We have read this a thousand times: Social media and smartphones have provided every individual with the potential to become a global influencer. As a result, we have never lived in a world where things -- good and bad -- spread so quickly, at such scale, with such little control, leading to rapid successes and failures.
While people still scratch their heads to understand why Kony 2012 or Justin Bieber became global sensations, a guy appeared out of nowhere, singing lyrics no one outside Korea can understand, and hit the billion-view mark on YouTube.
Almost at the same time, the millions of users who made Instagram one of the fastest success story of the social media era forced the popular picture-sharing company to give up its highly criticized decision to claim ownership of every photo uploaded thanks to its app.
This happened over the past month and there are hundreds of other stories illustrating how social media has empowered people like never before. The figures are mindblowing. 340 million tweets are shared each day. Facebook claims more than a billion accounts and over six million views every minute. YouTube is available on 350 million devices allowing more than four billion hours of video watched each month leading to a trillion views in 2011.
But social media provides more than just information on the biggest scale ever: they facilitate peer-influence. Facebook Pages inform whether a product is good or not. The number of "Likes" and "Shares," and text comments also provides the "user-consumer" with information regarding what others are doing. And peer-influence is something very efficient in convincing people to act, much more than accuracy of information.
Besides, the use of Likes or retweets on a product gives a strategist social, and all too often express legal permission to a brand or company to connect and monitor individuals, to share news and offers, in what is often perceived as a non-invasive and non-threatening context.
But social media also empowers the consumer to circulate very quickly information that can harm a brand or product. It therefore demands a strange balancing act for the marketing profession whether the product to promote is food, a car or a presidential candidate.
Many of the tricks of the trade are effective because they are not well known. If consumers were exposed more conclusively how they are being influenced with words, images and videos, they may prove less open to persuasion. In addition, with social media, people are not just passively informed, they can also seek information intentionally, and share it. There is a major difference here. A significant body of literature in psychology reports that people trust more their peers than experts in many contexts. And social media provides a fast channel to share information with our peers and therefore to expose the marketer's magic to the public.
This is what happened when Kellogg's Kashi brand ran into trouble after a grocer in Rhode Island decided to withdraw one of their products from his shelves. He had learned from a little-seen report that the cereal contains 100 percent genetically modified soy as its primary ingredient. He then wrote a note explaining the issue, which customers found on the empty store shelf. In the past, a consumer in France, Germany, or even another town in Rhode Island would never have found out about an isolated event like this. Today, the decision of a single retailer spread internationally almost overnight after a picture of the note he wrote and the empty shelf was put on Facebook. Within days, Kellogg's was forced to make major announcements to change in their purchase of GMO foods.
The power of social media has not remained unnoticed from political strategists. Recently, with a group of Young Global Leaders of the World Economic Forum, we participated in a public leadership bootcamp in Washington, DC. We went to the White House, the Capitol and had the unique opportunity to interact with key strategists of the 2012 U.S. presidential campaign. They introduced us to the "star" method of the victorious Obama strategy: micro-targeting. In a nutshell, this consists in collecting lots of data on the individual behavior of voters to design more efficient evidence-informed communication and influence tactics. A lot of the data came from large databases bought by each candidate's team but a significant portion was provided spontaneously by people via social media platforms.
Why would people intentionally give information that could be used to influence them?
One could say that this is not a very rational behavior. Indeed, but newsflash: people do not behave like rational agents despite the lies we are telling ourselves everyday -- and the best wishes (and efforts) of standard economists in charge of policymaking in many countries.
First because we are not agents but human beings! Second because we are not rational. Nor though are we (totally) irrational. And this is not a problem or an "anomaly," as economists put it when our behavior and decisions deviate what their standard theory predicts. Moreover, the old way of categorizing behavior as either rational or emotional, as convenient as it is, is not supported at the brain level. What neuroscience has taught us over the past decade is that we are "emorational," that is emotion and rationality are so functionally interdependent at the neurobiological level that it is hard to distinguish the workings of one from the other. We and others have illustrated this experimentally in the context of moral judgment and economic decision making. A technique (repeated Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation) allowed to temporarily perturb the functioning of a (so-believed) rational part of the human brain leading for people to make even more rational choices (economically speaking). Emorationality is a new framework and, guess what, as usual, marketers not only love that but they have embraced it way before many other fields.
A study published by neuroscientists at Harvard University hints at another reason why people put so much personal information online: sharing information about ourselves delivers a strong reward to the human brain. The empowerment of the consumers and voters thanks to social media therefore spans multiple levels of what makes us human. From knowledge to social interactions, from information and human behavior to neurobiology.
Social media have, at the same time, provided marketers with an unprecedented amount of information and signed the death certificate of the gross commercial strategies they have been using for decades. More than just software platforms, they have infiltrated individual lives to a huge extent, from the younger generations to the elders. As a consequence, they have modified some of our behaviors and created brand new ones that cannot be explained by classical psychology or economics. The use of big data and behavioral scientists during President Obama's successful 2012 campaign should inspire beyond the political sphere.
The future leaders in marketing will most certainly be those who have already started to work together with psychologists and neuroscientists to explore how the human mind deals with the interdependence of real-life and novel digital behaviors, in what is now being referred to as cyber-psychology and virtual collective consciousness as we coined it with psychologist Yousri Marzouki last year.
Social media has become equally a powerful and dangerous ally for marketers and for consumers. A double-edged sword that each should manipulate with great care.
Olivier Oullier, PhD, is full professor of behavioral and brain sciences at Aix-Marseille University. He also works as a strategist for governments and corporations. In 2011, the World Economic Forum named him a Young Global Leader. He can be followed on www.twitter.com/emorationality
Mark Turrell is the founder and CEO of marketing agency, Orcasci, and a 2010 Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum. He can be followed on www.twitter.com/mark_turrell