Market researchers have traditionally treated the buying public as an aggregate of individuals. Every mainstream statistical routine used in survey analysis does this: so when we see mean scores, medians, top-2 box scores, factor analysis or segmentation work what we’re seeing is the aggregation of individual results followed by some dissection of these numbers.
Yet the buying public is not made up of individuals. Buyers shop for families – and their tastes are shaped as much by the lactose intolerance of their 13 year old daughter as they are by the chit-chat at the Tuesday morning coffee group. We buy according not just to our own tastes, but to the tastes of those around us. Our peers, research consistently shows us, shape the norms around which we operate. Even questions of whether we’re overweight, or smoke are shaped to a considerable degree by what our peer groups view as normal.
For this reason we need a measure of the social index of brands and services. I may love brand X but if my peers are all chatting enthusiastically about brand y, then brand y is more likely to become my choice too.
Social Currency is a name for this measure and as the name implies, there’s a degree of pass-on-value or trade-ability in talking about the brand or service. Right now in the USA Beyonce is enjoying immense social currency – her Mrs Carter tour has been a conversation piece. Have you seen the footage? Did you see that moment when Jay Z crashed the stage? Those outfits. The music. She is worth talking about. Meanwhile Chris Brown is not getting talked about, much, except in a negative way. I cannot imagine anyone starting a conversation with: “have you heard the new Chris Brown song?” But I can imagine a conversation opening with: “You planning to go to the Beyonce concert?” There’s a buzz about her.
Social Currency implies trade-ability, so to measure it we need to know why information or gossip is even traded. Why do we do it? There are several motivations.
- Social currency is a form of social glue. By talking about Beyonce I can join the lunchtime conversation – we have a shortcut to affirming our similarities. I’m one of “us.”
- Social currency affirms our usefulness to our peers. By tipping me off about the latest music release, or about the awful over-sweet taste of the latest confectionery, you prove worth knowing – you affirm your usefulness at least in a symbolic way.
- Social currency may take the form of truly vital information for my community. When Rosa Parks refused to stand up on her bus, word of the incident spread like wildfire through the black communities, and gained traction through the churches. This wasn’t idle gossip – this was a deep social ‘moment’ coursing through the veins of the community.
For these reasons, social currency is relevant to just about everything that market researchers measure. Whether the word of mouth around a product or service, or event, or political scene – social currency is at work whether we measure this or not.
By measuring it we get a picture not just of the aggregate feelings of the market, but a view of how quickly and how dynamic the peer to peer conversations are liable to be. Media analysts in Montgomery Alabama wouldn’t have picked up on the swift undercurrents of dialogue that occurred following Rosa Parks’ arrest on Dec 1st 1955. She was not the first black woman to disobey the bus driver’s ruling on that local bus line – but in this case the grapevine was already running hot.
I’ve seen brands decimated and even destroyed by social currency, and I’ve seen new brands launch spectacularly on the back of viral marketing and word of mouth. Yet I’ve seldom seen social currency used as one of the core measures.
The Rosa Parks story is a fantastic yet simple illustration of how a piece of news spread via word of mouth, not because it was a big story (woman stays seated on bus) but because it was imbued with social importance at the time when racial tensions were close to boiling point. This was a month after a black teenager Emmet Till was murdered for talking to a white girl. It was a case where social currency was much more valuable than media currency or – presumably – the brand values of the Montgomery Bus Company.
I put the blame for this oversight on the shoulders of lazy old-fashioned ‘let’s not rock the boat with innovation’ research companies, lazy ad agencies who talk about currency but dictate the use of bog standard measures such as brand recall (yawn), and I put the blame on marketers and their somewhat limited view (thanks to the universities that train them,) of how humans really operate. This is one bus that researchers don’t sit on, so much as miss completely.