Media Perspective: Brands claiming to be your friend must be genuinely social

I know I bang on a lot about blogs here, and I can imagine you rolling your eyes at this point, but they are worth paying attention to because they are a useful testing ground for the way corporately owned and created media are going to interact with the individually owned and created stuff.

I was reminded of this by Dan Ariely's fantastic new book, Predictably Irrational. You are going to hear about it a lot. It is the kind of book particularly beloved of planners trying to push bold strategies because Ariely uses all sorts of interesting little experiments to show how people make decisions, and how unexpected those decisions sometimes are. He is a behavioural economist, so unlike in classical economics where everyone is assumed to be rational, Ariely tries to understand how things work in the real world, where people are emotional and illogical, though still predictable (you can see where he got the title).

Anyway, we were talking about "corporate media" versus "personal media", and Ariely has some neat experiments illustrating the dilemmas that pop up when the two meet: when "market norms" meet "social norms". He asked various respondents to do simple, menial tasks for different rewards: a gift such as a chocolate bar, a reasonable wage, a token payment, or sometimes just as a favour.

There are two scenarios in which people are happy to do the task: when they are adequately compensated; and when they are following social norms such as friendship (in fact, they tend to work harder when they are doing it as a favour). Problems occur, though, when the lines are blurred, when market norms and social norms are confused (even as trivially as mentioning the price of the chocolate bar when offering it as a gift.) When social exchanges and market exchanges are mixed up, people get uncomfortable - and grumpy. This, for me, explains many of the pickles that brands are getting themselves into, particularly in their relations with personal media creators such as bloggers.

Blogging is mostly a social thing; social norms apply, especially between bloggers. But, naturally enough, when brands want to engage with bloggers, they act as though market norms apply; to most brands, blogs are just another media choice. You get the same effect on YouTube or Facebook or on all sorts of social networks. And some of that confusion crops up in the real world, when brands are too matey and conversational in their communications.

If they are going to talk like they are your friend, brands had better behave like your friend when things go wrong, or confusion will quickly turn to bitterness. All those banks and building societies trying to be cuddly better be clear whether they are offering us a social relationship or a market one.