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Social Objects and Public Relations

The science of word-of-mouth.

Cover photo: @jerrysilfwer

Social objects are power­ful pub­lic rela­tions tools.

As a PR pro­fes­sion­al since 2005, I’ve helped organ­isa­tions of all sizes get their audi­ence to talk about their brands, spokespeople, ser­vices, and products.

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.

Here we go:

What are Social Objects?

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Social Objects Meaning, Definition, and History

A social object is what people talk about with each oth­er. A social object could be a thing, a per­son, an event, or 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.

Social object = an agreed-upon con­cep­tu­al­isa­tion that people com­mu­nic­ate with each oth­er about as an object. A social object could be a thing, a per­son, an event, a concept, an idea, etc.

In 2005, the Finnish entre­pren­eur Juri Engström dis­cussed social objects to argue that Silicon Valley formed social net­works around social objects — and not vice versa. 

Engström was the founder of the social net­work Jaiku, a much-loved meet­ing place for early adop­ters of social media, and this qual­i­fied him as a thought lead­er at the time. 1Jaiku was a social net­work­ing, micro-blog­ging and lifestream­ing plat­form foun­ded in February 2006 by Jyri Engeström and Petteri Kopon. The ser­vice was made avail­able for pub­lic beta test­ing on March … Continue read­ing

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

The Actor-Network Theory (ANT)

Thinking of con­cepts as objects is deeply rooted in gen­er­al soci­ology and phenomenology. 

Approaching con­cepts as objects is dom­in­ant in the Actor-Network Theory (ANT), which focuses not on why a net­work takes a spe­cif­ic shape but on a meth­od or pro­cess for under­stand­ing the rela­tion­ships with­in a network. 

ANT is a the­or­et­ic­al frame­work developed by John Law and Michel Callon in the 1980s to extend stud­ies 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. 

In ANT 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, “fake news” sud­denly becomes more than just two con­joined words; it becomes a social object with addi­tion­al meaning.

Learn more: Social Objects and Public Relations

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Social Objects: Principles

Social-Objects-Diversity-Cartoon
Everyone wants to be unique; no one wants to be different.

Social Objects: Principles

In 2007, car­toon­ist Hugh MacLeod (gap​ing​void​art​.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.

MacLeod went on to out­line nine prin­ciples of social objects. In his words: 2The list sum­mar­ises points MacLeod made at a sem­in­ar in 2013.

  • Make mean­ing. The mar­ket for people want­ing some­thing to believe in is infin­ite; make your products “worth it.”
  • Create/​find a pur­pose. People often con­fuse pur­pose with mean­ing, but the pur­pose relates to why you get up in the morn­ing and do what you do.
  • Create play. Humans innately like to play; it’s how we start nego­ti­at­ing the world, so give people a reas­on to want to inter­act with your product.
  • 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.
  • Create share-abil­ity. Don’t make it easy for people to share your product; Make it easy for them to share themselves.
  • Push bound­ar­ies of design. Design mat­ters! It can dif­fer­en­ti­ate your product.
  • Facilitate com­munity. Turn your product into a place where people gath­er rather than things people that people buy.
  • Create a new con­text. Allow people to see your brand in a new light.
  • Enable “Meatspace.” Bring people togeth­er to facil­it­ate dis­cus­sions around your product.

Learn more: Social Objects and Public Relations

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Types of Social Objects

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Types of Social Objects

To pro­mote word-of-mouth for your brand, you need ideas about what social objects to cre­ate con­tent around.

The first and most basic rule is to con­sider social facts as things.“
Source: The Rules of the Sociological Method 3Durkeim, E. (1982). The Rules of the Sociological Method. New York: The Free Press. p. 60.

There are dif­fer­ent types of social objects:

  • Curiosity objects. What do people seem curi­ous about with­in our brand’s sphere of influ­ence?
  • Fear objects. What do people seem afraid of with­in our brand’s sphere of influence?
  • Gap objects. What con­cepts or vocab­u­lary is miss­ing with­in our brand’s sphere of influence?
  • Mystery objects. What do people find mys­ter­i­ous with­in our brand’s sphere of influence?
  • Inspirational objects. What do people find inspir­a­tion­al with­in our brand’s sphere of influence?
  • Envy objects. What do people seem to envy with­in our brand’s sphere of influence?
  • Conflict objects. What do people seem to be fight­ing about with­in our brand’s sphere of influence?
  • Ego objects. How do people express their indi­vidu­al­ity with­in our brand’s sphere of influence?
  • Anger objects. What do people seem angry about with­in our brand’s sphere of influence?

Workshop idea: In the first half of the work­shop, 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 of the work­shop, run through the ideas, dis­cuss­ing, “Is this some­thing real people would say?”

Learn more: Social Objects and Public Relations

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Book: Contagious

Jonah Berger - Contagious
Contagious by Jonah Berger.

Book: Contagious

Jonah Berger, a mar­ket­ing pro­fess­or at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, pro­posed six key con­cepts in his book “Contagious: How to Build Word of Mouth in the Digital Age” (also known as “Contagious: Why Things Catch On”) that make ideas or products go vir­al or “stick.” 4Berger, J. (2014). Contagious: How to build word of mouth in the digit­al age. Simon & Schuster.

These con­cepts are:

  • Social cur­rency. People share things that make them look good or help them com­pare favour­ably to oth­ers. It has social cur­rency if a product or idea can make someone appear bright­er, more relaxed, or more in the know.
  • Triggers. Ideas that are top of mind spread. Things eas­ily mem­or­able and reg­u­larly triggered in every­day envir­on­ments are more likely to be discussed.
  • Emotion. When we care, we share. Messages that evoke strong emo­tions (pos­it­ive or neg­at­ive) are more likely to be shared.
  • Public. If some­thing is built to show, it grows. The more pub­lic some­thing is, the more likely people will imit­ate it.
  • Practical value. People share inform­a­tion to help oth­ers. Useful inform­a­tion gets shared because the sharer wants to assist others.
  • Stories. People do not just share inform­a­tion; they tell stor­ies. And stor­ies are the ves­sel that inform­a­tion travels. If people are engaged in the nar­rat­ive, they’re more likely to share.

These con­cepts can be used to craft mes­sages and cam­paigns more likely to be shared and spread, lead­ing to more effect­ive com­mu­nic­a­tion and mar­ket­ing efforts.

Learn more: Public Relations Books (to be published)

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Please sup­port my PR blog by shar­ing it with oth­er com­mu­nic­a­tion pro­fes­sion­als. For ques­tions or PR sup­port, con­tact me via jerry@​spinfactory.​com.

PR Resource: Six Principles of Influence

Influence-New-and-Cialdini-Expanded-The-Psychology-of-Persuasion
Influence by Robert Cialdini.

Book: Six Principles of Influence

Robert Cialdini pub­lished Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion in 1984, and his prin­ciples of influ­ence are widely cited. They provide a frame­work for under­stand­ing how people are per­suaded, and pub­lic rela­tions, advert­ising, and sales pro­fes­sion­als often use them. 5Cialdini, R. B. (2009). Influence: The psy­cho­logy of per­sua­sion (Rev. ed.). HarperCollins.

Here are Cialdini’s six principles:

  • Reciprocity. This prin­ciple is based on the idea that people feel oblig­ated to give back when they receive it. If a com­pany gives some­thing to its cus­tom­ers (like a free sample or a dis­count), those cus­tom­ers may feel com­pelled to pur­chase in return.
  • Scarcity. People tend to want things that are lim­ited or hard to get. Marketers often use this prin­ciple by cre­at­ing a sense of urgency around a product or ser­vice, such as a lim­ited-time offer or a lim­ited-edi­tion product.
  • Authority. People tend to fol­low the lead of cred­ible experts. In PR and mar­ket­ing, this can be achieved by hav­ing an expert endorse a product or demon­strate expert­ise and cred­ib­il­ity in the field.
  • Consistency (or Commitment). People like to be con­sist­ent with the things they have pre­vi­ously said or done. This prin­ciple is often used in mar­ket­ing by get­ting a small ini­tial com­mit­ment from a cus­tom­er, which increases the like­li­hood that they will make a more sig­ni­fic­ant com­mit­ment later.
  • Liking. People are more likely to be per­suaded by people they like. Physical attract­ive­ness, sim­il­ar­ity, com­pli­ments, and coöper­a­tion can influ­ence this.
  • Consensus (or Social Proof). People often look to the actions and beha­viours of oth­ers to determ­ine their own. If a product or ser­vice is pop­u­lar or endorsed by oth­ers, people are like­li­er to deem it good or trustworthy.

These prin­ciples are power­ful tools for per­sua­sion and can be used indi­vidu­ally or in com­bin­a­tion to influ­ence per­cep­tions and behaviours.

Learn more: Public Relations Books (to be published)

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ANNOTATIONS
ANNOTATIONS
1 Jaiku was a social net­work­ing, micro-blog­ging and lifestream­ing plat­form 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 The list sum­mar­ises points MacLeod made at a sem­in­ar in 2013.
3 Durkeim, E. (1982). The Rules of the Sociological Method. New York: The Free Press. p. 60.
4 Berger, J. (2014). Contagious: How to build word of mouth in the digit­al age. Simon & Schuster.
5 Cialdini, R. B. (2009). Influence: The psy­cho­logy of per­sua­sion (Rev. ed.). HarperCollins.
Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwerhttps://doctorspin.net/
Jerry Silfwer, alias Doctor Spin, is an awarded senior adviser specialising in public relations and digital strategy. Currently CEO at Spin Factory and KIX Communication Index. Before that, he worked at Kaufmann, Whispr Group, Springtime PR, and Spotlight PR. Based in Stockholm, Sweden.

The Cover Photo

The cover photo isn't related to public relations; it's just a photo of mine. Think of it as a 'decorative diversion', a subtle reminder that there is more to life than strategic communication.

The cover photo has

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