Last week, David Armano, a well-known blogger, prolific Twitterer, and real-world friend, did a very noble thing: with just one tweet and one blog post, he harnessed the power of his 8,000+ member Twitter network and raised close to $20,000 for Daniella, a woman fleeing an abusive husband. The effort was notable for many things, foremost among them being how quickly the money poured in: I believe the first-night total was somewhere around $15,000. It was a wonderful, feel-good moment and David was justifiably moved by the response.
But there was something else that struck me about all this: How many of the people who contributed that first night cited “knowing” David as the reason they felt comfortable donating money. And what struck me was that in reality, few of them actually did know him. At least not in the traditional sense.
They knew him from his blogging and (primarily) from his Twitter stream. But few seemed to have ever had any direct interaction with him beyond reading and perhaps retweeting what he’d written.
So as a marketer, the first question that comes to mind, “Does this represent a significant change in behavior that affects how I should advise my clients?”
And the short answer is “maybe.”
Our definition of who we “know” is certainly more fungible these days. But merely having a significant online presence is not enough to get people to feel they “know” someone (or some brand, for that matter.) This is where brand personality comes into play: Armano is far more open about his personal life than most are on Twitter. At the same time, both his blog and his Twitter stream are aimed at educating people who are new to social media. So in a way he serves as the first friend many newcomers have, at times the only friend they have if their real world friends are not making their way online. Sort of like the friendly RA during freshman orientation.
Now what this does is humanize him in a way that works very well for his personal brand, and is likely why so many feel they “know” him. But this strategy works because of who he is and the unique circumstances he deals with: it would seem forced and awkward for many other brands, both personal and (especially) corporate.
Brands, as I’ve noted ad infinitum are not our friends. Even Prom King brands. We may like certain brands a whole lot, consider ourselves experts on them, but we don’t ever feel we “know” them. So while we may consider donating to a charity that Apple sponsors, we’ll do it because want some of Apple’s “cool.” Not because we “know” Apple or feel a connection to Steve Jobs.
Now here’s where it gets tricky: did the people who donated think it was “cool” to be a part of Armano’s community?
I suspect some did, but for most the primary emotional driver was the chance to be a part of a larger “we”, an online community whose leader made them feel welcomed and included upon their entrance into the space, rather than cool. Making people feel welcomed on such a personal level is going to be hard for a major brand to replicate. You need a very active CEO or other spokesman with a personality that can accommodate that kind of effort. As well as a product category where people feel somewhat alone and at sea.
A smaller brand, like a local restaurant or a bed and breakfast with a strong following and a popular owner might have far more success creating that sense of community. (Call it the “Cheers” affect.)
A final question I’ve been asking is at what point does an online community start to break apart because it’s too large? Is the Dunbar Number of 150 a valid gauge?
I’d say the answer is that for a specific cause, these communities can go much larger. The community of Obama supporters– and I’m talking seriously hard core supporters, the type who manned phone lines– numbered in the millions. And you know they’d have donated money to Obama’s favorite charity in a heartbeat.
The danger here, as this piece on Crooked Timber points out, is that the community turns on itself: it’s easy to forge a large community when there is one simple common goal. (In this case, defeating the Republicans.) Much tougher when you have to get down to the nitty gritty such as the actual specifics of the economic stimulus plan. (NB: This isn’t unique to online communities; far from it. Revolutions typically split into factions once the major battle has been won.)
And brands are not causes. They’re corporate entities designed to get us to buy things. So you’re going to see different levels of community based on how fanatical someone is about the particular brand and how big a role it plays in their self-identity. (e.g. it’s far more socially acceptable for me to self-identify as a runner than it is to self-identify as a Saucony fan.) And while larger brands can expect to exceed 150 fanatical users, their numbers will only hold fast if we’re talking about the overall, high-level message of “Brand X is really good.”
Once you introduce additional factors like “the new red version is really good” you introduce the possibility of dissension and the brand-love and group-think falls off. Which is not a bad thing. You’ve just got to be able to manage expectations and be able to walk away from those changes and innovations that prove most upsetting to your core group of customers. What social media does is give you an effective outlet to listen to them and process what you’re hearing from the people who really do “know” you.