Social currency: the real value of conversations about your brand

Measuring a brand’s value is an inherently tricky business. Even in a supposedly clearcut case like Coca-Cola, which is essentially commoditised sugar water dressed up in world class marketing, the actual value of the brand is difficult to separate from the product (or service) itself.

Yes, crowds of fans spontaneously sang the Coke song during the World Cup, but how much is that sort of thing actually worth to a brand? Do the people who talk about your brand actually buy it? What about recommending it to their friends?

A fascinating new study by Vivaldi Partners – a marketing consultancy – attempts to answer that question by borrowing an idea from sociology: social currency. It defines social currency as “the extent to which people share the brand or information about the brand as part of their everyday social lives at work or at home.”

A definition like that is bound to make us social media evangelists prick up our ears. We’re all well aware of the power of conversation, and I always welcome new ways to quantify its true value. But the study has a far broader outlook than social media, and deals with far more meaningful interactions than the buzz that often passes for conversation on social media.

So where does this social currency come from and how is it measured? Vivaldi has defined six social “levers” that determine a brands social currency score:

1. Affiliation
Do your customers feel like a community? For example the study shows that while low cost airline jetBlue may be smaller and younger than stalwarts like American Airlines and Delta, they have successfully nurtured a sense of community in their frequent fliers.

2. Identity
Do your customers see your brand as part of the way to express their personalities? For instance the study shows that luxury car brands like BMW and Mercedes have the most social currency, partly as a result of high identity scores.

3. Information
Do your customers exchange useful information with each other about (and around) your brand? The study found that most Oracle customers not only feel like a community, but that they get vital information from other members of that community.

4. Conversation
Do your customers talk about your brand? The study shows that while Clinique’s customers are very likely to discuss the brand, this is much less true of brands like Axe and Dove. Why? Because Clinique’s emphasis on different products for different skin types spurs women to form micro-communities around the product lines.

5. Utility
Do your customers get any kind of value by interacting with other customers? Customers of both iTunes and Oracle get a lot of utility out of talking to their fellow customers. Oracle, in particular, organises customer events to encourage more of this kind of interaction.

6. Advocacy
Do your customers recommend and defend your brand to non-customers? The obvious example here is Apple, and the study aligns perfectly with that anecdotal truth. As a result Apple has one of the highest social currency scores in the study.

When you combine these factors, you have a powerful way to measure the quality of social interactions around a brand. It’s about a lot more than mere buzz. For instance the study shows that while Burger King generates a lot of buzz, their social currency is relatively low. Wendy’s, on the other hand, stimulates genuine conversations around its food, and earns higher scores as a result.

Social currency isn’t a prerequisite for success, nor is pursing it a good idea for some brands. The study shows that Gillette has extremely high scores for loyalty and trust, yet it has the lowest social currency score in the study. People love their razors, they just don’t feel the need to discuss them. And, given that such discussions may lead to comparisons with cheaper alternatives, they may actually prove harmful to the brand.

If that’s the case, what’s the point?

The study also shows that high social currency scores correlate strongly to both higher loyalty and significant price premiums. Two great examples of this in the study are premium beers like Guinness and – of course – Apple’s products.

Even if social currency isn’t the most vital metric for your particular brand, a thorough understanding of the six social levers will definitely enrich any strategy. At the very least you now have a new buzz word with which to pacify the bean counters.



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