What ‘I’ll have what she’s having’ could mean for marketing practice

In a previous post I’ve outlined why I found Mark Earls new co-authored book interesting but frustrating in relation to what I was looking for.  Since then I’ve come across a great blog post by Mark in which he starts to answer the questions that the book left hanging in the air.

http://blog.marketing-soc.org.uk/2010/12/mark-earls-%E2%80%9Ci%E2%80%99ll-have-what-she%E2%80%99s-having%E2%80%9D-marketing-and-social-learning-from-herdmeister-mark-earls/

The Mark Earls view

His conclusions about the implications for markets are set out below. (I’ve shortened and paraphrased them a bit)

‘1. The lie of the land: Independent choice or social one?

Marketers need to understand what the behaviour in their market and around their brand is like.  Are the product and brand choices made independently (i.e. based on an individual consumer acting out with the influence of their peers), or to what extent are they based on social learning?

If the choice is primarily independent then the focus of marketing should be on developing and publicising a superior product.  Also, traditional market research which explores individual thoughts, perceptions and feelings about products and product characteristics is still appropriate.  However if the choice process is social then it’s much less about the product and more about the people and how they interact with each other.  This means that traditional market research is less reliable.

2. Role of marketing: persuasion or Curating Diffusion?

Traditional marketing focuses on doing something to individual consumers to shape their individual behaviour.  However if the choice process is mainly socially-shaped, the role of marketing needs to be different, too. It needs to become much more about curating diffusion: “curating” as in facilitating a process that is already underway or can be unlocked and “diffusion” as in spread.  Marketing needs to focus instead on helping people to get each other to do stuff and so on through the population. This requires a very different mindset and set of tools to those to which we default.

3. Targetting: “The” Consumer

The more that social factors matter the more that marketing should focus on groups of consumers, in the plural, rather than on ‘the consumer’. It will need to explore the communities and multiple social worlds in which consumers live, use and consume products and services.  Audiences need to be defined in terms of social groups and social contexts rather than merely in terms of individuals.

Another way of thinking about targeting is to consider what Mark calls “the between space” – to focus on the interaction between people rather than on some illusory “trigger” or “buy-button” in individual people’s heads which does not exist. Market research needs to focuse on the human interaction first and the market behaviour second (the former being the real context and key to unlocking the spread of the latter). The ‘between space’ is the battleground of diffusion.

4. Facilitating copying: Eyeline / stuff to do

Much of our work in this between space is not going to look like traditional marketing communication: we’re going to have to help individuals see each other (if you can’t see, you can’t copy).  So one kind of activity in the between space is going to be about managing “eyeline”: what can individuals see of their peers’ behaviour and choices? How can we make things more visible?

Another is providing connective activities that enable “eyeline” to work: giving people things to do together during which they can see each other. Sometimes this will involve supporting existing enthusiasms (sponsorship and cause-related marketing are already playing in this space); sometimes it will involve creating experiences such as games, competitions or even brand new events that bring people together.

5. Social brands, serving social needs

In practice most brand choices seem to be at the social end of the spectrum.  For these it would make sense to start to rethink about them in social terms.  For instance:

  • What communities (of interest etc) do they serve?
  • How does a brand help those communities interact with each other?
  • What is a brand giving its consumers (yes, plural!) that enhances their shared social world?
  • What “purpose” or social mission is a brand driven by?
  • What higher order mission does it serve as a standard-bearer for people to gather around?

In recent years, far too much of the noise around “social” has been about tactics (social media etc) and far too little of it strategic – being at the heart of our brand thinking. We need to be more socially strategic and worry less about social as a tactic.

6. A new kind of strategy: lighting lots of fires

Finally, one of the most unusual things about the spread of socially-learned phenomena is that they are really hard to predict: it’s really hard to know ahead of time whether this particular fashion or tune or name will take off; only after the fact does it seem to us clear why the winners are the winners.

This inherent unpredictability demands that we rethink the notion of strategy itself – or rather to make strategy less “grand”. Rather than betting everything on one execution of our grand plan, we need to get better at spreading the bets out: let’s test lots of different ways to implement and get better at learning as we go.

Steve Hallam interprets Mark Earls

So, I thought, where does this leave us in terms of practical and implementable actions – particularly in relation to small businesses?

The first requirement is to decide whether customers in your market are more likely to choose products and brands using independent or social choice.  The market map that is introduced in ‘I’ll have what she’s having’, and which Mark has subsequently developed further, enables this to be done.  Below is my interpretation of it.


To use the map, identify whether people in your market consider themselves to be faced with a large or small number of suppliers, and how marked they consider the differences between these suppliers to be.  Based on the answers, locate your market on the grid.  This then tells you the method that most people are likely to use to choose what to buy, and also how suitable traditional methods of market research (surveys, focus groups, etc.) are likely to be.  Mark believes that many markets are in the bottom right quadrant, where the dominant choice method is to copy others e.g. social influence is strong.

Implications for practical marketing

The implications of the map for marketing are as follows:

Markets on the left hand side: continue as now, seeking to persuade individuals about the preferable nature of your offering.  Social media can have a role to play, but the emphasis will be on uni-directional communication between the marketer and customers as individuals e.g. the hub and spoke model.

Markets on the right hand side: the emphasis here should be on the social side of things.  This is new territory, that is still be explored.  Based on the list of Mark’s conclusions, above, one implementational approach could be as follows:

  • Think about the characteristics of the social group that customers (and prospects) are part of and the context in which it functions.  For instance, find out how group members are interacting – where, how, about what?  How is information being spread and emotions influenced.
  • Think about how this interaction can be facilitated.  How can these people be brought together and encouraged to interact.  How can you stimulate actions for them to take?  This is the ‘curating diffusion’ bit.
  • Make contact with relevant people, presumably by setting up online community.
  • Build a following by providing reasons for them to come, using the approach developed above.
  • Implement lots of little things, experiment, respond and learn.

On this basis small businesses should be relatively well placed to prosper in a world of social markets.  This is because:

  • Success will depend more on the quality of thinking and customer empathy than on having large publicity budgets.  This will tip the playing field in the favour of small businesses.  While large businesses will have greater access to high quality thinking (whether internally or through retaining the best agencies), small businesses are likely to have a sustainable advantage with respect to empathy.
  • The nature and strength of the relationships that customers consider themselves to have with their suppliers will become more important.  The very nature of small businesses will make it more likely that customers will feel comfortable developing a relationship with them.
  • Small businesses should be better suited to ‘lighting many fires’ and then responding to what happens (or well managed ones will be, at least)

However one big issue that small businesses may struggle with is to find the time to give their social marketing the attention it will need to be effective.

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