#HBRLDN panel Wed 19 June 2013Thanks Filip Matous for inviting me along to a Harvard Business Review panel on social business last Wednesday, 19 June. The panellists (pictured above, left to right) were: Joshua Macht, Group Publisher, Harvard Business Review, Jimmy Leach, Director of Digital Entertainment, GEMS Education, Nathalie Nahai, Web Psychologist, and David Keene (chair), Head of Enterprise Marketing for Google.

After Harvard Business Review rebranded in 2009, said Joshua, he and his colleagues found themselves asking how to “go deeper” with their audience. Face to face events such as tonight’s panel are an aspect of the new approach (and they’re a good idea). But as brands reach out to customers, are customers moving in a different direction altogether?

We’re moving away from loose, ‘one-size-fits-all’ online communities like Facebook and Twitter to platforms that enable niche, targeted tribalism, said Nathalie. She doesn’t think many brands are aware of this.

Like the boring guest at a dinner party, brands risk being left high and dry while the real action moves to the kitchen, the garden or possibly the downstairs loo.

Loyalty to brands is over-stated, said Jimmy. Consumers are promiscuous, especially when consuming digital content (harder for others to see what you’re doing). When it comes to social media in particular, rewards for brands are slim: we need to ask ourselves what constitutes real and meaningful interaction.

Yes – where is the ‘real and meaningful’ interaction? And is it possible for consumers to ever have this with a brand? No doubt the best social communicators (usually marketers) believe they are being genuine, even while they are being paid by their employer to do so. But at the end of the day, the brand is communicating with the consumer because it wants to build a relationship in order to sell something. Consumers are aware of this – which is why they are so fickle.

This very real barrier between customer and seller is only occasionally transcended. When it is, the result is impressive: David cited last year’s O2’s “masterclass” in dealing with customer abuse as a case in point.

For brands to start working more closely with consumers, they need to share similar goals. The rise in cause marketing (for example) is an indication that some savvy brands are trying to do this. But a brand’s relationship with its consumer base is always going to be symbiotic, it’s never real “love”, is it? Maybe marketers need to appropriate this, and move on.

Learning how to use Twitter isn’t about seeing the bird, it’s about behaviour change, said Jimmy. All too true – but first we, as commentators, need to pull out all the stops and move the conversation forward. Fair play to this #HBRLDN panel – because there were some glimmers of that on Wednesday night.

For a detailed tweet-by-tweet breakdown, see my Storify.