Social Currency

    June 8, 2006

Just finished the first session at the Innovation Marketing Conference, which was a presentation by Russ Klein, the CMO of Burger King.

Short presentation, about 30 minutes or so, with a couple of key themes. The biggest “a-ha” that came out of the session was the idea of “social currency.” Rushkoff defines “social currency” thusly:

“Social currency is like a good joke. When a bunch of friends sit around and tell jokes, what are they really doing? Entertaining one another? Sure, for a start. But they are also using content — mostly unoriginal content that they’ve heard elsewhere — in order to lubricate a social occasion. And what are most of us doing when we listen to a joke? Trying to memorize it so that we can bring it somewhere else. The joke itself is social currency. “Invite Harry. He tells good jokes. He’s the life of the party.”

Think of this the next time you curse that onslaught of email jokes cluttering up your inbox. The senders think they’ve given you a gift, but all they really want is an excuse to interact with you. If the joke is good enough, this means the currency is valuable enough to earn them a response.

That’s why the most successful TV shows, web sites, and music recordings are generally the ones that offer the most valuable forms of social currency to their fans. Sometimes, like with mainstream media, the value is its universality. In the US right now, the quiz show “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” is enjoying tremendous ratings because it gives its viewers something to talk about with one another the next day. It’s a form of mass spectacle. And, not coincidentally, what is the object of the game? To demonstrate one’s facility with a variety of forms of social currency! Contestants who can answer a long stream of questions about everything from sports and movies to science and history, are rewarded with a million dollars. They are social currency champions.”

It is currency, like the greenback, that we exchange with those around us as part of our everyday interactions. In other words, “social currency” is the stuff we talk about with our friends, and colleagues, and family.

Burger King’s Klein centered his presentation around this idea of social currency. (It was, in fact, a central them of BK’s investor road show as part of their IPO.) Is is the core of how they market. In his words, the reason BK markets is invoke the “Did you see that?!?!” factor around the water cooler. They see their marketing as a means to add BK memes to the “social currency” supply.

What other organizations do you think are very accomplished at adding “social currency” to the environment? Who gives us things to talk about?

Bonus question: In particular, do you agree with Klein’s assertion that Burger King is accomplishing its goal in this area?

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