Are You Teaching a Class When You Should Be Hosting a Party?

October 27, 2011 by George Eberstadt

Most brands’ and stores’ greatest single asset is the goodwill of their customers. And most do little to leverage this goodwill for marketing gain.  There’s a fallacy in marketing land that just because you have a presence on social networks, you are doing “social” marketing.  But when you look a bit closer, you see that most social initiatives by brands look a lot like traditional marketing and merchandising, just in a new place.

The essential idea of “social commerce” is: connect your shoppers and customers directly to each other. Not only does this help turn your shoppers into customers, but it strengthens your relationship with your customer base. Sounds obvious, but for most brands it’s a deep paradigm shift. Most brands still think in terms of a hub-and-spoke model of communication; the brand is at the center managing a dialog (or monologue) with customers. Sure, customers talk to each other about the brand here and there, but the brand really wants to dominate the conversation.  The metaphor is brand-as-teacher; customers are the class. But there’s another approach in which brands actively facilitate dialog between their community members without dominating it.  These connections don’t just help bring new people into the brand fold, they also deepen the affinity existing customers have with the brand.  The metaphor is brand-as-party-host; shoppers and customers are the guests. Maybe the guests get a little interaction with the host during the party, maybe none, but either way, they are primarily interacting with each other.  The brand doesn’t get the same opportunity as in the classroom model to drive home its officially-approved message, but instead the brand earns a more powerful, social type of influence – by having the guest list stocked with loyal supporters.

Though more subtle, the influence of the party-host approach can be both deeper and farther-reaching.  Mikołaj Jan Piskorski has just published an article in the Harvard Business Review titled “Social Strategies that work” taking a rigorous look at the online social efforts of 60 businesses in a broad range of verticals.  He concludes:

What the poorly performing companies shared was that they merely imported their digital strategies into social environments by broadcasting commercial messages or seeking customer feedback. Customers reject such overtures because their main goal on the platforms is to connect with other people, not with companies. That behavior isn’t hard to understand. Imagine sitting at a dinner table with friends when a stranger pulls up a chair and says, “Hey! Can I sell you something?” You’d probably say no, preferring your friends’ conversation over corporate advances. Many companies have learned that lesson the hard way.

In contrast, the companies that found significant returns devised social strategies that help people create or enhance relationships. These work because they’re consistent with users’ expectations and behavior on social platforms. To return to our dinner analogy, a company with a social strategy sits at the table and asks, “May I introduce you to someone or help you develop better friendships?” That approach gets a lot more takers.

To make this concrete, take a look at the Facebook presence of a handful of your favorite brands.  See what page they have set for you to land on.  Is it a crafted brand message, or does it have customers and fans talking to each other?  Go to the brand’s wall. Are customers posting, or is it dominated by posts from the brands, with customers generally addressing their replies back to the brand?  I just went to the FB page for the Gap.  I landed on a high production values spread called the 1969 Denim Studio.  No customer voice there.  Then I went to their wall.  There are 18 posts showing.  All 18 of them are from the store.  Here’s the dialog responding to the first one:

It’s not that this sort of brand marketing is bad.  It’s just that it’s not SOCIAL.  It’s missing the opportunity of providing a forum for shoppers and customers to engage with each other.  In contrast, on Sephora’s Facebook wall, two minutes ago, 26 out of 26 posts  were from members of the Sephora community.  It’s not as tidy as the Gap’s – not all the posts are positive or interesting – but the approach does produce exchanges like this:

and this:

Another another place where you can see the difference in approaches in action is the social question-and-answer applications on ecommerce sites.  If the Q&A dialog is primarily between the shopper and the store staff, that’s not social, that’s customer support.  Hey, we love good customer support as much as the next person, and if that’s the goal of Q&A, fine.  But most stores find that channels like live chat and phone/email are optimal for support, while Q&A is uniquely positioned to enable dialog between shoppers and customers.  So if the store dominates the Q&A dialog (or if the Q&A system is not built to effectively produce shopper-customer exchanges), then the store is missing all the value that a social approach can generate: the credibility (and generally positive sentiment) of truly social answers, deeper shopper engagement, and stronger bonds with past customers.

Check out the difference between the Q&A dialog here on the product page for a camera at, where most of the dialog is with staff, and on the page for a camera at, where most of the dialog is social.


So as you sit down with your team to map out the next phase in your social commerce strategy, ask yourselves this: are you teaching a class when you should be hosting a party?