Technology makes it easier than ever for people with shared interests, desires, and demands to coalesce into digital communities capable of taking collective, cooperative action almost instantaneously, for little to no cost, and with tremendous potential impact.
For a community to form, though, individuals need a catalyst to bring them together. These catalysts are known as “social objects.”
The anthropological concept of social objects first reached the digital world in 2005 when Jyri Engstrom, developer of an early proto-Twitter called Jaiku, essentially defined digital social objects as the building blocks of online strategy. In the digital world, a social object is any digital artifact that people can share and interact with—Tweets, Facebook updates, blog posts, images, user reviews, or music playlists, to name a few. The more mass interest and participation a digital artifact attracts, the more successful it is as a social object.
Every social object has at least one “handle,” something people can grab onto and discuss. Simple social objects, like a one-sentence Tweet, may only have one handle and therefore may or may not engage large numbers of people. A complex social object, like a music video, has more handles for discussion, such as the song, the band, the actors, and the imagery. The bigger and more complex a social object is, the more attention and interaction it’s likely to attract—or, in Engstrom’s vivid phrase, the more powerful its “social gravitational pull.”
A social object with enough social gravitational pull can turn customers into contributors, imbue a brand interaction with greater meaning, and meld a group of individuals into a community. Yet most companies aren’t even aware of the concept’s potential for driving core strategic goals. Nor do they understand that their products are becoming social objects with or without them. People will talk about a product or service whether or not the company participates, so diving into the conversation is the only way the company can hope to guide and learn from it.
To create successful digital social objects, companies have to turn what they do into something customers can gather around to interact with each other as well as the organization or brand. The potential for interaction isn’t enough; the interaction itself is what matters.
An app that lets people share their running routes isn’t creating social objects until other people run those same routes and use the app to offer their own opinions, suggest ways to make them better, and recommend similar routes. Similarly, a company that delivers prepared meal components creates a small social object by creating a space on their website where customers can review the provided ingredients and recipes as well as the cooking experience. But, imagine how the company could create a much larger social gravitational pull—and thus greater customer involvement, meaning, and brand loyalty—by also emphasizing how many customers are cooking the same meal package on the same day and giving those customers a fun way to interact around that activity, maybe even in real time.
To understand the difference between a platform and a social object, think of the platform—the app, website, or social network—as how customers connect and social objects as why they connect.
An online vendor’s e-commerce platform turns products into social objects by allowing people to post reviews. However, it can also turn the reviews themselves into social objects by including a way for shoppers to rate and comment on their usefulness. A streaming video company can start by curating lists of films for viewers to share, edit, and discuss. But, it can also ask customers for their own recommendation lists and “curate the curators” by choosing the best of those user-submitted lists, thus creating even more social objects that get customers talking about their preferences and discussing their strategies for joining the ranks of preferred recommenders.
The future of customer experience revolves around products and services that have meaning to the buyer, and nothing creates meaning quite like a sense of belonging and connection to like-minded individuals. At a time when few companies even know what digital social objects are, companies can gain a significant competitive advantage simply by understanding how social objects work and how to use them strategically to help their customers coalesce into a community.
SAP worked with more than a dozen industry experts to uncover five trends that will determine the customer experience over the next decade. The Future Customer Experience: 5 Essential Trends report examines each of these trends and offers recommendations for how brands should respond now to prepare.
Michael Rander is global research director for Future of Work at SAP.
Dan Wellers is global lead of Digital Futures at SAP.