Social Referral

Social media is an ad hoc referral system gone horribly right.

Referrals are primarily a means to building business, brands and bucks. Ask my dentist (to whom I would gladly refer anybody). He is maniacal about soliciting his patients to make referrals, and he gets them.  He knows that patients move away or die (hopefully from old age and not botched dental surgery), so he is constantly refilling his demand chain for crowns, fillings and laser whitening.

Referrals occur in every business, from your neighborhood dry cleaner to multinational technology companies. The larger the organization, the more it drifts from the quaint and personal sounding “referral” into the more Machiavellian sounding “buzz generation.”  Yet it is essentially the same thing. At either extreme we are asking, coaxing, bribing or begging people to talk to other people about our products, preferably in a positive manner.

Which brings us to social media, which in its purest form is simply user-focused referral facilitating technology.  When someone clicks on a Facebook “like” or a Google “+1”, they are making a referral.  The only difference is that the referral is instantaneous, low effort and broadcast to everyone that person knows instead of just one single acquaintance. But, as with my dentist (he is really good) people need a reason to refer. Motivation. Without it, a referral never happens. The primary reasons people make referrals include:

Obligation: Sometimes people feel obliged to make a referral.  Often services professionals will ask clients to make a referral for them (this often occurs in Linkedin when one makes a request to be referred to a connection’s friend). This is the least effective method because the referral, if made at all, is done under duress or a sense of guilt. The recipient of the referral is rarely interested.

Bribery: My dentist is unashamed to offer a $50 discount on your next outrageously priced dental cleaning if you refer a new patient to him. The motivation is not self-sustaining. Bribes work, but you have to continue the bribing process to continue the behavior. This is why smart parents never bribe their kids because the kids will turn it into an extortion racket.

Self-importance: Most people have egos (I don’t because my ex-wife won mine as part of the divorce settlement). When ego is involved, making a referral is less about glee over the referred product or service, and more about being important in the eyes of the person to whom the referral is made. This is not the worst source of a referral, but it often lacks an authentic connection. People occasionally refer items of little or no consequence to others, and thus do nothing positive to the product’s brand.

Pleasant experience: This is the most common motivation in social media for referrals. Recently a cocktail lounge opened down the street, which pleasantly met with my fiance’s and my satisfaction. I clicked a rating button in Yelp, which seemed like a nice gesture to the new and gracious owners. Much has been written about striving to slightly exceed a customer’s expectations and how this incentivizes them to promote your wares. Social media, because it is a low-impact tool for ad hoc referrals, plays well into this mode of motivation.

Authentic excitement: People go nuts when they are authentically excited about something, which dovetails nicely into brand management theory. Authentic excitement is on the other side of the referral / proselytization line, though that line can be blurry. When jazzed about a product, people not only refer it, they actively promote it, and use social media more as a social-network building mechanism (“I want to connect to you because of our shared passion.”) Some companies establish fan pages on Facebook when consumers of their product are not “fans”, which leads to utterly public and embarrassingly sparse pages.

It should be obvious that the last two motivations are different than the rest because they come spontaneously from consumers for selfless motivations. The other three are exercised only for some personal benefit (assuaging guilt, making a buck and generating influence). This is not to say the first three should be ignored — after all, pumps must be primed. But long-lasting referrals come from people who want to reach out to others in order to spread the happiness they encountered.

Engineering authentic happiness leads to everlasting referrals.


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