A couple of weeks back I attended MeshMarketing and Hugh MacLeod of Gapingvoid was the keynote speaker.  In his talk he discussed “social objects”.  By his definition a “social object” can be a thing a person or an idea that people talk about.  Hugh talked about working at an ad agency where customers would ask them to get people talking about products like it was as easy thing to do.  His comment was (I’m paraphrasing) “Getting people talking is magic!  They were asking us to perform magic but their perception was that we were just pulling a lever.”  His described how people talk about things they are passionate about and how creating that passion in customers is about more than mere features and functions. “It’s not about features or what you build, that’s important,” he re-iterated “it’s about how people talk about what you produce that matters.”

This isn’t a new concept for traditional marketers.  One of the folks on the panel I moderated (Barry Quinn from Juniper Park) gave the example of car companies sponsoring Formula 1 racing as a way to get people socializing around a brand.  However, that thinking has historically come after the product is delivered.  After it’s released, traditionally companies just had to pay the ad agency to pull the “make people talk about it” lever.

I’ve seen some products coming to market where the social aspects are a key design point, particularly on the B2C side but I haven’t seen much evidence of that type of thinking in B2B.  Rypple (case study here) is a great example.  But frankly, for B2B, those products are few and far between.  I personally, have yet to sit in a planning meeting where how we might inspire a customer’s passion or the “social-ness” of a given feature was really discussed.

The situation gets worse when we talk about infrastructure.  Can companies that sell products as boring as data center hardware inspire passion in a way that translates to sales?  My experience as the head of Nortel’s Green IT initiative tells me it can.  However that experience also taught me that there aren’t many folks on the B2B product side out there that are believers today.  I suspect it’s the reason that so many B2B vendors are being blindsided by technically inferior yet inspirational consumer products pushing their way into the enterprise.  Sure there are some features and functions that have to be there in order to win, but a lot of nice to have features go out the window when higher-order issues like social responsibility, bragging rights or sheer user delight come into play.  Product folks working on consumer products understand this better than their B2B counterparts.

I’m not saying that it’s impossible to have successful products without inspiring people.  It’s possible and I know it because I’ve done it.  I launched a product that generated $80 million in its first year that was as dull as paint and I couldn’t find a single reference to it online outside of our own website.  It did useful yet really boring thing very well at a time when no other product did so people paid money for it.  I don’t think believe that’s changed and there will always be some markets where sheer utility works.

However I also believe that in competitive markets, more social products or products that people really love have a distinct advantage, even when they aren’t the best product for the job from a feature/function perspective.  For B2B product folks increasingly, the magic in our jobs will be figuring out how to inspire our customers and make our products more social.

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