In 1995, while working at Stratus Computers, a young marketing whiz named François Gossieaux came up with a concept for organizing the first large-scale virtual event, including a full speakers conference and fully outfitted virtual exhibit hall. (This was 1995, remember they were using Netscape Navigator version 1.0!) InfoWorld and Time magazine joined in, and by launch they had more than a hundred speakers and some 45,000 attendees.

Flash forward fifteen years. Today, François is founder of Human 1.0, a boutique marketing innovation strategy firm that works with many leading brands, helping them come up with innovative approaches to capitalize on what he calls “the anti-fad that social media really is.” He is also a senior fellow and a board member with the Society for New Communications Research (SNCR), where he became actively involved after receiving their prestigious Individual 2007 Excellence in New Communications Award. With research partner Ed Moran, François launched a project that would become famous as the Tribalization of Business Study, which surveyed and analyzed how more than 500 companies use social media as part of their business processes. The study became the basis for their award-winning book,
The Hyper-Social Organization. It’s time, says the book, to stop marketing to consumers and start socializing with them. — J.D.M.

How did your landmark study come about?

Originally, the project was called “The Community Effectiveness Study,” and it grew out of the realization that people needed information about how to leverage social media in communities in their businesses. We decided to look at how companies are doing that.

About halfway through the first year, we realized there was a lot more at work here than just the use of new tools. What was happening had nothing to do with technology, it had to do with a change in social behavior. So we renamed it “The Tribalization of Business Study.”

Why “tribalization” and not simply “community”?

Because this was what we saw happening: people were forming tribes online. These modern tribes were much more nomadic than ancient tribes, and they were connected more by shared interests, shared passion and shared pain than by shared geography.

People cycle in and out constantly, much more than in traditional tribes—as I said, they’re very nomadic—but it’s still very much tribal behavior: people who want to hang out with one another because they share a passion, and want to impress each other with their knowledge about it, or help each other, or to establish a common voice about it. They are there to establish an identity they belong to.

Our goal was to understand how businesses were using communities internally, for product innovation, customer support and marketing.

It sounds like it became less a question of how people are doing things, and more that they’re doing different things—that there’s a whole different kind of behavior pattern.

Yes. People talk about what we should use to run our communities —should we do it on Facebook, or in a Ning community, or in a more sophisticated community? Should we do it on a wiki, or using blogs?

That’s what we originally thought we were looking for. But we found that, at the end of the day, it really doesn’t matter. If a community is going to work, it will work in a discussion group, a blog, or a Yahoo group—and if it won’t work in a Yahoo group, then it won’t work anywhere else.

It’s not about the technology. It’s about the social behavior we’ve been hardwired for over tens or hundreds of thousands of years, which is now scaling to the point where it makes a difference in business again.

You start your book describing a “hyper-social shift.” What is that a shift from, and what is it a shift to?

Up until now, businesses did not have to account for the social while doing business. They could spew information at us and we would use it to make buying decisions, because it was the only source of information we had.

Most of the time, they could market by interrupting people, because that was the only way we had to find out about things. They could be unfair with a customer or with employees and not have to care about repercussions—because the companies were totally disproportionate in scale.

We could complain by the water cooler, but it really didn’t make any difference. It was too small. Sometimes a consumer boycott would take on a life of its own, and that would have some impact. But that was not an everyday thing.

Suddenly, with social networking, if I’m not happy with Bruegger’s, a week and a half later I’m going to have the CMO from Bruegger’s writing on my blog, saying, “Oh, I’m so sorry, and I’m going to do something about it in the store in your town.”

Because I now have a network that scales to the point where it makes a difference. Its scale matches to that of the company—or in some cases even exceeds it.

The social is invading businesses, employees and customers. The shift is in those companies that realize this is happening. The shift means changing your business models to embrace and leverage this change.

I think people hear the term “social business” and may equate that with a business being nicer or more considerate. But it seems to me it’s more than that. It’s a whole other level of awareness of what kind of impact your every action has.

Yes—it’s powering your business and business processes with humans.

Humans are hardwired for a number of things.

We’re hardwired for reciprocity, which means that we’re going to help a community because we know that we’re going to get help back when we need it later. This is not something we learn in school; it’s a reflex.

We’re hardwired to punish those who have been unfair to us, even if it means taking a personal toll.

We’re hardwired to be a herding species. We research our restaurants, and when we get to the restaurant we chose and there’s a line outside another restaurant nearby that we know nothing about, we will go stand in that other line.

This is interesting, because it means we’re hardwired for one hundred percent customer loyalty. Once we’ve made a decision, we don’t readily change it. And we’re not only herding, we’re self-herding. Once we make a decision and we’re happy, we’re going to continue buying that stuff over and over again, until the vendor screws up.

We’re hardwired for status. So give it to us in our communities! Have leader boards and other features that acknowledge us and give us status.

Tapping into these human characteristics can make a social process very powerful.

That herding thing is so fascinating, because with social media suddenly our herding can rub off on each other, too.

That’s true. We love to look like others. Look at all the geeks. They all look the same. We want to look like our tribes, to identify with them, to show the world that we’re part of that tribe.

When you’re driving your Mini Cooper and you pass someone else who is driving a Mini Cooper, you flash your high beams and wave. We develop these rituals around our tribes.

It connects us with something larger than ourselves.

Exactly.

To what extent do you see companies attempting to use social media to perpetuate old behaviors, and not really catching this new sort of tribal esthetic?

A majority are trying to use these new platforms to do what they used to do before, and not tapping into the social.

The best example is when I see brand fan pages on Facebook. There is no such thing as a brand community. You cannot have a successful community with a brand at the center. It does not exist. It’s always the members that are at the center, what they do and what their shared passion is. The brand can act as a bond that strengthens that social. It can be very important, as with the Mini Cooper—but it can never be at the center.

There are some Facebook pages that seem successful, that are just about “my company.” But when you look closer, you see there’s nothing social going on there. They’re just giving away coupons. It’s an old marketing technique, only being used in social media.

Now, some of them are probably getting good results—but they’re not tapping into social. When you tap into social, you create movements that are really hard to stop. Whereas if these other people stopped giving away coupons, everybody would go away and nothing would happen on that page anymore.

One of the “myths of hyper-social” that you talk about in the book is the idea that you create and control your brand. And you say, that’s not so.

No, you cannot control your brand. You’ve already lost control of your brand.

McKinsey has research that says that sixty to eighty percent of all buying decisions happen without anybody or any content from your company being involved.

That means sixty to eighty percent of buying decisions happen based on people who are not part of your company, telling a story that you do not control.

Hearing this must strike terror in the hearts of business executives everywhere.

I know. And it’s not a matter of, “I don’t want to lose it”—you’ve already lost it.

Everything we do is based on reciprocity. Even a conversation is reciprocal. If I have a good conversation with you at a party, here’s what happens:

I give you a nugget of information, which triggers something in your brain that makes you go in a certain direction, and you respond to it, which triggers something in my brain that makes me go in a certain direction… That’s what makes for interesting conversation: it’s reciprocal.

If I were to be at a party and talk only about myself and my kids, you’d get bored to death and would walk away. It wouldn’t be reciprocal.

Yet that’s exactly how we’ve been talking to our customers for the last few hundred years! And because now we are suddenly having reciprocal conversations about buying decisions with others, which we could never have with companies, people are no longer listening to their companies. They’re listening to their peers and colleagues—which is why sixty to eighty percent of all buying decisions happen without the company being involved.

So what can companies do? They can start saying, “Okay, how can we make even the most basic exchange of information reciprocal?

But that old way was so neat and organized! And also, expensive.

[laughs] It was! And for those companies that are embracing the social, one of the hardest things they have to do is embrace the messiness that comes with it.

A lot of CMO’s I’ve spoken with say the hardest thing to do was giving up control. But once they did, they realized they didn’t actually have control in the first place!

Embracing that messiness allows a company to cut across the hierarchies and fix processes. For example, Best Buy at one point entered the high-end musical instrument business. But instead of just relying on their salespeople to help their customers, they went around the entire company and said, “Who has a passion for music? Okay, why don’t you help our customers make decisions in our virtual communities?”

Suddenly you have someone who works in the finance department who freelances the weekend playing in a band, and now he’s helping your customers in virtual communities make buying decisions around his passion, which might be high-end guitars or drum sets.

That’s what it’s like to allow things to cross hierarchies, organizational structures, boundaries, and fixed processes. And those companies that are embracing this are seeing this as much more powerful than the old ways.

In your work, have you looked into the network marketing community at all?

I don’t think we have any network organizations that participated in the research we did. But we did find that the factors for successfully leveraging social media in communities is no different for a business-to-consumer company than it is for a business-to-business company. And it is no different for a Fortune 50 company than it is for a two-person company.

Ultimately, it’s not businesses talking to businesses, or businesses talking to consumers. When it’s successful, it’s people talking to people.

So you can be a small company and have a community of a few thousand people who can help you, if you find the right tribe and the right passion that is not yet being served somewhere else.

You can also be a small business and engage in an existing community, with the same authority as an IBM or a Proctor and Gamble would.

The use of social media in network marketing is a very hot topic. Although the business model itself is intrinsically interactive, I’m curious to what degree people in network marketing are attempting to use social media as a mass marketing arm—as a one-way conversation to just blast their brand message out there.

I suspect that a lot of them will be doing that, because that’s what we’re seeing in the broader industry out there. A lot of people are using social media as a channel to bombard others with more information. And that’s just not going to work.

Think about it this way. If you believe that sixty to eighty percent of all buying decisions happen without the company being involved, that means people are not listening. So you’re only reaching a minority of the population that you could be reaching.

Another way of looking at it is to say, “How can I participate in those conversations where those buying decisions are happening, where I’m not right now?” That’s how you need to think about how to use social media.

One way of doing this is to host those conversations in your community, and then you’ll be there to participate.

Another is to go where they are. A fascinating example for me is IBM. Here’s a 400,000-employee company, and they allow every single employee to create a community about whatever they want, with whomever they want, using whichever technology they wish. If they want to talk with outsiders about fly fishing on Facebook, they can do that. They’re encouraged to do it.

Why does IBM do that? Because they realize that if they get all 400,000 people hosting small conversations with friends and colleagues, they will take part in more of those conversations where eventually the buying decisions are made, or where the information from which buying decisions are made is being sourced.

That’s fascinating!

Xerox did that. Humana did it, too. They went around and tried to find everybody in their company who was active in social media, bloggers, people like that. At Xerox they found, I think, about five thousand. At Humana, it was eighteen thousand. And the majority of them—I believe it was about eighty percent in both companies—were not blogging or being active on Facebook about topics that were in any way related to their company. They were blogging about fly fishing, or music, or whatever their passion was.

Now, this is just a baby step towards social, but here’s what they do: whenever these companies launch a new product, they brief those people a few days ahead of time, as if they were press.

Now you have the fly-fishing guy suddenly saying, “Hey, I don’t usually talk about my company, but I’m so proud about this latest launch that we’ve done…” He just puts a few sentences in there, and because he has credibility with his community, if people in that tribe are ever thinking about buying something in that category, they’ll go and ask him.

The first time they did this, Christa Carone, the CMO at Xerox, said, “I have never seen an amplification factor work the way this helped amplify my message in the marketplace.”

It’s interesting to hear you speak about tribes, because the network marketing model basically uses a human volunteer network, which very much fits the “tribe” description. Do you see the world shifting towards that direction, of creating more volunteer networks? Or is that just an anomaly in network marketing?

I do think we are going to see more virtual organizations. The knowledge and the expertise you need today may not be the same as what you need tomorrow.

I think there’s also going to be a shift in population that is going to drive that.

There are a lot of baby boomers who are getting close to “retirement age” but may never be able to retire—who will have to continue working but will not necessarily put up with working from 8:00 to 6:00 in the corporate hierarchies. They will want to have things to do that are much more aligned with their passions.

And then there’s the young generation, who are definitely not willing to compromise their passion as they enter the workforce. They are also going to want to find work that is aligned with their passion.

In our generation, [NetWorth coauthor] John Hagel says we went to work to make money so we could pay for our passion afterward. The new generation is not like that.

To make this work, I think you’re going to see people transitioning in and out of projects where that passion and expertise is needed. I think you’re eventually going to see this kind of thing happening across multiple organizations.

A more fluid structural container, in a sense, of our activities and productivity.

Exactly. I hope your readers enjoy the book—if they have feedback, they can post it on our Facebook page, which is Facebook.com/hypersocialorg.

www.networkingtimes.com/link/gossieaux