March 8, 2013

Build Your Brand by Embracing Internet Folkways

BY Shirley Robinson IN Small Business 0 Comment

Even if you have a product or service that’s meant for traditional markets, the internet is becoming the place to build a positive, authentic, appealing brand.  Delighting the Internet can be a highly efficient way of building customer goodwill, if you get it right.  The Internet’s endless need for entertainment, its desire to ferret out the quirky human interest stories that happen throughout the world, the ease of sharing it offers–all of these can be gold in the hands of the right people.  Our argument here is that understanding and working within Internet folkways can make doing business not only more profitable, but more fun and human as well.

A key Internet folkway is wacky authenticity

Let’s start by defining “folkways.”  They’re a pretty essential concept in sociology, but like a lot of social science concepts, they have a natural application to marketing.  Folkways, first identified by William Graham Sumner, are the norms we have for casual interaction–the social WD40 of a group.  They are informal and vary among communities, but not getting them right will tip community members off that you don’t belong.

The Internet is not a physical place, but it is a community, and it has a more and more well-defined culture.  Although it is diffuse and democratic, it has a lot of power to identify important and interesting things that now routinely bleed over into “real life.”  The Internet enjoys finding chance, spontaneous things and saturating media with them.  The lovely thing about this is that perpetuating these messages is something Internet users want to do–it gives them a chance to build their own identity.  Their public persona is made up of the content they create and share. This, which we’re calling “wacky authenticity,” is a key folkway of the internet.  Understanding this principle can help to garner you endlessly self-perpetuating goodwill.  The key is not to do pandering, highly scripted things, but rather to “surprise and delight.”  Ask yourself, what will people get a status boost out of sharing with their friends?

You might think that these principles are primarily for tech-related companies, or at least those with a big existing web presence.  The good news is that it’s not!  That’s the nature of viral media:  they can come from anywhere, and the more natural and human they are, the more social capital they offer.  Let’s look at an example that began offline, with an interaction between a seller of goods and a curious customer.

If only your business were a cat hattery
If only your business were a cat hattery

Case study: Giraffe Bread

Sainsbury’s is a UK supermarket.  They had a product called “Tiger Bread”–a white bread with a brown crackly top, which makes it look somewhat like a tiger’s markings.  One young customer, a three-year-old child, rightly observed that the crackle pattern was more spotty like a giraffe than it was stripey like a tiger.  She (with an adult helper) wrote a letter to the company explaining that the name should be changed.  Such letters are usually ignored or replied to with dull form letters.  This time, though, one enterprising employee took an extra step; writing a personalized, charming response to the child, which agreed with the name change and included a coupon.  The response letter went viral on the Internet, since it was so cute and gave a kindly human face to a corporate front.  Later, the name of the product was actually changed to Giraffe Bread, following huge demand online.  You can buy it at Sainsbury’s stores today.  Now people all over the world know about this product and want to try it.  Read more here.

What’s the lesson in all this?  Well, think about it:  did you think of Sainsbury’s as a vanguard of viral marketing before this exchange?  No way.  Did they aggressively use high-tech tools to disseminate a slick viral marketing campaign?  No way.  It was the child’s mother who put the exchange on her blog, not the support rep who wrote the letter.  All it took was one person using a little empathy, a little humor, and a traditional channel.  The message sent itself; it wanted to be popularized because it was inherently interesting.

So that’s it:  be human and be interesting?

Yes and no.  You obviously can’t rely on the occasional customer service letter for all your success–you have to have other outreach strategies in place.  These things happen because real people move on them.  Sometimes you’ll get lucky and sometimes you won’t.  But keeping an eye open to what the Internet likes can one day help you to reap huge rewards.

Share in the comments–what do you think a business like yours could do to leverage Internet culture?

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