How to Thrive in Social Media’s Gift Economy

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So you’ve got your brand on social media. You have a Facebook page and Twitter account. Maybe a Pinterest board. But now what? There has to be more to social media than posting coupons and running sweepstakes. How do you drive real customer engagement?
The answer may come not from Silicon Valley or Madison Avenue, but from places like the Trobriand Islands and the Pacific Northwest.

Indigenous cultures developed what anthropologists call gift economies. As observed by Marcel MaussLewis Hyde, and others, gift economies are quite different from the market economies to which we are accustomed.

The concept of gift economies has been used to explain open source software and the Burning Man festival. But it also provides insight into what works — and doesn’t work — with social media, and what brands can do to be more successful in the online arena.

To understand a gift economy, consider the example of moving into a new apartment. When friends help you move, you express your appreciation by providing pizza and beer — really good pizza and beer. When you hire professional movers, you pay with money. Offer your friends money instead of pizza and beer, and they are likely to be offended. Offer to pay the movers in pizza and beer, and they won’t unload the truck. Your friends are operating in a gift economy; the movers in a market economy.
While both market and gift economies are systems of exchange, they differ in three fundamental ways.

1) Context: Transaction or Relationship 
In a market economy, the focus is on transactions. In a gift economy, the focus is onrelationships. Trobriand Islanders passed along necklaces and armbands as part of a ritual called the Kula Ring. An item’s value was not determined by supply and demand, or measured by a market price. Instead, its value came from the relationship between the giver and receiver and its meaning in the community.

2) Currency: Financial or Social
In a market economy, people use money as a medium of exchange — a financial currency. In a gift economy, people use social currencies. The purpose of a social currency is not to execute a transaction, but to express a relationship. Social currencies don’t have a price set in the market. In the moving example, pizza and beer are a social currency.

Note that social currencies are not the same as virtual currencies. Facebook “Likes” are social currencies, while Facebook Credits are virtual currencies. There is no price on a Facebook Like, while Facebook Credits have a clear market value.

But just because something has a monetary value doesn’t mean it can’t be a social currency. In the moving example, imagine if one of your friends drove a long way to help you out. It would be entirely appropriate to give your friend some gas money to cover the extra cost. The key point here is that the context is relational, not transactional.

3) Status: Earned or Bought
A tell-tale sign of a gift economy is that status is earned, rather than bought. In the Pacific Northwest, native tribes developed the ritual of the potlatch. Status was given not to those who accumulated the most wealth, but instead to those who gave the most to the community.

On a Google search page, you can see these two worlds of earned and purchased status side-by-side. In the middle of the page, so-called “organic” search results are earned based on a site’s popularity. In contrast, the ads in the top rows and right-hand column are based on how much advertisers have paid for the spot.

Social media are fundamentally gift economies. People are there to cultivate relationships, not conduct transactions. They exchange social currencies, not financial currencies. And status is earned not bought.

This illuminates why many brands are struggling with social media. They have confused market and gift economies. They focus entirely on transactions, buying status, and pushing products and promotions.

Brands that succeed in social media follow the principles of a gift economy. They build relationships, earn status, and create social currencies.

How is your brand doing? Rate yourself with the following simple guide:

1) Build relationships. 
• Push out information to drive transactions: Base
• Create relationships with individuals: Better
• Help people create relationships with each other: Best

A brand that that I give a Best rating to in this category is Vail Resorts’ EpicMix, which turns a ski slope into a social game. The experience keeps people connected anywhere on the mountain.

2) Earn status. 
• Celebrate your own accomplishments: Base
• Celebrate the accomplishments of others: Better
• Enable people to celebrate each other’s accomplishments: Best

A brand that I give a Best rating to in this category is Nike’s running community, Nike+. If you post to a friend’s Facebook wall during their run, they hear virtual applause through their music player.

3) Create social currencies. 
• Focus on discounts and promotions: Base
• Think of your product as a social currency: Better
• Create new social currencies related to your brand: Best

A brand that that I give a Best rating to in this category is Kraft Foods for recognizing recipes as a social currency and engaging customers on the Web, Facebook, Pinterest, and Twitter.

To put these principles into practice, put yourself in the position of your customer and ask yourself the following questions:
• What rituals, traditions, or social conventions involve your product?
• What do people talk about, share or exchange in these activities?
• How might the experience be enhanced with something better or different?

Keep looking until you get an “aha” moment — a social insight you can build on. For Kraft, it was helping people exchange recipes. For Vail Resorts, it was bringing the social experience of the lodge onto the slopes. For Nike, it was enabling runners to bring their friends with them.

Put these insights into practice, and soon your social strategy will start taking off. Begin by contributing to the community and earning trust. Over time, you can mint your own social currencies and cultivate a gift economy. As your customers start connecting with each other, you will generate social gravity that pulls customers into orbit around your brand. The result will be a deep connection with your customers that goes beyond our transactional notions of loyalty.


Tomado de Harvard Business Review