Despite our ongoing fascination and dependence on digital interactions, the point of social media—and perhaps all media—is connectivity. Campaigns like Blu Dot’s experiment in New York, Grill’d in Melbourne, or the T-Mobile dance in Liverpool Street Station demonstrate the power that actual physical events and online channels create when they work together. These campaigns get watched. They get forwarded. They’re viral in every sense of the word. That’s because most of us want to look behind the curtain—maybe even participate.
The physical and online convergence
The physical and the online are incorrigible flirts. And producers are playing eager matchmaker, driving the convergence. While it used to be impractical to imbue products with ambient computing capabilities or use information in ways that people can touch, some of the best thinking (and most disruptive efforts) aim to debunk that conception. Just look at what foursquare and mobile phones now make possible. By comparison YouTube is a clunky, temporary way of bridging the online and offline.
Meanwhile, just as producers are encouraging the convergence, consumers are also driving it. If you look at the Forbes 500 list, all the big brands still sell physical things. While I’m sure brands like Facebook and Twitter will continue to climb the charts, there is a fundamental truth to human-based economies; there will always be money to be made from feeding, transporting, clothing and tooling-up the people typing at keyboards.
After all, who doesn’t love getting that brown box from Amazon with the smiley face on the side? The one-click miracle hasn’t really happened until it hits your doorstep and hands. Meanwhile, as more service companies drift online, expect to see the need for human interaction heighten. ING Direct realised this when it promoted its online banking products with offline information sessions. And consider the earliest successful networking sites: online dating. Judging by Ashley Madison, the use of online connection is leading to ever more bold versions of offline monkey business.
Groundbreaking experiences go beyond the digital
Today, digital is a given and delivering it is easier than ever. As a result, digital platforms (as places to interact) don’t distinguish a brand or offering the way they might have five years ago. What they can do, however, is extend the brands’ meaning into or from the world of interactions. Bolder experiences mean going beyond the digital and touching people on a physical level.
One of the simplest as well as most subtle and intriguing viral campaigns of the last year was “The Best Job in the World”. A print ad. A mystery. A call to arms that was slowly qualified and discussed through social media. But it wasn’t a job in Second Life. It was a job snorkelling around one the eight Natural Wonders of the World. It supported a message of adventure but also environmental sustainability. Beat that Coca-Cola.
The use of social media without recognition of the physical world’s role is myopic at best. There’s a reason that ads still feature photography and that viral videos are rife with ridiculous scenarios sliced from life. It’s because we want to believe it’s real, not just made up. We want to interact with the idea. Not just witness it.
The new challenge: authenticity
The convergence is happening – it is a fact. As a result, the new challenge with social media stunts will be in what’s believable and what is merely a setup –something that has plagued advertising and other forms of promotion for ages.
When I rewatch the clip for Coke’s Happiness Machine, I can’t help but wonder if everyone would genuinely be laughing in unison about a beverage machine that was broken, or visualise the number of cameras floating about to create the montage we witness. Something is fishy. And when that sense creeps in what was a comic gag, kind of becomes something horrific.
So while the real world is certainly coming to a social platform near you, the way it’s handled will need to do more than simply document the moment. The physical is indeed necessary to make it big, but the strategy behind it will be just as important.
This post is the fifth in a series called That’s Debatable: Social Media Edition – posts designed around oft-debated topics in our community, meant to spark conversation and gather different perspectives. Learn more about That’s Debatable, and take our social media survey.