Your brand isn't yours anymore. If your business is active on social media, you're well aware that a huge part of your brand's perception comes from what your followers say about it to their networks. No longer do companies have control over everything that's said about them in public forums — consumers have just as much influence as you do (if not more) in shaping your image.
In his book "The Social Code" (self-published, 2014), Patrick Hanlon describes today's brands as "connected clusters of people," rather than corporate-owned entities. This shift, he said, is all part of a larger movement toward a highly connected social economy.
"As human beings, we are hard-wired to gather together, to connect [and form communities]," Hanlon told Business News Daily. "In ages past, communication between these communities was controlled in part by large organizations, corporations and their brands. In the digital age, these connections are instantaneous. Fans connect on Web pages, at events and other landing points where they can gush, inform, rant and feed their advocacy as individuals and as groups."
The collective information that comes out of these communities and networks extends beyond brand sentiments and experiences. Thanks to smartphones, payment cards and other forms of intelligence, Hanlon said that consumers are now "walking data clouds" that help marketers identify target groups in more sophisticated and advanced ways than ever before. [The Secret to Going Viral: 5 Social Media Tips]
"Our behaviors can be clustered with other behaviors, and entire media architectures can be latticed around us," he said. "We are fed information loops customized to our tastes, behaviors, beliefs and desires. It is very primitive right now, but it is happening. Every time you respond to online shopping, Facebook, Pinterest, Google search, and other forms of content or inquiry, you are creating your personalized Internet of Me."
Companies have two choices in responding to the dynamics of this evolving social economy: They can embrace it, or they can sit back and ignore it while their branding happens on social media without them. No matter which path you choose, it won't stop consumers from talking about you.
"If you do not design your social narrative, others will create your story for you — and you might not like what they say," Hanlon said.
Hanlon offered the following tips for businesses that want to build and engage with a strong social community, which will ultimately help their brands.
Understand the essence of a community. To build an effective community, you first need to understand how one is formed. Hanlon said that all communities are designed and propelled by a common belief system, which includes a creation story, creed, icons, rituals, a special lexicon, nonbelievers and a leader. This design establishes the core emotional touchpoints that human beings respond to, and creates meaning in people, places and things that might not otherwise have such meaning, he said.
Figure out where to distribute your narrative. Once you've determined the basic elements of your brand's community, you need to learn where they are most active and responsive so your story gets the right audience.
"Pay special attention to distributing your narrative through traditional and digital social media," Hanlon said. "Where does your creation story go — on the package? On your home page? On Facebook? The advantage of this is that, instead of relying on gut instinct or chasing the latest, greatest digital tactic du jour, everything you do is an investment in your social narrative and thrills those who embrace, sustain and reinforce your social community."
Track and analyze your progress. Amassing a close-knit, engaged following on your social media accounts is a great first step. But if you don't monitor and learn from your community members and the conversations your company engages in, you won't be able to make informed, data-based decisions about where to go next.
"Apply metrics that assess not only the mass but also the depth of the connections you are making with individuals who belong or want to belong to your community," Hanlon said. "The companies and brands that do this will succeed at the highest levels. Those that don't, won't."