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The Social Science of Social Selling

By Martin Kihn | March 21, 2014 | 0 Comments


Social marketers often dance an awkward cha-cha among the competing beats of conversation and commerce. Since we’re comparing digital life to a dance party — and why not? — by now it’s clear that most marketers know:

  • They need to attend the party (social presence)
  • It’s polite to respond when spoken to (community management)
  • It’s neighborly to invite people into conversation on topics they might find interesting (social marketing)

But . . . they struggle knowing when and if it’s okay to pull out the product samples. This week, we focus on the art and science of social selling. One insight that emerged from our most recent Gartner Social Marketing Survey (subscription required) is that most digital marketers are only beginning to explore this rich tundra.

Highlighted research this week provides advice on choreographing your social selling moves:

  • How to use social behavior to trigger buying behavior
  • How to turn social marketing activities into sales
  • How to choose a social storefront

Social selling is not new. To get back to our party, marketers who succeed here are those who are able to do in the digital realm what a previous generation of word-of-mouth marketers did in the room. Consider an insurance salesman in the suburbs in the 1950s: he was a local, a friend or the friend of a friend, and he needed deals to pay the rent. How did he do it?

First, he belonged. There is a concept in social science called “belonging before belief.” It was developed by researchers like Rodney Stark, who studied how coherent social groups get formed. Stark’s research was specifically around cult formation, and he discovered something that surprised the discipline.

In Stark’s original study, one assumption was that people join a movement because they are attracted to its tenets or ideology, and that once they join, they become part of a new social sphere. As it turned out, the opposite was true: people joined the groups Stark studied because friends or relatives were in the group, and over time they came to feel comfortable with the doctrines. Belonging came before belief.

The word social scientists use for this process is the same one marketers use: conversion. Of course, I’m not implying that brands are cults (although some may resemble them), nor that Stark’s findings can be xeroxed by brand community managers. But I do think social marketers can learn a lot from social scientists, who are simply studying how humans act in groups.

The implications of this insight for social selling are:

  1. People are more likely to buy (convert) if they’re already part of the community
  2. They’re more likely to join a community if they believe a friend or peer is already a member
  3. Anticipate that any sale will happen after a period (perhaps a long period) of simply getting comfortable with the community
  4. Communities need an identity — they can’t be generic

Ultimately, our research reminds the marketer that social selling is social first, selling second. There is a right way and a wrong way to approach it in a social context. Just like a well-choreographed dance, it requires the partners to be moving in rhythm before the big closing number.

The Gartner Blog Network provides an opportunity for Gartner analysts to test ideas and move research forward. Because the content posted by Gartner analysts on this site does not undergo our standard editorial review, all comments or opinions expressed hereunder are those of the individual contributors and do not represent the views of Gartner, Inc. or its management.

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