It’s true to say that companies were never previously, in any way, your friend. Since the advent of capitalism, businesses were simply an ingenious way to extract money from your pocket, and that was the extent of their relationship with their customers. But since social media came into the picture, that customer-business relationship has changed, and it’s a transition that is proving unpalatable for some to come to grips with.
After Gawker Media disrupted Coca-Cola’s feel good Super Bowl campaign with writings designed to evoke memories of the very worst crimes ever committed against humanity, they were duly called out and criticized. The screed that followed, “Brands Are Not Your Friends,” was hinged upon one central idea: brands are not people and that you and I are dumb to like, follow, and share their content, alluding to the fact that the 193,000+ humans who follow Denny’s are the modern-day equivalent of the rube falling for the snake oil salesman.
Put aside the self-righteous, judgmental tone of that piece, and look instead at the realities of today’s marketing world. Social media has shifted utterly how individuals communicate with and have come to see brands. For the first time in our history, a corporation is now something that we can relate to on a human level. A brand makes mistakes in social because it is inherently an individual representing that monolith in real time, and similarly, it talks in relatable terms because of that. Moreover, a brand seeks to share with us information and content that will keep us as its friend, because friendships are tenuous and require work to maintain that connection and keep us engaged. A brand that shifts from a friend to faceless entity will very quickly be muted, unfollowed, ignored, and blocked, and that’s an increasingly expensive loss.
Brands have become our friend because social has enabled corporations to talk to customers on an individual basis, one on one, targeted, segmented, and with true nuance. We have evolved our relationship from the snake oil salesman screaming and barracking on a street corner, easily tuned out and ignored, to a highly refined and ongoing conversation that has a true potential to grow over time. Now we seek out messaging from those who make and sell products we enjoy in a way that we never did before.
Social changed our relationship with brands primarily because that relationship is, at its most fundamental, voluntary. Thus, a voluntary relationship must be beneficial for both parties. Broadcast and print media are expensive and blunderbuss-like in their ability to shout very loudly and randomly and not listen. Our relationship with multinational corporations is all of a sudden very personal and very real, our corporate likes and our product shares a reflection of who we are and what we truly care about.
Brands are our friends because we care and relate so much what they publish, what they tweet, and what they say, that we are willing to share it with our own friends. Brands are our friends because, ever more increasingly, we reach out to them on social directly to complain, to compliment, to share ideas. And brands are our friends because we can and do have a very real two-way dialogue, where there previously was none.
The Supreme Court once declared that “corporations are people.” Social media has taken that one step further and made them friends, because friends are people we willingly spend our recreational time with. More than 193,000 people are friends with Denny’s on Twitter, without shame and without having to justify themselves, and they’ll continue to be so, as long as Denny’s continues to be their friend — humorous and unexpected — and not a restaurant franchise.
Andy White: Andy White is Director of Social Business Strategy at Sprout Social, a leading social media management and engagement platform. Follow him @white.