The Magic of Social Media: Self Interest

Professor Milton Friedman blazed incredible paths of micro economic understanding with the realization that people do things when they perceive that doing them furthers their self interest. Of course there are people who will often do things exactly the opposite of their self interest, but we call that behavior self destructive. So perhaps, amid all the noise and hoo hah in the marketing community about the power and criticality of social media perhaps it's time to look closely at the subject through the lens of Milton Friedman.


When a company creates a promotion, runs an advertisement or otherwise markets themselves we all understand the self interest of that company. Perhaps it's simple, like increasing sales. Or perhaps a bit more convoluted like shifting brand perceptions or increasing favorability. But always in their self interest. Otherwise, why would they ever spend a nickel behind it? But increasingly marketers have become enraptured by the reversed funnel in which a relatively small number of 'brand ambassadors' spread the gospel of the brand at little or no cost to the marketer. The tweet, blog, post and tell the story seemingly because they fit in some Gladwellian model, or as Seth Godin calls them, sneezers.


Sneezing is an interesting behavior. But underneath it all, sneezers are manifesting their own self interest. Perhaps they appear smarter or more in the know. It may be that they are seeking the gratitude of their friends for showing them something new and important. Or it might be that they are using the pulpit of social media to gain visibility, importance and personal stature. Whatever their reasons, and it does behoove the marketer to try to understand the motivations, it is their willingness to sneeze that, in fact, makes social media that powerful.


The smart marketer will try to understand the reasons why someone might opt for sneezing and then design their actions to take maximum advantage of the inherent behavior. Unfortunately all too many marketers opt for the simplest behavior, whether it is the like, the follow, or the whatever, paying no attention to how, through a more nuanced understanding of the underlying self interest they might make a good promotion great.


So here's the prescription:

  • Don't hide the benefit of participation; make it clear and obvious
  • Make sure their action is actually beneficial; merely clicking on a thumb will rarely move markets
  • Don't be afraid to ask for more; assuming the sneezer perceived the initial benefit, raise the stakes in return for more from them
  • Recognize the outer limits of participation; if you ask for too much you might get nothing