Humans are social creatures, and we seek to build those social bonds through the quickest and most efficient ways possible. Without strength of numbers we never would have survived the wilderness, and together we have come quite far.
But if social gathering is the result, what was the cause? What drives people to attract, and more importantly to stick together?
"We'll always have Paris"
The question of what binds people together into a social group is not a new one. It has simply been rephrased. Why do two people, complete strangers, become friends? Why would two enemies join together? How do two people fall in love?
These are all social events, so they should come as no surprise that their answers are tied to our own question. The same thing that binds people together in everyday life is the same thing that binds people into social circles online: experience.
Common interests and values are important aspects, yes, but experience is what allows for even complete personality opposites to come together. More importantly it is how greater numbers of people, who are so varied and different that they hardly have anything in common, are able to unify under a single banner.
The common experience is that common thread, and sometimes it is the only thing that distinct individuals share. Even if a group eventually disperses, they'll always remember that one time, that one incident. And if they were to ever mention it again, anyone else who also experienced that event would instantly recognize it.
These two splinters of that long-lost mob can now together revel in the nostalgia of the event, and the fact that they can share that memory makes them distinct from everyone else who wasn't present. Two acquaintances can be closer together in this way than even with their respective lovers. That's the power of experience.
"That One Time, In Band Camp..."
Inside-jokes are another example of this. Or funny recollections that are amusing only to the people who had been present, one of those "You had to be there" moments. Internet memes thrive on shared experience, being inside-jokes of a sort themselves.
"What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas" is now a pact between buddies. Saving somebody from choking in a restaurant binds together the savior and the savee, not out of any necessarily moral obligation but simply because they shared a common experience. "Remember that time you saved me / I saved you?"
A lot of viral marketing banks on this notion of experience as a binding agent. When the viral campaign gets big enough it becomes an "event" in and of itself. People start participating in it simply to be part of the experience; even if they had little to no knowledge of what it's for. Anybody who misses out on participating in the viral experience is just that, somebody who missed out on somebody fun.
"I Was There, Man"
Social networks have become the bulletin board for people to both bait and stumble upon others with similar experience.
Everyone who tweeted during a crisis is bound in some way by the fact that all these fellow faceless commenters also underwent the same disaster as them. Even the simple happenstance of an "epic thread", or a long-running stream of comments fueled by some interesting discussion becomes highly memorable; even spawning friendships afterwards as a result.
Two individuals who experience the same adventure can find themselves bound by it; simply because they were the only ones to feel what the whole ordeal was like and that's something no one else can understand. This can happen to hikers, to adventurers, and to two people who later fall in love because of it.
Likewise, when a couple ceases to have new experiences with one another they can start to find themselves getting bored and stagnant, and without that fresh binding glue begin to drift apart. A new experience can keep a relationship strong, because it is a new experience for the participants in that relationship to undergo together and relate over afterwards.
Anyone who's seen a plot-intensive movie understands this; they can only talk about it with others who have also seen that movie. Even if revealing spoilers wasn't an issue, simply retelling the cinematic experience isn't enough. Unless the other person experienced watching the movie like you did, any attempt to relate the feeling of the moment to them just feels lacking and awkward.
Forging Relationships, Building Communities
In social media marketing the old rules of advertising don't always apply. One cannot just "advertise at" somebody; no one is on Facebook to be lectured at. People are on Facebook to relate their own experiences and revel in the experiences of others. Social marketing is all about participating in this social game, as a peer and not as an outsider.
So, if the goal of social marketing is to bind people to the brand/product, to not only attract a loyal following but also retain it, how can we go about this? Through experience. Experience is the real meat behind the viral campaign, but not all experiences have to be viral. A clever advertisement, shared across social media, becomes an "event" in itself; in this case it's an inside joke. It's something to relate to others with while standing around the water cooler. It is...a Superbowl commercial.
Give your audiences an experience, and they'll walk away with an impression, truly something impressed upon them. Now you've given them something they can use to identify with others, and even better now that they have this common experience it distinguishes them from others who don't share that same impression.
Now you have a clique, an exclusive club. And if people want to join that club they're going to have to subscribe to your brand/product in order to be a part of that experience. That's why commercial advertisements on YouTube can still garner so many hits; it's why some people would rather watch the Superbowl ads instead of the big game itself.
That's how brands achieve longevity and make their way into the social consciousness. We've taken part in the experience of the return of Classic Coke, of the Budweiser Frogs, of Apple's 1984 commercial, and even of the terrible Star Wars prequels
The Full Experience
Because it can bind people together and later then bind them to your product/brand, experience is one of the most subtle and powerful tools in any marketing arsenal. It thrives like never before on the Web because social networks were practically built on that same foundation.
When executed properly, the experience of a successful campaign can deliver a tight and loyal audience right into your hands. And with that binding agent people can retain a part of the campaign within them for a long time. In terms of branding and awareness, there is nothing better for the task.
What are some of your favorite experiences, and how have they lingered with you? Do you think the experience of taking part in a viral campaign or ARG (augmented reality game) really cemented you into that community of users?