Marketing Series: Social Capital … what is it?

In my introduction to this marketing series, I wrote how you have to weigh marketing efforts (aka persuasive techniques) with social capital. We are breaking down these ideas, so that we have an understanding of how persuasion works (and therefore marketing etc). What is social capital?

Social capital basically refers to resources you have that are based on social relationships. (So is this the part where you talk about how to be an a-hole and trick people? …. 🤔 … NO). I’ll get this part out of the way. You reap what you sow. Tricking people may work in the short run. Long run. Not so much. (Not to mention it’s just an icky way to live). Back to what social capital is. The idea of social capital is like a bank account that you make deposits into, but the bank is your social network. (I have to say I’m not entirely comfortable with this analogy because it feels exploitive … but it kinda works).

The idea of social capital has become popular over the past few decades, but the idea of it has been around for a while. In contemporary discussions, you may have run across advice writers talking about added value, as part of building your social network and increasing sales or whatever. I’ve read some of those books, and even with a degree in social science, I have often been left with a feeling that I can’t quite grasp what it is. Instead of feeling like the idea is more clear and concrete. I feel like it’s the horizon that I’ll never reach. So let’s see if we can make it more concrete.

Humans are social animals. Some of us like more or less social interaction, sure. But for the most part, we live in some sort of community. We rely on shared labor and resources. Look out your window. You will probably see a road that is paid for by taxes. You probably at some point today have had mail delivered by an organization paid for by tax payers. … I could give more examples. But, you get the idea.

There are also more informal ways that we do this. Have you borrowed lawn mower from your neighbor? Lent a tool? Taken food to a friend who just had surgery? These are also examples of how we share resources with each other.

It’s the sharing that (in part) creates a sense of community. A community forms from sharing resources, but who do you choose to be in your community? You choose people who you have something in common with. Geography. Activities. Likes. Around that commonality you engage in social interaction and resource sharing. These resources can be tangible goods, like roads. They can also be intangible goods, like services. It can also be access to social networks (from reposting) and offers of social proof (likes and comments). Reposting, liking, and comments are basically the currency in social media.

You build social capital by donating/depositing/investing in a community. On social media, you repost/share other people’s posts, you like (or respond with an emoji), and you comment. The entire economy is built on interconnecting social webs and social interaction.

Another way that we both offer social proof and inclusion in our community is by following someone. If you participate in follow loops on Instagram, part of it is for community building. Part of it is also for social proof building.

Although I do participate in follow loops, I’ve noticed that for some of the loops, they are designed more for the organizers than the participants. From some loops I’ve gotten follow/unfollows. These loops feel like pyramid schemes, bit coins, and economic bubbles. A lot of activity based on little substance. When the follow loops are designed for community building purposes, I think that this kind of activity helps to build a community with mutually beneficial exchange of resources, which in turn I think builds a strong foundation of social capital. In other words, getting followers because you have something in common, because they like your content, or you’re doing community building works in everyone’s favor. Getting followers for followers sake it seems to easily collapse.

So what is social capital? It is a resource that is based on social relationships. You do things for other people. They do things for you. You help each other. It’s really not that mysterious. But for some reason, social scientists and advice writers like to use fancy labels for things. (I do see the irony here🤪).


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