Unless your customers care so passionately about your brand or product that they pay for the privilege of wearing your logo, they probably don’t care enough to be part of an online conversation about your brand. If you’re anybody other than Apple, Nike or Coke, you’re probably going to need some other basis for convening a conversation that connects you to your customers.

That’s the insight at the heart of a blog post I published last week on Harvard Business Online. It makes the case for the RGM approach we’ve described in more detail on our site, and which was covered in the Globe & Mail last March. You can explore RGM in detail on the Dear SoSi Q&A, “How can we engage our customers in an online conversation if they’re not interested in talking about our products or brand?

In one of those crazy, only-on-the-web moments, a friend showed me a report released on the very day my post went live on HB. It was a 4-page strategy document from Forrester analyst Josh Bernoff, on “Social Technology Strategies for ‘Boring’ Consumer Brands“. Here’s the executive summary:

Even if your brand isn’t Apple or Nike, you can still benefit from the surge in social technology. The trick is “borrowed relevance” — creating an application that’s about your customers’ problems and then tapping into that application. Building around customers’ problems means you can accomplish goals including generating research insights, energizing fans, getting customers to support each other, or even crowdsourcing your marketing. But no matter the objective, the key is to recognize that you’re creating a long-term asset, not an advertising campaign.

Forrester’s “borrowed relevance” is analagous to our notion of “reflected glory”: we’re all focusing on the same question of how brands can engage customers when customers don’t want to talk about their brands. And there’s a lot we agree on:

  • Speak to your customers’ interests: “What do your customers love to talk about?” we asked. Forrester advises, “Figure out what your customers want to talk about. “
  • Go easy on branding: We say: “Brand as lightly as possible” Forrester notes: “Brand too heavily, and you’ll drive the customer away.”
  • Offer concrete value: “People will discover and return to your site if it offers tangible value,” we say. Forrester’s advice: “Support the people you’re helping.”
  • Create a reason for people to participate: Our view is “that compelling reason is your site’s core concept: the problem you’re offering to solve, the specific conversation you’re convening, or the kinds of people customers can meet on your site. ” In Forrester’s world, it’s “creating an application that’s about your customers’ problems.”

But there is a fundamental difference in our approach, too. For Forrester, problem-solving is the whole game:

Your customers don’t want to talk about your brand — that’s why you advertise, to force your messages on them in the context of something they’re interested in. But in social applications, forcing fails; you’ll have to get your customers talking about their own problems. Your product does solve a problem, right? Get your customers connecting or helping each other out around that problem, and you’ve created a platform to help spread your own messages.

We agree: problem-solving can be a great way for “boring” brands to win reflected glory. But not every successful RGM play is based on solving a problem – and that includes some of the cases that both we and Forrester point to.

The Amex Members’ Project invokes customers’ passion by engaging them in charitable giving – something people feel passionate about, but hardly a problem to solve. Liberty Mutual has the Responsibility Project — again, personal resposibility is something people care about, but I don’t lie awake wondering how to encourage people to be more responsible.

Those two examples — which appeared in both my HB article this week, and in the Forrester report — speak to the limitations of the problem-solving paradigm for identifying social media opportunities. It narrows your vision, and it reduces your potential impact.

Because let’s face it: people spend lots of time online, engaged in conversations that have no immediate problem-solving value. You could construct the experience of Twittering, or updating your Facebook page, as a solution to the “problem” of not being able to keep people up-to-date with your choice of breakfast cereal. It’s more accurate to describe those experiences as offering new value, in the form of enhanced social connectedness and personal expression.

You can create new value, too — and it doesn’t have to speak to your customers’ immediate problems. What it must do is speak to something they feel passionate about, and offer some (social, informational or expressive) benefit for engaging with that passion.

Focusing on passions rather than problems is what inspires the most powerful examples of reflected glory marketing through social media — examples like Amex, Liberty, and the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty. Each of these has gone far beyond the transactional character of online problem-solving, and instead moved the customer relationship to a new plane: a plane in which the company partners with customers in tackling an issue they both care passionately about. And that’s not just good for your customer, or good for your brand: it’s good for all of us.

Whether you decide to go for “reflected glory” or “borrowed relevance”, you’ll find the Forrester report useful. Take Forrester’s tips for building brand and marketing insight, and our tips for finding your best niche, and you’ve got the groundwork for a powerful and effective conversation.