The Three Bears of Social Media Marketing: Part 1 (Mama Bear)


By Sonia Simone

The Ad Contrarian Bob Hoffman, who can always be counted on to spice things up, wrote a thought-provoking post for Copyblogger last week about the lack of real interactivity for the huge majority of Web users.

Bob has long held that the idealistic social media model of a rich, layered conversation replacing traditional advertising doesn't scale, and makes no sense for products like frozen chicken, floor wax, etc. Actually, I believe the expression "complete bullshit" may have come into play.

While I definitely fall into the category Bob calls "online zealot," I also think it makes sense to look at this stuff with your critical faculties fully engaged. One thing I've noticed is that the follow-up conversations I've seen talk about "social media marketing" or "conversation marketing" like it was one thing. In fact, there are a lot of different flavors.

There are three I find particularly interesting, so I thought I'd share those different models with you, along with my take on the pros and cons of each. To make them a little more memorable, each one is associated with one of the three bears. Yes, it's a dopey gimmick, but if I can use cute pictures of bears, you'd better believe I'll take advantage of it.

The customer conversation model

Customer conversation is what I think of as the "Mama Bear" model. It's all about love and connection–except when it's pissed off, at which point it becomes one of the scariest things you will ever encounter.

This is the classic Cluetrain Manifesto paradigm. Instead of mass advertising that gets broadcast to duped, mindless consumers, companies have complex conversations with their customers. Geoff Livingston expands this to say that there are no more audiences or consumers, only communities.

There are two common criticisms of this model. One is that it can't scale–not everyone who likes Budweiser can engage in a conversation with Budweiser.

The other, which I think is more pertinent, is that no one in his right mind wants to engage in a conversation with Budweiser.

There are a couple of things to keep in mind about the conversation model.

It's always a spectator sport

In any given online community, usually no more than 1% of users ever post anything to the conversation. In fact, that number can be far, far lower.

It's a common mistake to assume that the only people influenced by the conversation are the ones who actively add to it. But customers can and will watch how you conduct yourself in a conversation of this kind and make decisions about how trustworthy you are.

Hoffman's certainly right that those lurkers are not really "interacting" with the conversation, they're consuming it. But the interactive model informs their buying decisions all the same.

For bloggers, this means that your commenters may very well not be your customers–but they're providing the entertainment for your customers, and making you look good in front of them. This is not to be sneezed at.

Does that mean it's "not really social media," or that the customer conversation is just a really complicated ad? You can decide for yourself if it's "real social media" or not, and if that question is even important to you.

It works for some organizations and not for others

Southwest Air gets an insane amount of goodwill from its blog "Nuts About Southwest."

At least from my casual observation, the scandal over Southwest's safety rules hasn't cost them their community, although it must have dented it. People feel less LUV when it looks like you're willing to roll the dice with their lives. In fact, when you've convinced them to trust and care about you, it makes the betrayal hurt more. But fresh-faced Southwest employees continue to make heartfelt posts, and those posts receive comments from at least some customers who are still drinking the Kool-Aid.

Scandal or no, Nuts About Southwest works for a couple of reasons. First, Southwest has a folksy, little-guy corporate culture. Most of their employees seem not to hate their jobs, which is actually pretty damned astonishing. Southwest's warm, friendly workforce effortlessly (it seems) give a human face to their blog, and so to their company.

A United or a Delta are never going to be able to successfully reproduce that model. Neither their employees nor their management are wired for it.

Probably more important, there are people out there who actually want to have a conversation with scrappy, personable little Southwest. No sane customer wants to have a conversation with any of the giant airlines, unless it includes a lot of inventive profanity.

It ain't the only way

The customer conversation model has a lot going for it if you have the right kind of organization.

Namely, you need enough articulate, dedicated employees who can keep the conversation going. Even harder (and more important), management needs a heroic level of trust to allow those folks to be honest, even to the point of allowing them to knock the company every once in awhile.

But there are a couple of other models I find extremely interesting–what I call the lurker/spy model (Papa Bear) and the friendly authority content model (Baby Bear). I'll unpack both of those for you in the next few posts.

If you want to learn more about the model I personally find to be juuuussst right, subscribe to the blog feed to make sure you get the rest of the conversation! Catch you in a day or two . . .


  1. James Hipkin says:

    Conversation may be a spectator sport for most but even those who are watching are probably best customers / heavy users of the category or they wouldn’t bother. Heavy users have the power to move your business. A small shift in loyalty can have a significant impact, either positive or negative. Just attempting a conversation, of demonstrating you are interested in their opinion and responsive to opinions when given, has a significant impact on behavior. So I believe that keeping conversation available in the tactical arsenal is important. It doesn’t replace current tactics but, when it’s feasible, include it in the mix.

  2. Evan says:

    Thanks Sonia.

    An excellent analysis.

    I’ve stumbled it – just in case you believe in socail media.

    It sounds like Baby Bear will be the one for me. Looking forward to it.

  3. Ooh, Goldilocks here. Cannot wait for Papa and Baby Bears because we are looking for just right. What a great analogy.

    It’s the blend and the balance. Not one or the other , IMHO.

  4. Sonia Simone says:

    Evan, my guess is you won’t like Papa Bear at all. :)

    I think that’s very smart, James. There’s more room than people think to use these tools in a fairly traditional context.

  5. Love the bear thing. I took the red pill a long time ago, and the cluetrain continues to roll on, unstoppable.

    I really like what you’re saying about those who do not actively participate in the conversation. It’s absolutely true. Most people will never comment on a blog. Compared to the general population, very few people engage in social media. It is still pretty much a thing for the tech elite. And there’s nothing wrong with that, because if you’re selling something, those people have money.

  6. Another company for which social/conversational marketing is a good fit is Zappo’s. They have several blogs on their site and so many of their employees Twitter — perhaps none more so than the CEO — that they have an entire page for those users (

    But again, like Southwest, this was a company that already had a reputation for customer service and communication, so using new forms for that communication to customers is just an extension of corporate identity.

    Looking forward to the Papa Bear model because that also has importance, particularly for companies’ reputation management.

  7. Gabriela says:

    I’m trying to find a clue to this “invisible reader or customer” in my humble case.
    40 years ago all I knew about America was: the hippies, the great literature,
    the beautiful landscape and the greatest rock music (Joe Cocker , Clapton …). I’m a pyrographer, a good amateur I would say, and I love this art and craft a lot. I came to America from Transylvania (very honnest and friendly people live there) and for a decade I’m trying to understand the American, especially since I opened on an on-line shop with a few of my crafts in it, no big deal, only a few sales in one year, but a lot of funny conclusions based on my Google Analytics. Here are a few:
    -none of my customers contacted me before or while purchasing an item, although I keep repeating, through my shop, that I’m a very convo-friendly person. It’s like their silence means “OK, OK, we know it…”.The conversation (always a friendly one) comes after they received the item, and the love I put in my craft is payed back by their great feedback.
    -my visitors come mainly from the South, South-West or New York City (I have no clue why…);
    -before I started a shop makeover based on SEO’s “cold but more professional” keywords, I had item titles like “Have fun cooking with woodburnt roses on a sturdy spoon”, and I sold all my spoons. Lately, my shop is dying (it’s true, I’m not advertising at all). I, somehow, had more fun visiting my own old shop than now: it was more of Me in it.
    I’m an intelligent person who loves to work from home (no boss, please) and I read a lot of articles, trying to sell more and transform my craft into a job, but I have no clue what’s the market and customer I’m targeting..If anybody will have the great patience to read my comment,I apologize for my English.