Social Object Theory: The Secret Ingredient for Powering Social Influence Marketing Campaigns
By Iain McDonald, Executive Creative Director and Founder, Amnesia Razorfish™, Sydney Digital Outlook Report (Razorfish,'09), pgs.58-62

Hugh MacLeod, the creative mind behind, said in October 2007, “I believe social objects are the future of marketing.” Coincidentally, we had both recently watched the same video about social objects created by Jyri Engeström, founder of Jaiku, a social platform that lets people share their online activity streams.

    Engeström described social object theory as the belief that all successful social media interactions and ventures center on an object — “the reason people connect with each particular other and not something else.” Another way to describe a social object is as the centerpiece in a dialogue between two or more people. People don’t just talk — they tend to talk “around” objects. For example, if I’m speaking to my mother about the flowers I sent her, the flowers are the social object.

Large numbers of digital conversations revolve around a social object, such as a bookmark, game, photo, story, product, event, Facebook app and so forth; these objects become the centerpiece of our conversations. In turn, we may also be willing to share objects. I believe a great digital social object is one that is highly portable, and can be easily copied and reproduced in as many channels and formats.

Do social objects really build connections on social networks?
You’ve probably heard the old adage that there are  only six degrees of separation between any one individual on the planet and everyone else (especially if your name is Kevin Bacon), so wouldn’t it seem that sites, which simply let people connect, would be a huge success too? This appears reasonable at first glance, but the ability to connect and exchange information falls short of explaining what is truly powering these networks and causing such heavy usage — and even addiction — in so many people.

There have been many sites over the years that have allowed us to simply “connect.”, a popular site from the dotcom era, did this well, yet it no longer exists. LinkedIn is a large site, which connects many people, but it has never exploded in the same way Facebook has, despite being around for longer. These sites have connected people without helping them create the social objects that give them a centerpiece around which to connect.

A good example of a site which propagates social objects? Flickr. The social objects it creates aren’t just photos, but photo collections, URLs and even commentary. Flickr extends and amplifies — it is a quantum leap from a repository of private photos, reserved for viewing only by people the uploader knows. Any photo on Flickr is capable of being relevant and discoverable — and distributed by unrelated people. Twitter propagates different types of social objects, too. The object is frequently a URL, but users often become the object since usernames can be shared. Comments themselves can even become objects, which people retweet, and around which new conversations are formed.

The question of what creates the glue of social media becomes even more interesting when we look at flourishing social-based destinations and find that people who have no immediate social relationship are somehow connecting. More interestingly, these connections often go beyond a single network, well into the blogosphere. Some conversations travel well beyond a small circle of intimates, moving amongst different sites and occasionally attracting huge traffic, producing mass influence. That phenomenon goes far beyond the social media idea of a “friend.”

Could there be a simple underlying force behind this? Social object theory says the objects are that underlying force. It explains why sites which propagate social objects may be more likely to succeed than those that don’t, and why people who don’t have common social relationships find reasons to connect.

Applying social object theory to marketing campaigns
Social object theory has implications for marketing, and at Razorfish™, we have been quietly putting it into practice for the last 18 months, with great results.

Ready to hear what we’ve learned?
Initially some people within our team thought the theory simply stated the obvious; we weren’t quite sure how we would apply it to digital campaigns but thought there was significant opportunity. We needed to start learning, and, since little has been written about social objects, we have been on a journey of discovery. First, we started considering the theory during the creative phase of project. We quickly found that by shifting our thinking to answer the question, “what makes a great social object?” we could rethink our ideas or optimize existing ones.

During the first months, we did not always set out to produce social objects, but as time passed, our projects took on features organically that one would associate with objects; the objects themselves took on more viral properties, thus becoming more social. Now that scores of projects, which take social object theory into account, have passed through our doors, we use it more strategically.

It has also formed the basis of some big campaigns, notably our Smirnoff Secret Party effort for Diageo which forged some new ground as a social campaign by deploying not one but many objects to allow the big idea to be supported, particularly through social networks rather than just a brand Web site. In this instance, the main social object was “The Smirnoff  Secret Party” which allowed users within social networks to discuss the event, as well as whom the mystery DJ’s might be and where the event might be held. Smaller social objects were deployed in the form of clues and puzzles in a digital treasure hunt for free tickets. Cryptic clues [objects] inspired conversations to take place within social networks between users.
A GPS system, embedded in the clues blog, enabled  users to venture into the real world in an attempt to find hidden tickets that might, for instance, be taped under a park bench. These real world tickets often sparked debate and conversation.

For Lipton Tea (Unilever), we created a site full of smaller game-based objects to enable the bigger object — brain training. This was to communicate an Amino acid called L-Theanine, that was recently proven to keep tea drinkers more relaxed and alert compared to other beverages.
As the digital landscape changes and shifts to a more social one, I believe that using some of the findings and practices detailed below will continue to help us  produce better campaigns. We still need to learn more about social objects and their role in our consumers’ lives, but as we move from outdated, monologue advertising models into dialogue-driven marketing, this theory can help us find better ways to genuinely engage with our consumers.

Here is what we’ve learned so far:
• Social objects can take dozens of forms, including links, videos, images, bookmarks, widgets, events and products like the iPhone. They may also be more abstract (e.g. Christianity or Post Modernism). The more portable the object, the more likely it will succeed.

• Social objects aren’t necessarily viral. It may be enough to simply make them “discoverable.”
For instance, with topical or newsworthy objects (e.g. a plane crashing into the Hudson River) it
would be important to make sure your social object (perhaps an article or video related to the
conversation) is optimized for search, so users can discover it.

• Retro-fitting social objects into traditional campaigns can be very difficult. For instance, a
PUSH message such as “Tastes Like Summer in a Bottle” merely tells the consumer what to think,
which presents a tough challenge for agencies to create digital social objects for. In contrast,
Burger King’s Whopper Sacrifice campaign asked users to sacrifice 10 friends on Facebook in
exchange for a free Whopper. This big idea was in itself a social object, which not only created conversation
but also activated supporting objects such as the application on Facebook.

To make campaigns centered around social objects, we recommend the following practices:
• Define what your social objects are early; they may even form the basis of a big idea.

• Decide whether your campaign is made from a single object — or perhaps thousands of them. For example, is your promotional video the object, or do you provide the tools for consumers to create many more objects around a theme you provided?

• Figure out what makes your social object or objects social and make your social object important, relevant and authentic to consumers.

• Ensure that your objects are portable, rightsfree and can be copied. Ask yourself whether your social object can jump mediums. For instance, can your video be easily described by a blogger or tweeter?

• Determine how long your object will be social. Is it newsworthy or topical? Allow for online debate, discussion and interaction surrounding your objects. Consider creating objects that can be deliberately tagged, tracked and measured.

• Do not assume your social object is, by default, your Web site brand or product. However, your projects probably have social objects already. Identify, build and optimize them.

I’d like to conclude with another quote from Hugh McLeod of, which sums up how we as agencies and brands need to think as we adopt social object theories: “The most important word on the Internet is not ‘search.’ The most important word on the Internet is ‘Share.’”

Historical credits for defining social object theory:
Jyri Engeström, founder of Jaiku Nicolas Bourriaud, author of Relational Aesthetics
External References:

Thanks to Twitter users @zeroinfluencer,
@servantofchaos @gapingvoid @ianlyons @docbaty
@andrewdever for their kind assistance during the
writing of this article.