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Social Media’s Critical Path: Relevance to Resonance to Significance

If Social Media warranted a mantra, it would sound something like this, “Always pay it forward and never forget to pay it back…it’s how you got here and it defines where you’re going.”

This intentional form of alternative giving is referred to as “generalized reciprocity” or “generalized exchange.” And, the idea of giving something to one person by paying another is credited to Benjamin Franklin, which contributes to the definition of “pay it forward.” The capital of this social economy is measured in these productive relationships and those relationships are earned through the constant acts of reciprocity, recognition, respect and benevolence.

How can businesses, which, one could argue, typically represent a “pay it backward” approach (i.e., pay me for my goods and services), thrive in this environment? In my experience as a longtime social media observer who advises companies on how to successfully navigate the new media landscape, the key lies in embracing the linear concept of Relevance, Resonance, and Significance. This approach begins with establishing relevance for your brand and messages, which then achieves resonance, and finally, attains significance and helps to build your company’s social media legacy and augment your other, more traditional brand-building efforts.

To understand this model, it’s important we define the base unit for social media, and that is the social object. What are social objects? They take the form of our tweets, posts, updates, videos, pictures, etc. introduced into social streams. As a result, they serve as the catalyst for conversations and engagement.


The first step on this path to social media success is to make sure your social objects are relevant to your constituencies. And how do you attain that? Just as in any offline conversation, you have to listen. Listen to the conversations that are already taking place, either directly around your brand, or in other affiliated areas. Pay attention to the nuances of these conversations. Play the role of anthropologist here- what cultural components do you observe in these exchanges? What do you see the participants valuing in these exchanges? Until you understand what kinds of conversations are taking place, who is in them, and what they value, it will be hard for you to attain this first critical step of producing relevant, shareable social objects.

Once you feel you’ve done a good amount of initial “field studies” and are ready to engage, it’s important to join the conversation as a person, not some platitude-spewing automaton. Your community will see right through that. Companies have attempted to humanize their brands and products over the decades through mediums and spokespersons, of course. The difference now is that the act of humanizing a brand through a static avatar, compelling bio, and participation in social networks is not enough to earn the attention and trust of desirable consumers, who themselves have become influential in these channels.

The good news? Online behavior already indicates that consumers willfully follow the brands they support and admire. And their responses are consistent when introduced to valuable opportunities that encourage sharing, response, and action. Like email marketing however, every update within social networks either maintains or strengthens the relationship or it breaks it, causing the opt-out act of unfollowing the brand.

Before creating or distributing any social object, ask yourself a few important questions:

– What value am I introducing into the mix?

– What makes this object worthy of attention?

– What action do I want to inspire?

– How does this contribute to our standing within each community?

– How can I make this shareable?


Sharing is an important element in any mutually beneficial relationship and it’s a critical component of successful social objects. Successful sharing of these objects lead to the second step on the path, Resonance. Resonance is measured through the speed and degree at which social objects change hands. To increase the resonance of your social objects, you first have to insure their relevance to your communities. Naturally, the more relevant and compelling the social object is, the greater the likelihood for triggering reactions across the entire social graph, while also creating valuable touchpoints back to the source.

The popular concept of KISS, which once stood for Keep it Simple, Stupid, can be shifted here to Keep it Significant and Shareable. Social objects rich with recognition and reward resonate with individuals and encourage sharing from person to person. Each exchange increases the lifespan and reach of an object.

Sometimes strong resonance is referred to as something “going viral.” It’s a perfectly fine term, but not a good motivation for companies. In my experience, the social objects created solely with the goal of “going viral” will consistently underperform and reduce the likelihood for earning relevance and resonance. Those objects incentivized by thoughtfulness, value, and perhaps even empathy, will gain traction and encourage response and sharing, transitioning from relevance to resonance. And, the ingredients for resonance are readily available for those businesses that pay close attention to the recurring themes in customer conversations, actions, and reactions.

Starbucks has done a good job creating resonant social objects by identifying what communities it had in what channels, and crafting targeted, valuable objects for those respective communities. On Facebook, Starbucks saw an opportunity to reinforce service and personalization by sharing customer stories and experiences, providing personal control of loyalty programs, and introducing discounts in exchange for participation. On Twitter, Starbucks took a different approach, combining service, humor, incentives, customer recognition, and exclusive opportunities. Via Twitter’s new Promoted Tweets, Starbucks offers free coffee for those who promote reusable tumblers to promote recycling. Promoted Tweets are a great way to see if you’ve crossed the bridge to resonance. As Twitter COO Dick Costolo recently emphasized, “Promoted Tweets that don’t resonate with users will disappear.”

Speaking at Mashable’s recent Media Summit in New York, Starbucks’s Vice President of Brand, Content and Online, Chris Bruzzo claimed that social media helped propel last year’s Free Pastry Day, driving more than one million people locations nationwide.

May I have your intention please? It is intention and commitment that breathes relevance into social objects. When we intertwine individual focus with purpose, functionality and benefits we inspire the necessary resonance that prolongs the lifespan of an object.


If we were to break down the concept of RRS into a simple formula, Relevance + Resonance would equate to the overall significance of a brand in these digital communities (R+R=S). Online significance is the earned stature we merit as measured by our actions and words. It is the culmination of reputation, trust, influence, accessibility, value, and capital within each social network. Significance is not measured by size and shape, but instead by affinity and through the collective influence of the actions and reactions that follow every interaction.

Consistently demonstrating relevance over time and continually striving to earn resonance will contribute to the level of significance of any businesses in the long run. In the social economy, businesses that “pay it forward” and actively employ generalized reciprocity as part of baseline engagement and communication strategies increase the value and social capital of the brand in each network. Businesses essentially mitigate a “pay it backward” approach by investing in the communities where conversations are commodities, but reward, insight and information are precious commodities.

Loyalty, advocacy, and action inspire the online/offline behavior that serves as the hallmark of Significance. As such, social media’s critical path or RRS serves as the blueprint to construct a social media legacy.

This is the unabridged version of my recent article in the Harvard Business Review

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64 COMMENTS ON THIS POST To “Social Media’s Critical Path: Relevance to Resonance to Significance”

  1. azeemazhar says:

    Do you think that 'Free Pastry Day' is really Starbuck's creating a 'social object'?
    My sense is that the opportunity is much deeper than that–if 'free' pastry day had been designed by Starbuck's customers, that seems to be getting closer to the opportunity.

    Take the Drucker conception of marketing: “Marketing is not only much broader than selling, it is not a specialized activity at all It encompasses the entire business. It is the whole business seen from the point of view of the final result, that is, from the customer's point of view” or even the Kotler one: “Marketing is the social process by which individuals and groups obtain what they need and want through creating and exchanging products and value with others.” and you see much more holistic, systemic definitions of marketing.

    Yes–one part of it is funnelling people through the door. But this seems to be the *only* part marketers (and social media marketers!) care about.

    The interesting area is how the conversation can profitably take part across all parts of the marketing chain…

  2. Very intelligent article Brian. I particularly liked the question: “What action do I want to inspire?”. I have never truly considered this question before, and it’s a very good one.

    This is something I am going to begin applying immediately to my interactions. Great tip

    Jason (Follow me on Twitter for more social media advice & articles)

  3. Very intelligent article Brian. I particularly liked the question: “What action do I want to inspire?”. I have never truly considered this question before, and it’s a very good one.

    This is something I am going to begin applying immediately to my interactions. Great tip

    Jason (Follow me on Twitter for more social media advice & articles)

  4. Kyle Lacy says:

    as always…good post. Thanks for your insight.

  5. I just wanted to let you know that if these three things are worked in a way we want then its one be the best part ever …

  6. Ben says:

    Listening…a long lost skill.

  7. Pingback: A Click to Action

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