A dog that doesn’t bark in the night.
Social media are desperately important, as we all know. It is wildly exciting that, without having to hand over large sums to Rupert Murdoch, you can now reach millions of people simply through what is now called the “amplified word of mouth” which is made possible by social networks. Great content now does not necessarily need a media budget at all to reach thousands of new eyes and ears – for, the moment it appears online, it acquires its own kind of centrifugal force.
In a way, what we are doing with viral content is outsourcing the job of media buying to the public. And a wonderful thing it is too. Even when we acknowledge that there are inherent problems in this model (only the very best content acquires this magical momentum, and there is probably a natural limit to the extent to which people are willing to play unpaid message-boy for large corporations) we cannot deny that frictionless content is a vitally significant development in media.
All the same, it occurred to me yesterday that there is a completely different approach to social networks which is potentially even more important – but has been utterly neglected to date by an industry still besotted with mass audiences and reach.
This new approach is almost the opposite of the first, “viral” approach. For, rather than using networks effects to reach a lot of people indiscriminately and cheaply, it uses network effects to reach very few people precisely and expensively.
And rather than outsourcing media buying to the public, it works by outsourcing media planning to the public.
It works not by reducing the cost of distribution (as with conventional virals) but by totally eliminating its usual inefficiency and wastage.
I’ll give you an example of how this might work. Let’s say you and your wife/mistress/boyfriend/husband/sheep have just spent a lovely weekend in a hotel in the Cotswolds (rather you than me, frankly – I find the place a bit up its own arse – but no matter). Anyhow, you get home and you receive a thank-you letter or email from the hotel. And inside the thank-you letter is a voucher for three nights for the price of one at the hotel. It’s not for you, you understand, but it’s to give to any one person you choose.
Or suppose you go to the cinema and particularly enjoy the film. As you leave you are given one two4one offer to the cinema to any showing of that very same film. And you can give that to any one person you choose.
Or suppose American Express writes to you and says that you can nominate one person you know for free American Express Platinum Cardmembership for a year?
Or a car company writes to a happy owner allowing them to lend a new car to anyone for a weekend’s test-drive?
In each case the incentive to pass this on is not bribery or self-interest. It is instead generosity and the desire to display a certain munificence. And, to maximise the value of your giving, you naturally pass on the offer to the one person out of the hundreds you know who would value it most.
Now, what you do is this: you mentally scan your address list of perhaps fifty to a hundred people and choose the one person who would most enjoy The Upitsownarse Arms in Upper Slaughter. In making this choice you factor in taste, wealth, age, geographical location, marital status, size of household and ability to spend time in Gloucestershire without vomiting. Or you apply everything you know about their taste in films, cards, airlines, etc.
Now the amount of intelligence which is applied in that act of individual selection simply surpasses any level of targeting you could achieve through databases or other automated means. It is as though you could interview the entire country for five minutes individually to decide whether or not they belonged in your target audience.
I suppose the idea here is a kind of open-source targeting. Certainly, in some sectors, the efficiencies achieved could justify remarkably generous offers. Yet this practice doesn’t much happen.
There are referral programmes, obviously. But all of them seem to make three mistakes. They aren’t all that generous. They ask you to recommend as many people as possible, which sounds like too much effort. And they reward the recommender as well as the recipient – to me this introduction of an element of self-interest seems to devalue the social currency of the gift.
Does anyone know of a successful instance of this. Answers on a generous postcard, please.