Social objects are powerful PR tools.
This post will give you an in-depth overview of social objects and learn how to classify them. Along with examples of social objects for each classification, you will also get a recipe for running a powerful word-of-mouth workshop.
As a PR adviser since 2005, I’ve helped organisations of all sizes get their audience to talk about their brands, spokespeople, services, and products.
Let’s get right into it:
What is a Social Object?
A social object is what people talk about with each other. A social object could be a thing, a person; an event; a concept. It could be the latest Star Wars movie or what you had for dinner last night. It could be anything, but that specific anything — that’s the social object.
During the decade of the Hippie Web, discussing social objects were all the rage. Discussing social objects as social objects must’ve been the pinnacle of “meta” when the favourite topic to discuss in social media seemed to be… social media.
Read also: The Hippie Web is Dead (2005-2015)
In 2005, the Finnish entrepreneur Juri Engström discussed social objects to argue that Silicon Valley formed social networks around social objects — and not the other way around.
Engström was the founder of the social network Jaiku, a much-loved meeting place for social media early adopters, and this qualified him as a thought leader at the time. 1Jaiku was a social networking, micro-blogging and lifestreaming service comparable to Twitter. Jaiku was founded in February 2006 by Jyri Engeström and Petteri Kopon. The service was made available … Continue reading
There was generally a massive interest in social media networks as a phenomenon. Social object theory served as a valuable framework to explain why some networks seemed to thrive and others didn’t.
Social Object Theory
Thinking of concepts as objects is deeply rooted in sociology in general and phenomenology in particular. Sociologist Emile Durkheim proposed, “The first and most basic rule is to consider social facts as things.” 2Durkeim, Emile (1982). The Rules of the Sociological Method. New York: The Free Press. p. 60.
Approaching concepts as objects is dominant in the Actor-Network Theory (ANT), which is focused not on why a network takes a specific shape but instead on a method or process for understanding the relationships within a network. 3Actor-network theory (ANT) is a theoretical framework developed by John Law and Michel Callon in the 1980s as an extension of studies made by scholars such as Bruno Latour. The theory explores the … Continue reading
In this analysis, objects become objects of meaning when transmitted throughout the network. They gain or lose meaning as they pass through the network and change the network as they do.
For instance, the concept of “fake news” suddenly becomes more than just two conjoined words; it becomes a social object with additional meaning.
Social Objects in PR
The academic approach and Engström’s translation of the concept into the social media environment apply a rather classical macro approach to analysing social objects.
While this is interesting for general human behaviour and network effects, these theories become descriptive. In a professional setting like PR, we need more prescriptive approaches. In other words: We need to know if we can use social object analysis to increase traction for our PR strategies.
This type of PR analysis holds great promise. In The Actor-Network Theory, only information passed through a network matters.
If we, PR professionals, can decode what constitutes a social object, then maybe we can construct social objects more methodically.
Making an Object Social
Not everyone focused on the macro approach of social objects.
In 2007, the famous cartoonist Hugh MacLeod (gapingvoidart.com) started discussing social objects more practically. It made sense since MacLeod’s cartoons were funny and acted as a free-to-share social commentary of the times. His cartoons were distinct social objects in themselves.
MacLeod went on to outline nine principles of social objects:
1. Make meaning: The market for people wanting something to believe in is infinite; make your products “worth it.”
2. Create/find a purpose: People often confuse purpose with meaning, but the purpose relates to the reason you get up in the morning and do what you do.
3. Create play: Humans innately like to play; it’s the way we first start negotiating the world, so give people a reason to want to interact with your product.
4. Create a new language: To evolve your product, you must evolve marketing. You have to talk to people in a way they have never been talked to before.
5. Create share-ability: Don’t make it easy for people to share your product; Make it easy for them to share THEMSELVES.
6. Push boundaries of design: Design matters! It has the ability to differentiate your product.
7. Facilitate community: Turn your product into a place where people gather rather than thing people that people buy.
8. Create new context: Allow people to see your brand in a new light.
9. Enable “Meatspace”: Bring people together to facilitate discussions around your product.
The above list summarises points MacLeod made at a seminar in 2013. While these principles are interesting for us PR professionals, they’re somewhat too general to be practically helpful.
How To Create Social Objects
Anyone with any marketing background will quickly note that the thinking around social objects relates closely to word-of-mouth marketing. Emanuel Rosen, who published The Anatomy of Buzz in 2000, points out the importance of seeding.
Seeding makes your product or service available beforehand to a select few influencers, not just review journalists. Today, seeding is, of course, standard PR practice for accelerating buzz for products and services.
In 2013, Jonah Berger published Contagious: Why Things Catch On, discussing concepts such as social currency, practical triggers, emotional responses, and public visibility.
Both Rosen and Berger tangent the influential work of Robert Cialdini, who published Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion in 1984. His famous principles of persuasion are reciprocity, scarcity, authority, commitment and consistency, liking and consensus.
However, these approaches focus on creating the proper context for objects to become social, which is crucial, but they aren’t precisely detailing what makes an object social.
9 Types of Social Objects
I suggest seven different types of social objects. The practical approach in PR is to ensure that your campaign or activity qualifies as one of these seven types.
1. Curiosity Objects. Is your PR object a curiosity worthy of getting people to talk about it with each other?
“Have you heard about Elon Musk sending a Tesla Roadster into space?”
2. Fear Objects. Is your PR object reflecting a fear or anxiety notable enough to get people talking about it with each other?
“Have you heard how Elon Musk isn’t expecting everyone on the first Mars expedition to survive?”
3. Gap Objects. Is your PR object filling some form of a gap that will make it easier for people to talk about the object with each other?
“Have you heard about Elon Musk launching Neuralink to connect humans brains with technology?”
4. Mystery Objects. Is your PR object stimulating conversation between people due to its intriguing nature?
“Have you heard about Elon Musk sleeping on the floor in one of his Tesla factories?”
5. Inspirational Objects. Is your PR object enough of a general interest milestone or inspiration to get people talking to each other about it?
“Have you heard about Elon Musk building a whole city, Solar City, based on renewable energy?”
6. Envy Objects. Is your PR object reflecting something that will make people talk to each other about ambitions and aspirations?
“Have you heard about Elon Musk being nearly broke but still managed to build incredible companies?”
7. Conflict Objects. Is your PR object part of a relevant conflict that engages people enough to discuss it with each other?
“Have you heard about Elon Musk taking on the whole car industry with his electric Teslas?”
8. Ego Objects. Is your PR object usable as a token of self-identification when talking to other persons?
“Have you heard about Elon Musk practising First Principle thinking?”
9. Anger Objects. Is your PR object provocative enough to evoke an emotional response worthy of discussing with other people?
“Have you heard about Elon Musk smoking weed on the Joe Rogan podcast?”
Workshopping Social Objects
The Social Objects Workshop (SOW)
To promote word-of-mouth for your brand, you need an idea about what social objects to create content around.
Social object = what people talk about with each other. A social object could be a thing, a person, an event, a concept etc.
For your brand, there are different types of social objects:
The workshop: In the first half, spend a few minutes on each type of social object. Write each idea as one sentence on a Post-It starting with, “Have you heard…”. In the second half, run through the ideas discussing, “Is this something real people would say?”
|Jaiku was a social networking, micro-blogging and lifestreaming service comparable to Twitter. Jaiku was founded in February 2006 by Jyri Engeström and Petteri Kopon. The service was made available for public beta testing on March 27, 2007. It had over 1 million users worldwide at its closure on March 18, 2009.|
|Durkeim, Emile (1982). The Rules of the Sociological Method. New York: The Free Press. p. 60.|
|Actor-network theory (ANT) is a theoretical framework developed by John Law and Michel Callon in the 1980s as an extension of studies made by scholars such as Bruno Latour. The theory explores the network of relationships between groups and organisations, emphasising connections that are not hierarchical or linear. The concept is now widely accepted as part of the analysis in many fields, such as engineering, sociology, economics, and political science.|