MIT Professor Sherry Turkle wrote a powerful opinion piece in this past Sunday’s New York Times Sunday Review in which she draws a sharp distinction between conversations that take place face-to-face, in the real world, and connections that get made online through social networking sites.
“We are tempted to think that our little ‘sips’ of online connections add up to a big gulp of real conversation,” she writes. “But they don’t. E-mail, Twitter, Facebook, all have their places – in politics, commerce, romance and friendship. But no matter how valuable, they do not substitute for conversation.”
Texting, emailing and online posting, she says, allow us “to present the self we want to be. This means we can edit. And if we wish, we can delete. Or retouch: the voice, the flesh, the face, the body. Not too much, not too little – just right.”
Meanwhile, she says, “human relationships are rich; they’re messy and demanding. We have learned the habit of cleaning them up with technology. And the move from conversation to connection is a part of this.”
And then Turkle makes clear her view that technology is neither the same as nor a substitute for human interaction: “[I]t’s a process in which we shortchange ourselves. It seems that over time we stop caring, we forget that there is a difference.”
We forget there is a difference. That’s a fundamentally important point. My colleagues and I talk regularly to clients and audiences about the significant differences between offline and online word of mouth, and routinely people ask whether what happens online isn’t merely a reflection of what people do and say offline. The answer is a resounding no, as we argue in our forthcoming book, The Face-to-Face Book.
The differences between online chatter and that which takes place in the real world have important implications for brand marketers, for whom it is a very big mistake to think they are the same, or that online social media is a substitute for offline word of mouth. The evidence is increasingly clear that people use offline and online communication channels for very different reasons.
According to recently released academic research, the primary drivers of online word of mouth are (in order): social signaling, functional, and emotional. The primary drivers of offline word of mouth are the reverse: emotional, functional and social. According to the researchers, “Offline conversations, which are mostly in one-on-one settings, are more personal and intimate by nature and thus allow people to share emotions such as excitement and satisfaction. Online WOM, which usually involves ‘broadcasting’ to many people (e.g. twitter), is more appropriate for social signaling (e.g., uniqueness).”
In other words, offline and online conversations are not mirror reflections of each other, but serve different needs with different implications for brands. Marketers should not choose a “social strategy” without first understanding the motivations of consumers to share. Online social media will be most effective if you have a new product or a new message for which social currency will be gained by sharing. But if you are seeking to tap the emotions that come with strong brand satisfaction and excitement that comes as a result of a recent purchase or exposure to an advertisement, then look for ways to help consumer share those stories offline where they will have their best chance for success.
Successful social marketing requires marketers to take a holistic view that considers all the ways that people gather and share information. To tap the full potential of social marketing you need a people-centric strategy, not a channel-centric strategy. Remember, there is a difference between connections through technology, and conversation in real life.