Social Media and Brand Relationships - The Big LieBy David Jones

By now we’ve all heard that building relationships with consumers through social media is the future of brand marketing.

The logic makes sense: The closer my brand is with its consumers, the more loyal they are, the more forgiving they are, and the more likely they are to become advocates marching in my word-of-mouth army.

Hard to argue with in theory, but does the logic hold in practice?

Are Relationships in Social Media a Lie?

Adam Kmiec from Walgreens put it bluntly on his personal blog,

Relationship-building is the single biggest lie being purported right now.

Giving this school of thought credence is a 2012 study in the Harvard Business Review that revealed an overwhelming majority of consumers don’t really want a relationship with a brand. But the counter-argument is supported by other studies that state that consumers do indeed value relationships with brands.

It’s enough to make you turn in your social media license and write pop-philosophy books.

So which is it?

Relationships Aren’t the Answer

The problem is in the language used.

“Relationship” is kind of a creepy term and would certainly turn a few people off. The word is very personal and denotes a closeness few of us are comfortable sharing beyond a chosen few people in our lives.

Brands, I’m sorry, it’s not you. It’s me. I just don’t like you in that way.

If you still don’t quite believe it, ask a teenager if they would like to have a relationship with their teacher. They’d more than likely say “Ew, no. Gross.”

But the truth is they already have a relationship with their teacher. They just don’t consider it a relationship, in the traditional definition of the term – or want to think about it that way. Ever.

So, how can you have a relationship without having a “relationship”?

What we’re talking about here is a “close connection.”

On the relationship spectrum, it falls somewhere between “I’ve heard of you” and “I can’t live without you in my life.”

It’s the same feeling you have about your hometown or your current neighborhood. I feel good about my connection, but I don’t want to marry the street I live on.

I’d hazard a guess that should Harvard Business Review go back and ask the question, “Would you like to have a close connection with a brand?” the results would swing wildly to the positive.

Sometimes this connection is purely emotional, other times it’s purely transactional, and other times it’s completely utilitarian. But, for most brands it’s a mix of all of these.

Finding out how your community perceives your brand, what they value, and what they want from you is always the first step in creating a social presence that connects.

Create a Close Connection With Your Audience

Let’s put semantics aside and get down to operations.

Successful brands that use social well to build connection with consumers follow a similar approach that great brands have used since social media was literally ye olde word-of-mouth.

As you’d imagine, top brands in social are and were top brands long before Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram. We’ve boiled down their approach to a framework any brand can use to build close connections in their social channels.

We call it CRAVE: Consistent, relevant, accessible, valuable, and emotional.

Consistent: Be consistently awesome all the time in how you act, look, sound, deliver. Never settle for average or easy.

Relevant: Stay in touch with what your audience cares about and talks about, and find ways to become part of those conversations.

Accessible: Find your human voice. Even if you are anonymous and behind a company logo, sound and act like a person. People want to connect with other people in social.

Valuable: Know what your community wants and expects from your brand, and give it to them. This could be entertainment, help, status, or prizes. Knowing why your community values your brand gives you the opportunity to deliver, and remember to throw in some “surprise and delight” once in a while.

Emotional: Brands create emotional bonds. Find your truth, understand your emotional center, and create connections that have heart based on shared ideals.

Don’t get caught up in the binary argument over whether or not customers want relationships with your brand.

Instead, focus on creating positive brand experiences to which your customers and prospects feel connected.

David Jones

David Jones is owner and CEO of Social Lab, working directly with brands, organizations and their agency partners to develop internal social media capabilities, create social media presences with purpose and collaborate on social-by-design campaign ideas. Jones has spent over two decades working with leading agencies, including BBDO/Proximity, Critical Mass, Hill & Knowlton and FleishmanHillard, and has developed holistic social strategies, executed social media marketing campaigns and provided internal training for organizations that include MolsonCoors, Nike Canada, PepsiCo, Bayer, Motorola, HP, Visa, the Ontario Government, WorldPride Festival and the Sandra Schmirler Foundation. Jones has been a blogger, podcaster and speaker on the intersection of PR, advertising and media since 2005. You can find his blog at and some of the papers and presentations he's authored on Slideshare.

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