The Challenge for Marketers Regarding Social Networks: Embracing the Narcissism

Back in the mid-70’s, I used to ride the bus to junior high with a kid called “Tiger” Jackson.  Actually, none of us called him “Tiger” but apparently someone in his family did and he liked the sound of that a whole lot better than “Bill Jr.”  Tiger was never particularly popular but he was always the first to have any comedy record–George Carlin, Steve Martin, The National Lampoon Troupe–and somehow, the mere act of owning and sharing that material lent him a consideration he wouldn’t have enjoyed otherwise.

I hadn’t thought about Tiger in three decades but yesterday we had a long discussion about social networks with a client that is getting very active in that space and facing the challenges every corporation does as they make the foray into the less-charted world of earned media.  As we explained the “Hey Everybody!” nature of Facebook and the “Hey anybody!” nature of Twitter to a curious if bemused seventy-year old, the question of “But…why?” came up again and again.  “Why do people spend so much time on these networks?”  “Why do they stop what they’re doing to write about it?”  “Why do they think anyone would care?”

We try to answer these queries with intellectual theses about the need for connection in a socially-isolating world where people bowl alone…  We wax philosophical on how technology empowers a cognitive expansion of our collective Dunbar numbers…  But at it’s heart, this need to broadcast what we’re doing, what we think, or what we have found to an unseen audience that includes friends, nodding acquaintances and a considerable amount of total strangers, bears more than a trace of narcissism.  “Look at me!  Follow my links!  Enjoy this comedy brought to you…by me!

Picture 2I type this fully aware that this insight indicts me and my social network habits perhaps most of all.  I write this blog most weekdays, creating lessons on marketing for…well, for whomever stumbles across them.  But I want people to stumble across them so I send out links to these posts over Twitter and LinkedIn.  Every morning during my commute, I try to find some topical story to inspire a one-liner for my Facebook status update.  I tell myself that I do these things because I need firsthand knowledge of social networking or that writing about contemporary advertising forces me to develop an intellectual discipline during these rapidly-evolving times.  And all of that is true.

But that hardly explains why I check my blog stats everyday to see how many people read the post.  Or why I secretly thrill when a friend on Facebook ‘likes my status’ or someone re-tweets a link.  Or why so many people on twitter spend hours each day, forwarding links like a modern day Tiger Jackson.  All of that springs directly from narcissism; a narcissism every client wading into the waters of social networking with hopes of spreading their messages would be well advised to keep in the forefront of their minds.  As an advertiser in social media, your wants and needs will always fall a distant second to your audience, unless you find a way to align your needs with theirs.  If that seems unthinkable, just read the first few paragraphs of this MobileInsider post by Steve Smith.  As he winds up for his pitch against ill-considered mobile phone apps, he says this: “For the benefit of those consumer brands that weren’t listening the first few hundred times this has been said, consumers do not wake up in the morning thanking the lord they live in a country where they get to worship your brand and see life through its narrow self-serving lens. That only happens in the retro-fantasies of Don Draper and the households of top executives at many of these major brands.”  Ouch.

Adjusting to the foundational narcissism that fuels social networks not only presents a real challenge, but a direct juxtaposition to the necessary narcissism of every corporate marketer.  Which is why these are, and will continue to be, very interesting times…

Of course, if you feel differently, I welcome your comments.  Even if you think my thinking is way off-base, the narcissist in me will take comfort knowing you responded.  Bless you.

Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79
Marc Lichtenstein says:

Great post. I too have been struggling with assigning a value to social media that is beyond narcissism.

However, I have come to the realization that social media MARKETING, when done correctly, is less broadcasting (“hey everybody/anybody”) and more narrowcasting. It’s all about aligning yourself with the right audience. People actually do wake up in the morning looking for someone’s brand to help them–thinking about which brand of shirt to wear that day to solve their “fashion problem” is just one example. Well, if you are a shirt maker and you have found that audience on Facebook, Twitter, or any other social media channel, then you will succeed because of the old-fashioned strategy of being in the right place at the right time. Someone may actually wake up in the morning already knowing that they will wear your shirt because of your Facebook post that they read the night before, or because of your Tweet that they saw while eating their oatmeal.

Social media for the sake of social media is indeed narcissistic–I really don’t care which one of my “friends” is going to the gym at 4:30 am for a spin class.

But social media for the sake of marketing is the ideal tool for narrowcasting–finding the right audience at the right time, in the right place, with the right message.