Social Objects: It’s not just a product, it’s a conversation!

social objects

By Keith Reynold Jennings, {grow} Contributing Columnist

Take a second and think about the questions you tend to ask people when you first meet them:

  • Where are you from?
  • What kind of work do you do?
  • Do you happen to know (insert name here)?

There’s a reason we do this.

It’s the same reason marketers are abuzz about Clubhouse right now. And it’s the reason topics like ABM, AI, etc. start to trend. Heck, it’s the reason things are always trending.

That reason is what is known as social object theory. It’s a very simple concept to understand and use. Yet, I’m surprised that so few marketers know about this big idea and how to leverage it.

I don’t want you to be one of those marketers!

In this article, I want to introduce you to social objects and show you how to use them for maximum impact in your business.

Social Objects power social networks

As social networks developed, so too did theories around what they are and how they work.

A common school of thought is that social networks are made up of person-to-person connections. You and I (i.e. the nodes) are connected. And the network is the connective web of all those nodes.

Influencer marketing, for example, tends to be explained through this lens. Certain individuals are perceived to be hubs around which many individual spokes connect. And these hubs are considered influencers.

But there’s another, more interesting, and logical theoretical lens regarding social networks that emerged in the 1990s and early 2000s, called object-centered sociality.

Sociologist Karin Knorr Cetina is a foundational thinker on this object-centered approach to social networks.

This theory says that you, I, and others depend on objects around which we can socialize (i.e. connect and converse).

These social objects are the most powerful influence tools in and on our lives.

Connections and conversations

According to the object-centered theory, social networks are not built on person-to-person connections. They’re built on person-to-object-to-person connections.

Through this lens, influencers are not the individuals around which people gather. Rather, the social objects these individuals share are the influencers, because they are what spark connection and conversation.

Let’s go back to the questions you tend to ask people when you meet them.

Those questions are social markers we use to establish something in common (i.e. the object) we share with another person. For example, if you and I ever have an opportunity to meet, the social object that will likely launch our conversation will be the topic of marketing. Without it or any topic, we would have nothing of substance to talk about.

  • When a stranger walks up to someone and inquires about their shoes, the shoes are the social object.
  • When two people rant about a specific story in the news, that news story is the social object.
  • When people went wild over Nathan Apogada’s Tik Tok video of him skateboarding and drinking Ocean Spray to the song Dreams, Nathan’s Tik Tok video was the social object.
  • When people attend, post, or talk about events such as the Olympics, SXSW, or Coachella, the event is the social object.
  • If you share this article with someone else or post it on social media (please do!), this article becomes a social object.

A social object is anything that sparks a conversation between two or more people. Social objects can be tangible, like a cup of coffee, or intangible, such as one’s spirituality.

Now that you know what social objects are and how they power social networks, let’s look at how this applies to influence.

The strange story of Willrow Hood

I believe that NO influence can happen without a social object.

That’s why content is so powerful. Ideas need a vehicle to spread. So a book, video, podcast, speech, graphic, etc. (i.e. objects) are great ways ideas are socialized.

In the Star Wars movie, The Empire Strikes Back, the Imperial forces had invaded and taken control of Cloud City. There’s a scene in which Lando Calrissian and Princess Leah are running through a corridor as citizens scramble past them to evacuate.

The scene clocks in at around one second. Here that scene as a gif image:

(click here if the gif isn’t playing)

That inconsequential scene launched a movement.

Star Wars geeks who watched the Empire movie over and over noticed that a guy in this scene is carrying what appears to be an ice cream maker. Fans started to talk.

With that, the “ice cream maker guy” was ultimately named Willrow Hood, a backstory was created and he became a hero in the Star Wars canon.

He’s become a Hasbro action figure. And in 2015, hundreds of fans dressed up in jumpsuits and ran through ComiCon with ice cream makers, which is now an annual event known as The Running of the Hoods.

The ice cream maker even made an appearance in The Mandalorian series, as an Easter egg.

Why? Because Willrow Hood’s ice cream maker became a social object that brought (and continues to bring) Star Wars fans together in community and conversation.

That’s the influencing power of social objects.

Remember, the objects are not what’s interesting or important. What’s interesting and important are the conversations that happen around them.

Most successful brands are social objects

social objects

Jacobs

I recently sat in on a conscious capitalism talk by Bert Jacobs, co-founder of the Life is Good brand.

Jacobs told the story of how he and his brother created and grew their t-shirt business to be a force for optimism and generosity in the world. And that’s when he dropped this bomb:

“Our t-shirts have never been about fashion. Or about being in the apparel industry. The t-shirts are the vehicle for communication.”

Life is Good t-shirts are social objects that have brought millions of people together to celebrate optimism and fund programming to help vulnerable children heal, learn and grow.

Brands win when they become social objects.

  • Nike isn’t a shoe, it’s a community of athletes..
  • Harvard isn’t a university, it’s a community of leaders.
  • Mayo Clinic isn’t a healthcare provider, it’s a community of physicians.
  • Spotify isn’t a streaming service, it’s a community of music lovers.

Is your product, service, business, or culture a community for people?

Social objects are everywhere. We wear them. Eat them. Drink them. Drive them. Display them. Post them. Gift them. Read them. Watch them. Attend them. And communicate through them.

They are our connection to meaning, purpose, and belonging.

This leads us to how we can leverage social objects in the seemingly unsexy, boring businesses many of us find ourselves working in and with as leaders, marketers, and advisors.

Leverage social objects in your business

Your job isn’t to connect people. As we discussed, people-to-people connections are weak.

Your job is to listen to Bonnie Raitt and give ’em something to talk about!

Here are some questions to spur your thinking:

  • How can you elevate and improve the conversations your customers are having?
  • What objects are customers already gathering around to connect and converse?
  • Is there a conversation your industry/market should be having with the world? How could you amplify and allow those conversations to happen?
  • How can you make your product or service a social object? For example, is it something existing customers could offer others as a gift?

Artist Hugh MacLeod, has built an entire business around social objects. It was his early thinking and writing that introduced me to social object theory.

Here are ideas he proposed for creating social objects:

  • Make meaning — “the market for something to believe in is infinite”
  • Create a purpose — help others get clarity on their why
  • Create play — give people a reason to interact
  • Create new language — talk with people in a way they’ve never been talked with before
  • Create share-ability — “don’t make it easy for people to share your product; make it easy for people to share themselves”
  • Push the boundaries of design — Seth Godin’s breakout book Purple Cow was originally packaged in a milk carton
  • Facilitate community — “Turn your product/service into a place where people gather, rather than the thing they buy”
  • Create new context — Help people see the familiar in unfamiliar ways, or the unfamiliar in familiar ways
  • Enable meet space — Bring customers together to facilitate discussions

Or, as Mark Schaefer says, “Get invited to the customer island.”

If you’re interested in this topic, here is additional reading:

Keith Reynold Jennings serves as vice president of community impact for Jackson Healthcare. He writes and speaks at the intersection of values, impact, and identity. Connect with Keith via Linkedin and his monthly newsletter.

Illustration courtesy Unsplash.com

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