Doctor SpinMedia & PsychologyCommunication Theories9 Types of Social Objects and How To Use Them for PR

9 Types of Social Objects and How To Use Them for PR

How to create PR messages that will make people talk.

Social objects are powerful PR tools.

In this post, you will get 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 professional PR adviser since 2005, I’ve helped numerous organisations of all sizes to get their audience to talk about their brands, spokespeople, services, and products.

Let’s get right into it:

Table of Contents

    What is a Social Object?

    A social object is what people discuss, specifically when talking to each other. A social object could be a person; it could be an event; it could be 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 (2005-2015), discussing social objects were all the rage. Discussing social objects as a social object must’ve been the pinnacle of meta at a time when the favourite topic to discuss in social media seemed to be social media itself.

    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 networks have evolved dramatically since, and we know more about dopamine-inducing gamification, the mathematics of viral loops, and the inner workings of social algorithms that make networks tick.

    Social Object Theory

    Thinking of concepts as objects is deeply rooted in sociology in general and phenomenology in particular. Sociologist Emile Durkheim proposed that “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 is 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 type of analysis, objects become objects of meaning when transmitted throughout the network. They gain or lose meaning as they pass through the network—and they also change the network as they do.

    For instance, the concept “fake news” suddenly becomes more than just two conjoined words; it becomes a social object with additional meaning.

    Social Objects in PR

    Both the academic approach, as well as Engström’s translation of the concept into the social media environment, applies a rather classical macro approach to the analysis of social objects.

    While this is interesting for general human behaviour and network effects, these theories become rather descriptive. In a professional setting, like PR, we need more prescriptive approaches. In other words: We need to know if we can use the 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, as 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 ( 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.

    Everyone wants to be unique; no one wants to be different.

    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: If you want to evolve your product, you have to 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 to note 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 back in 2000, points out the importance of seeding.

    Word-of-mouth is all about social objects.

    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, in which he discusses concepts such as social currency, practical triggers, emotional responses, and public visibility.

    Some things catch on; some things don’t.

    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.

    Influence is the ultimate power.

    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?

    Example: “Have you heard that Elon Musk has sent 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?

    Example: “Have you heard that 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?

    Example: “Have you heard that Elon Musk is launching Neuralink to connect brains with technology?”

    4. Mystery Objects. Is your PR object stimulating conversation between people due to its intriguing nature?

    Example: “Have you heard that Elon Musk is 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?

    Example: “Have you heard that Elon Musk is working has built 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?

    Example: “Have you heard that Elon Musk was nearly broke, but he 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?

    Example: “Have you heard that Elon Musk is taking on the whole car industry with his electric Teslas?”

    8. Ego Objects. Is your PR object usable as a token of self-identification to be used when talking to other persons?

    Example: “Have you heard that Elon Musk is practising First Principle thinking?”

    9. Anger Objects. Is your PR object provocative enough to evoke an emotional response worthy of discussing with other people?

    Example: “Have you heard that Elon Musk smoked weed on the Joe Rogan podcast?”

    The Word-of-Mouth Workshop

    It’s a bad idea to assemble your team for a “Social Objects Workshop” since few people know about social objects as a concept. However, most corporate coworkers know about word-of-mouth.

    Please note that I’ve designed this workshop in two parts.

    You begin the first workshop by explaining the importance of word-of-mouth. This shouldn’t take long; in contrast to what Elon Musk does, word-of-mouth isn’t rocket science.

    Then you present the corporate topic that you want to get people in your industry to start talking about. Keep this brief and concise, too.

    To get going, you present the first classification—Curiosity Objects. I suggest that you show the category with two examples from your industry. I’ve noticed that using other examples will only add unnecessary abstractions.

    Give your participants a few minutes to write as many “Have you heard?” statements on Post-Its as possible in breakaway sessions as possible.

    Run through each of the nine categories like this. Keep the energy high and the pace fast.

    At the second workshop, you run a presentation with all suggested statements pasted visually as placeholder LinkedIn comments by fake marketing personas. Please don’t bother about attributing each statement to the group who initially wrote it; discuss whether ideas are plausible or not instead.

    It will be fun and exciting for the participants to visually see their suggestions as “real” organic LinkedIn posts. Keep the presentation conversational to discover good word-of-mouth ideas mutually.

    Cover photo by Jerry Silfwer (Prints/Instagram)

    1 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.
    2 Durkeim, Emile (1982). The Rules of the Sociological Method. New York: The Free Press. p. 60.
    3 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.


    Jerry Silfwer
    Jerry Silfwer
    Jerry Silfwer, aka Doctor Spin, is an awarded senior adviser specialising in public relations and digital strategy. Currently CEO at KIX Index and Spin Factory. Before that, he worked at Kaufmann, Whispr Group, Springtime PR, and Spotlight PR. Based in Stockholm, Sweden.
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