The dysfunctional social media love affair of consumers and brands

Thanks to social media — and social media consultants, it must be said — brands are now in the business of “engagement” and “authentic relationships” with consumers. That means an endless stream of social media updates that run the gamut from the occasionally clever to the banal to the outright idiotic. It is the most awkward of courtships.

And it is, of course, a complete con. People interact with brands on social media mostly in the hope they might get something. Brands get some misguided satisfaction when they see us shouting; how insecure we are looking for validation of our existence from a brand. For many though, this kind of social media puppy love is worth it — because sometimes they give us stuff.

A 2010 study from ExactTarget and CoTweet shows that 40 percent of Facebook users follow brands to get coupons and special discounts. A similar 2013 Infographic shows that number at a whopping 70 percent. Tack on the percentage of people that like or follow a brand to show their friends that they like or follow a brand (40 percent on the original study), and you have a therapist’s dream. We love brands on social because they give us things. We happily get into their white panel van even though talking to strangers leads to the Valley of Despair.

Additionally, according to a Nielson/Twitter study, 52 percent of U.K. Twitter users follow brands for those golden tickets. The margins for brands are ridiculous. Gain a massive following by giving away coupons and special discounts. Make the money back by inflating prices to compensate for the coupons. It’s genius really. An even cheaper idea is to just give stuff away. Cheap stuff, not that good stuff in the back.

Case in point: Last year, I got a free trucker hat from an Oreo flash store campaign. A free hat in exchange for a ton of tweets, organic growth and general consumer love. Twitter parties sponsored by brands are always full of giveaways. People’s love can be bought, and brands know this as they take full advantage of selfishness — and then pretend it’s about something more, much more, than freebies.

As Bob Hoffman of The Ad Contrarian says, “A strong brand is a byproduct. It comes from doing other things right. Make sure your product is excellent. Make sure you’re taking good care of your customers. Make sure your ads differentiate you. That’s what builds brands.” Once that foundation is laid, it isn’t difficult to keep consumers hanging on. All you have to do is make sure to update your coupon codes on a regular basis.

While some brands have been experimenting with selling directly through social media, the success of branding on social media doesn’t come with consumers opening their virtual wallets. After all, remember that people are following brands for *free* stuff, not to figure out what to spend actual money on.

Instead, brands are left with measuring success through signs of popularity. The success of branding on social comes from building an army of loyal social media users through constant contact, positive affirmation of our existence as customers and giving us free stuff. The brands that do this right are the most popular brands. This isn’t hard. The hooks were set decades ago when we saw our first advertisement in any medium. All they have to do is keep dropping the ego-stroking bucket down the social media pit to keep us engaged.

On the flip side, consumers add to the dysfunction by taking to task the most popular brands. Consumers love to be smart asses to the brands that give them stuff. Or in an even more cynical twist, consumers who don’t beg for coupons sardonically attack the brands they perceive to be the most popular. The product or service that the brand provides is lost in the shuffle as consumers wait for brands to do something — anything — worth snarking about.

“We don’t get them to try our product by convincing them to love our brand,” Hoffman wrote. “We get them to love our brand by convincing them to try our product.”

While it can be said that some brands produce products worth loving the brand for, many brands just create the idea of — the promise of — something more amazing than what they actually produce. To use Oreo as the example again, it makes cookies. Little balls of sugar that will (when paired with all the rest of the sugar we consume) eventually kill us. I’m not blaming Oreo for my eventual diabetes but showing an example of how love for a brand clearly outweighs true love for the product. Sure, the cookies are good, but they taste just like the store brand.

The truth is that our love for brands on social media has all the trademarks of a dysfunctional relationship. Brands pretend we love them for something other than their coupons, and consumers play along with the fiction. None of this makes any sense.

Image via Shutterstock

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