Making the case for social engagement… using Robots

Engaging with audiences over social media is a great way to build brand love. Just look at the success of Oreo, Innocent and Dove. It’s even been shown to improve behavioural brand loyalty and word-of-mouth. Yet many marketing teams are still struggling to make a case for social engagement. It’s up to us to prove we’re sharing gifs and ‘being chatty’ for a reason.

In this article I’m going to explore why social engagement works by looking at a field of study where human-like behaviours have been found to change attitudes toward non-human things: Robotics.

Furbies and the ‘Emotional Turing Test’

An experiment in 2011 discovered that kids treated Furbies differently to other toys. Children will happily hold a Barbie doll upside down for ages. But when it comes to a Furby they can barely stand to hold it upside down for longer than a minute. The reason? They didn’t want to hurt it. Paul Root Wolpe, the Director of the Emory Centre for Ethics, sums up this effect nicely:

“If you create a robot that moves, but just looks like a whole bunch of gears, and you give someone a sledgehammer and say, ‘Smash it,’ they’ll smash it. If you put a little furry cover on it, so now it moves but it looks organic, they won’t hit it.”


Pushing our empathy buttons

It’s well documented that people react more favourably toward robots that speak our language and mimic our behaviours. It’s why robotics engineers have spent decades making robots more lifelike. Furby co-creator Caleb Chung used his mime training (a similar technique to our theatrical Tone of Voice tips) to design gestures that would endear the toy to its owners. Similarly, when my Roomba finishes vacuuming, it sings a little victory song. It doesn’t need to sing in order to vacuum, but the fact that it does pushes my empathy buttons and, as a result, I take better care of my robotic appliance.

The same effect can be seen in the way people relate to brands on social media. Taking the time to share a gif or get involved in #mondaymotivation makes brands more relatable and more human. In short, social engagement stops our communications looking like the marketing equivalent of a ‘whole bunch of gears’.


To quirk or not to quirk

Many brands translate ‘social engagement’ to mean ‘be quirky on Twitter’. However, ‘quirky’ isn’t necessarily the best approach for every brand. Denny’s Twitter and Tumblr pages mimic the playful online content-sharing and conversation style enjoyed by its target audience: young adults. Here, a quirky voice works as it flags the brand as relevant to this audience. The key is considering what voice and which channels are going to appeal to your audience.

For example, Nutmeg’s jargon-free Twitter channel clearly targets new to market investors. Whereas Standard Life Investments LinkedIn channel focuses on more traditional industry language as they’re targeting high-net-worth investors (HNWIs) and professional advisors. It’s a wise move as in the UK alone 61% of HNWIs use social media for at least one financial purpose.

Social engagement goes two ways

What if taking the time to engage makes it easier not just for audiences to relate to their brands, but also for brands to relate to their audiences? After all, unlike robots, there isn’t a set of whirring cogs behind that social media account; there is actually a human being.

I’d argue that when brands genuinely engage with their audience, the people behind the brand get much richer insights into people’s preferences, wants and needs. It reminds us that our audience are living breathing people, and not just numbers on a page. This results in a deeper understanding of our audiences, and better-designed, more human-friendly products and services. I’d call that a win-win all round.

So in conclusion…

Social engagement helps audiences relate to brands and visa versa. It encourages brand loyalty, helps align business goals to audience interests and can even help make products and services more human-friendly.

So next time you see a brand ‘being chatty’ on Twitter, don’t panic. It’s just the humans taking over.