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The key to 'social media' is physical space

Or: how to put a face on a brand and cultivate community

What most people don't get about 'social' and 'digital' content is that the key to digital interactivity is bridging the digital and physical space.

How many social apps and websites have launched and failed because someone thought, 'there are loads of people interested in this area, people will visit if I have good content'.

Yes, content is important but only after you've got the community to support it.

It's not enough to have good digital content and digital interactivity -- truly successful and (cringes) 'viral' 'social media' bridges the physical and digital at some point.

This can happen in several ways

    * bridging physical 'objects' or concepts via digital means
    * holding physical events

The basis for true connection is establishing a universal point of contact -- common ground, if you will.

These are the little details that make up our lives. We connect more strongly when these details are shared and shared visually (or why those photos of everyone's morning coffee via instagram aren't stupid).

The morning coffee is probably the most universal meme.

拉花 Latte Art

There's also #fromwhereistand (your feet in front of -- a beach, spring flowers, your kid playing, a favourite running path, a nice view, etc ad infinitum)


But it's not just the digital picture image or the descriptive knowledge of an act that's important -- it's that we've all done the same thing, actually physically done the same thing, that's important. It's the physical memory.

We've all lifted that kind of cup, can recall the weight and heat of it in our hands, felt the froth on our lips.

Connection is sensory perception, sensory memory that's visceral to knowledge of someone else.

When I write social strategy I always recommend to brands that one of the best things they can do to put a face on their brand is to let people see the mundane of everyday life at the office: from sharing lunch in the kitchen to the brand of biscuits that are kept with the coffee and tea. It's literally that simple. (MarkTurner calls these small spatial stories.)

Of course, the other way to bridge the physical and digital space is to literally do just that. And it works even for brands with a global following.

Here's how to do it: invite customers into a physical space with the brand and video and photograph the experience, providing a pseudo - universal point of contact. Why? When we watch someone do something the same area of our brains light up as when we are doing it ourselves (assuming we are truly engaged). By inviting customers in, other customers can almost see and feel themselves in that same experience.

This is something like bringing in a focus group made up of your most vocal dissatisfied customers to help you prototype product iterations or fix product bottlenecks. Or making an event around your brand: e.g. a local bank branch hosting a Q&A forum as part of a high-street summer party. A notable real-life example is New Zealand Banking Brand Umpqua -- reputed to have a stellar "local" feel, they run local events (like bookclubs) for customers, throw branch-opening parties with their own icecream truck, and have built an innovation-lab mock branch. (source)

Why is this important? Because whilst connections are formed over universal objects or concepts, those connections are formed between people.

Story(tellers) need facilitators.

In almost every study of organic online communities there are one or two people who orchestrate, conduct, or translate amongst the community.

I saw this first-hand in my research into the now defunct Seesmic video platform. (Another great take-away from this research is that under a certain size -- Dunbar number size -- communities tend to be self-policing.) As this community evolved organically there were several users got to be rather well-known not only because they were super-users but also because they engaged members in discussion about community norms but also because the connected members to each other.

But as Seesmic grew as a company, they kept the interest of their community when they hired a host to highlight what was happening in the community. The host of 'Seesmix', Giselle became the communication face of Seesmic.

Another example of successful organic digital community facilitation (orchestration) is perhaps the most innovative broadcaster in social media (not to mention journalism) period Al Jazeera English: the company noticed that it had an incredibly active semi-regular community online (both comments in channels of digital social media and video responses). They started facilitating the interaction between their online community by having show hosts read live questions from Twitter and Facebook to interview guests. This was so successful that they've now completely flipped the model in their new (last year) show 'The Stream'.

AJE's 'The Stream' pulls the most popular topics (on current headlines) from the digital social media streams and airs a show about it. They invite interview guests and the anchor's questions and discussion facilitation is shaped by the online discussion from the social media stream prior to the air date whilst on the live show, an assisting host or two continue to pull questions and read out comments from the social media streams and ask the interview guests to reply to the best questions from the audience participating via social media.

What AJE has done is create a 'social product'.


British startup Nexi.tv thinks it can build an entire online TV network off of this concept: its idea is to create hosted online 'tv' programs, each episode produced in reply to user interests. Each program is based around the host personality, who feeds back to and facilitates amongst viewership.

Lessons for brands: put a face on your brand and facilitate for your community

Show that your brand is human by showing who you're interacting with. Start simply by having whoever is managing your Twitter for Facebook feed for a day either signs on and off with their name or initials.  Try putting a face on your brand by putting photos of your social media team on your company website. Go further by 'sharing a cup of coffee' with your customers. The goal: bridge the digital - physical space by interacting in the physical space with your customer base.

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