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Mark Bonchek, SVP of Communities and Networks for Sears Holdings, has been a pioneer in social engagement since the 1990s when he received the first Ph.D. granted by Harvard on the subject of social media. Since then he has worked with organizations ranging from IBM to The Economist to the U.S. Department of Education. His current focus is the transformation of Sears as an integrated retailer and social enterprise.

Brandon Gutman: Mark, there’s a lot of talk these days about social media. Is it just a lot of hype, or is there really something revolutionary going on?

Mark Bonchek: There is something revolutionary going on, but not in the way people often think. This is about a lot more than generating Likes on Facebook and followers on Twitter. We are in the midst of a fundamental shift from mass communication to mass collaboration. This is the first time in our history that we can work together on a global scale. This type of communication revolution doesn’t happen very often. The last one was Gutenberg’s printing press over 500 years ago. Gutenberg democratized information, enabling mass communication to an audience. Radio, newspapers, and television were variations on this theme. With social technologies, we are not only consumers of information, but producers and co-creators. This democratization of collaboration and creation is the real social revolution.

How well are companies adapting to this social revolution?

Most companies are still stuck in old ways of thinking. But you really can’t blame them. It took three hundred years for Gutenberg’s revolution to play out. The democratization of information led to the Renaissance, the Scientific Revolution, and eventually the Industrial Revolution. This in turn led to the modern corporation as we know it. At this point, we are only about a decade into the social revolution, and it will take a while to adjust our mental models from audiences to communities and re-design our institutions from hierarchies to networks.

What does this mean for brands and marketing?

In the past, brands could control the message. But not any more. Marketing has become like a political campaign. Every message gets thrown into the social spin cycle. This is a big change for marketers trained in traditional advertising, with its focus on segments and channels. Marketing is now more about sociology than psychology. Brands need to focus on the social context of their customers’ lives. Do they create a sense of social identity? Can they create social currencies that help customers connect with each other?

Mark Bonchek

How is this changing the relationship between brands and customers?

The relationship is becoming more peer-to-peer. You can see this on Facebook. With the latest changes, brand pages look a lot like personal pages. As brands become more like peers, they need to behave more like people: personal, reciprocal, and authentic. It’s the difference between being a speaker on a stage and the host of a dinner party. A good host doesn’t lecture or talk too much about themselves. They focus on sparking the conversation and connecting people. They keep the party buzzing. A social brand does the same for its community.

At the last Brand Innovators Summit, you created some buzz yourself with the concept of customer orbits. Can you elaborate?

In a social age, people don’t like to be pushed. Brands need to find creative ways to attract customers. Imagine a solar system with your brand at the center. Just as gravity keeps planets in orbit around the sun, companies can create gravitational fields to keep customers in orbit around their brand. This gravitational field is not about advertising. It’s about creating real value that goes beyond the products you sell. Some examples include Google’s search engine, Apple’s iTunes software, and Nike’s FuelBand. These are gravity generators that deliver high-frequency, high-value interactions.

How do you create this kind of gravitational field to pull in customers?

First, start with the 3 P’s: Purpose, Platforms, and Partners. Find a shared Purpose around which you can deliver services that create value for your customer. Then create an engagement Platform to deliver that value. Social networks and mobile technologies make it possible to create these platforms with incredible ease. There are many sources of value around which to build your engagement platform. The most common are content, conversation, collaboration, contribution, and commerce. Finally, look for collaborative Partners who can bring additional credibility, resources, or reach.

How is Sears putting these ideas into practice?

We start by recognizing that social technologies are fundamentally transforming retail. Our customers want to shop anytime, anywhere. It is no longer about choosing between shopping online or shopping in the store; it is increasingly about both. We therefore must deliver an integrated retail experience across all channels. But this is only table stakes in the new world of retail. We must evolve beyond a transactional relationship with our customers to a social experience that is personal, engaging and rewarding.

As an example, our FitStudio community is build around our market-leading position in fitness equipment. In our stores, interactive technologies and expert consultants help customers find the right equipment. Online, the FitStudio community helps people achieve their fitness and weight loss goals. As an orbit strategy, FitStudio combines shared purpose (fitness), engagement platforms (store and online community), and collaborative partners (trainers and wellness experts).

Do these ideas apply to smaller companies? If so, how should they get started?

Remember that social is about building human relationships. Take an inventory of your social assets (knowledge, values, and relationships) and look for ways of creating social currencies (things people can share). Also keep in mind what each type of social technology is good for. Facebook is about conversation. Think about what your customers like to talk about, and about which you have something to contribute to the conversation. Twitter is about notification. What do your customers want to be informed about related to your business? As an example, a restaurant might put out a daily Tweet with the daily special, and create a Facebook page where they post favorite recipes or items they are considering adding to the menu. In general, there are lots of places to start. The key is to be less transactional and more human, and do less pushing and more pulling.

Follow Brandon on Twitter at http://twitter.com/brandongutman

Find more of my content about brand leaders at http://brand-innovators.com

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by Brandon Gutman
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Brandon is an expert connector and seasoned business development professional. As Principal of Brand Approved, he's led the advisory to become the bridge between brand marketers and best of breed service providers that are reshaping the industry.

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