Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Social Objects or How to embrace the future of business

Pic credit: gapingvoid

I mentioned briefly in a post a couple of weeks ago about the concept of Social Objects, that Hugh turned me on to. He picked the term up from this chap, (who’s an anthropologist and founder of the online service Jaiku), but in true Hugh-style he took the ball and ran with it (all the way off the field, out through the car park and into the building across the street).

He’s posted about it repeatedly – see here, here and here for a taste.

He’s also got a lot of other people excited about the idea, not least Mark Earls (here and here for example), John Dodds (who turns sprouts into the social object here), Seth Godin (who references it in this interview here and Dennis Howlett (who points us to Sonia’s Biker Jim story to illustrate the social object-ness here).

Others have mentioned it too, the idea is simple, effective and interesting, so it’s plenty sticky enough to get some real ‘ink’ in the blogosphere. It’s of real interest to me too.

From a marketing perspective creating a product that’s a social object could be the Grail. What’s easier to ‘sell’ than something that people naturally want to interact around and talk about? Even the least savvy of marketers would have to go some to kill this golden goose if it fell in their lap.

The problem is how do you cotton on to the social object idea in your organisation and what if the product you’re making isn’t a social object (or you can’t see it’s utility as such)?

Hugh gives a few examples in his social objects for beginners post, and goes on to say that there could be literally thousands (perhaps hundreds of thousands) more examples. He’s right too.

Humans interact around all kinds of weird and wonderful things, from broad churches to the cranniest little nook or niche. Hugh suggests Star Wars and sexy phones, he could just as easily posit 17th Century soil samples or single cell organisms. In one post on the subject he answers my question above too – anything can be a social object, even if you only produce ‘Brand X’.

Yes, wine is perhaps a more logical social object than the boxes that your factory produces. But that’s not to say your box can’t be one too. Here’s a quick story about something that may have passed me by, had I not been at the time thinking about the whole social object thing...

Just before Christmas one of the major sweet manufacturers in the UK produced a new plastic package to run alongside the traditional Christmas tins of chocolates that everyone seems to buy only predominantly at that time of year. The new, plastic tubs were lighter than the metal tins and funky looking. They could also be used to store food and leftovers in the freezer, once all the chocolates were gone. (This isn't something you could do with the metal tins and this neat, new trick was advertised on the package itself.)

When someone brought one of the new tubs into work and left it in the kitchen for people to help themselves, I was a little surprised to see that the new packaging was what got people talking most, not the chocolatey contents. This plastic box became (you guessed it) a social object, in our office at least.

Now I don’t suppose that the company intended it as such. I would imagine there were a variety of reasons they chose to experiment with a new type of packaging, some of which were likely primarily economic. The tins weren’t withdrawn or replaced and the plastic tubs may not have even sold that well (I tried looking on the groups site for information, but the new packaging doesn’t even get a mention, suggesting it’s not part of a coordinated strategy or anything).

In reality therefore, it wasn’t the best social object in the world, or at least not a particularly long lasting one. However, I believe it could have been; they might have missed a trick.

If I was responsible for designing packaging somewhere, turning it into a social object would be one of the first things I’d try to do. Packaging is utilitarian, generally plain, fairly standard. There’s plenty of reasons for this I bet, functionality being a primary one. You don’t want your packaging to look wonderfully interesting but fail to keep your free range chicken fresh for example. A cool new tub for sweets is great, but only if it does the same (or a better) job as the old one of keeping the sweets in. Cost likely comes into it too. However I’d say that cost should be less of a consideration – a little extra money on packaging could create the social object that everyone loves to interact around. This in turn leads to greater sales of your packaging as everyone wants a piece of you!

Innocent Drinks provide a great example of this in my opinion. Having recently managed to become the first company to offer their drinks in 100% recyclable bottles, they have created a social object. (Even better, their drinks themselves are definitely social objects – social objects within social objects; how cool!)

OK, with that point sufficiently highlighted (/laboured) I want to address the area of business that ostensibly this blog is about – recruitment.

Recruitment is a service, not a product as such. ‘Brand X’ in Hugh’s example may well be boring and fairly unremarkable, but at least it’s something that people take home from the supermarket with them. How does recruitment become a social object when there’s nothing for people to ‘take home’, plonk on the surface and then incidentally talk about over coffee at the kitchen table?

For me the point here is the (Seth inspired) remarkability factor. If your service is remarkable (i.e. people will remark on it) then it will get a heck of a lot of traction. Amongst some people (HR or recruitment managers for example) recruitment is definitely a social object that they’d talk about.

So HR Manager Jo, from company A, goes out for lunch with HR Director Peter, from company B, at a moderately priced restaurant in town. The lunch is a catch-up; they’ve been pals since a CIPD conference they both attended some years back and get together fairly regularly to chew the fat over HR legislation, incentive schemes and funny hiring and firing stories. Their companies are in a similar market, but not what you’d call natural competitors.

Over a couple of glasses of sparkling water (/house white, depending on the industry) they get to talking about recent hires:

Jo tells a story about a recent nightmare vacancy “I couldn’t find a good project manager for love nor money. Everyone I saw from the agency just didn’t know the industry well enough, I need someone who can hit the ground running and at the minute they’re like hens teeth”

“Funny” Peter says, “I was just hiring for a project manager a couple of weeks back. I needed someone with a little experience so it wasn’t too hard to find – we offered on Monday. We saw plenty of people with more experience than we needed though…”

“Oh really” says Jo, intrigued/desperate

“Yeah, they were great. I got them all through (insert recruitment agency name here). We had to explain what we wanted in a bit of detail, but once we got them a good job spec it was smooth sailing”.

“Really?” says Jo, “I had a cold call from them last week, but didn’t follow it up as I wasn’t sure about the sales person”

“Me too, but once you get past the sales stuff, they’re actually pretty decent. They might still have some of the guys they sent me too, there were some real crackers in there”

In my experience, if an agency cold calls me I’ll almost never give them business based on that alone. Why would I? I have a tonne of agencies that I know plenty about to work with, why risk working with someone else? Even if they call and tell me they’ve just registered three great project managers and I’m recruiting for project managers, it’s unlikely they’ll get a positive response.

Maybe I’m missing a trick by not working with them, but if so I’d bet I’m not the only one. A cold call is a terrible way to try and win business (although the many reasons I hate them are for a different blog post entirely) and even if someone promises me a solution to my 'big problem' it’s unlikely to make me work with them. A conversation about your agency over lunch with a friend or trusted colleague though, will change all of that in an instant. As in Hugh’s example, once your agency becomes a social object it gains credibility and traction, the 2 things that will make me take a second look.

There’s no tricks or shortcuts unfortunately though, it’s just good old fashioned hard work. I respect my colleagues and peers because they’re good at what they do, so I know they won’t recommend me a dud agency.

You can’t ‘trick’ my colleagues or game the system with free schwag, meals out, trips to the football and the like. Plenty of agencies give that stuff out, but no one I know says “That agencies great! Sure they send me lousy CVs, no one ever turns up for interview and the lead consultant won’t stop looking at my chest…but they sent me this cool calendar with funny pictures and a box of Krispy Kremes!”

Talent and skill and expertise will take you a long way. Professionalism, dependability and generosity will never stop being good business. Free stuff is fun and I’m not saying it should be dropped (if you’re clever you can make your schwag a social object…) but results and attitude are what matter. Turn the performance of your recruitment company into a social object and you’ll turn a lot more people on to your service.

Hugh calls social objects the future of marketing. I think he’s right and I think he could even go further too. I think social objects are the future of business in a sense.

If you’re in business then you’re trying to sell something. If you’re trying to sell something you’re trying to change people’s behaviour. Any programme trying change people’s behaviour is a marketing programme (I’ve been saying this for a while and was delighted to see Paul Hebert agreeing with me on this today). The future of marketing is social objects, ergo the future of business is social objects.

OK, these are my thoughts on what is clearly a complex topic, and to be honest I could write a heck of a lot more on it (I may do in the future but won’t in this post you’ll be pleased to hear).

I think though, that anybody in the recruitment field who reads the social objects spiel from Hugh, but passes it off as something they couldn’t/shouldn’t get involved in is missing a trick. In fact I think in the future if you don’t try and turn your service (i.e. your performance) into a social object it’s tantamount to nothing more than sheer laziness. The rewards for joining in here are real and abundant.

Why wouldn’t you want to get onboard ahead of the curve?

(Like this post and want to read more? All the cool kids are subscribing to my feed, so they don't have to keep coming back and checking the site like a total square! Plus, if you subscribe, then you'll automatically become more attractive to the opposite sex, more decisive, have success in your career and win the lottery. In fact even better, you'll actually become a social object yourself*. So what are you waiting for?)

*All benefits are not guaranteed. Nor are they typical, likely or even, in actual fact, possible. But subscribe anyways, because you never know...


Louise @ ukrecruiter said...


This is a superb post on a fascinating topic. What you really need to do is start up a consultancy helping companies find their "social object" and you'd make a fortune.

Happy to be your test case....


James said...

Hi Louise,

Thanks for the kind words, much appreciated. I love the idea too, we'll have to have a chat about it.

I'm in my sick bed at the moment (just man flu most likely, don't know how you ladies are so stoic) but I'll get in touch when I'm back in the land of the living.