Aaron Harburg

Social Currency

Over the last several years there seems to be an uptick in openly self-conscious self-promotion. For example, some of the “spam” www.thinkgeek.com sends is blatantly honest about the fact that they are trying to get the receiver to buy something. I find this humorous on the one hand and refreshing on the other. 

I don’t think anyone likes the thought that they are being manipulated. Especially Americans who frequently pride themselves on being “independently minded”. Nevertheless, there is an entire industry that spends billions of dollars learning how to precisely and scientifically to do just that. For example: jacking the volume up on ads. Which has been an effective method of forcing people to pay attention for years. The FCC has ruled that this is not OK. Not because it’s manipulation, but because it annoys people to have to reach for the remote. For some marketing strategists that doesn’t matter, being noticed builds familiarity which can over ride particular associations of being annoyed. 

What some of these companies may be missing is that there is more ethical and effective ways of building social capital. The ultimate social capital for brands is “brand loyalty”. Brand loyalty is when a customer actively and consciously prefers a brand or product over another. This can happen in varying degrees. The gold being that they loyal customer will spontaneously promote this among their contacts AKA word of mouth. Trust is the most essential part of building this loyalty. However, among the most tenuous relationship human beings have is that between customer and the supplier. The very nature of this relationship is that each is trying to “get something” from the other thus having a certain level of suspicion built in. Worst case scenario a customer may feel that the company is violating their dignity and/or cheating them of their property. 

Social currency then is a positive idea that a person receives from an experience with a company that can be exchanged between other customers. As this positive idea about a company is exchanged between customers and potential customers social capital grows. It is a non-monetary investment on the part of a company. Although it may cost to make that investment.

The inverse is true through social debits. If I have a negative interaction with a company I can shift that debt to a friend, thus decreasing the “social capital” of a company. One of the most valuable social currencies I alluded to at the beginning is honesty. The currency being exchanged is honest for trust. If everything is in the open, it is a lot easier to trust and that exchange can occur. Of course a company could always create this illusion to further manipulate. Which is obviously akin to counterfeit currency. That would certainly make a company evil. I’d like to believe that collectively human beings have a way of sniffing that out for what it is. Fortunately, many new start-ups seem to take the brutal honest approach. Perhaps they instinctively recognize that social capital is ultimately more sustainable? 

Social Capital: The net value a company has in the minds of its customers and potential customers.

Social Currency: Positive ideas about a company arising from a direct experience with the company or from another person.

Social Debits: Negative ideas about a company arising from a direct experience with the company or from another person.