cooking experience. But imagine how the company could create a much larger social gravitational pull – and thus greater customer engagement, meaning, and brand loyalty – by also emphasizing how many customers are cooking the same meal package on the same day and giving those customers a fun way to interact around that activity, maybe even in real time.




Platforms provide a launch pad

Social objects need a place to live, a platform where people can find and share them, such as an app, a website, or a social network. Platforms are important for creating many social objects and for giving those objects more than a transitory life.


Brands need not leave ownership of the platforms to third parties like Facebook or Twitter, however. A video streaming company can start by curating lists of films for viewers to share, edit, and discuss. In addition, it can ask customers for their own recommendation lists and “curate the curators” by choosing the best of those user-submitted lists. Attracting this kind of participation creates even more social objects that get customers talking about their preferences and discussing their strategies for joining the ranks of preferred recommenders.


The future of customer experience revolves around products and services that have meaning for the buyer, and nothing creates meaning quite like a sense of belonging and being connected to like-minded individuals. At a time when few companies even know what digital social objects are, companies can gain a significant competitive advantage simply by understanding how social objects work and how to use them strategically to help their customers coalesce into a community.


Here are three steps companies can take to start:

  1. Give customers opportunities to share. Design social objects as products. Include them on digital platforms and online presences. Enable engaged customers to create their own content that benefits the company.
  2. Create tribes for sharing. Generate ways for like-minded customers to express their common interest. Think of the fitness device maker that uses an app for exercise buffs to record workouts, post results, and share progress toward health goals with a community.
  3. Support customers’ quests for meaning. Consider apparel companies that pledge to aid communities in need for every customer’s clothing purchase.

Meet the Authors

Michael Rander
Senior Director and Head of Operations | SAP Insights research center

Dan Wellers
Futures and Foresight Lead | SAP Insights research center

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