Finding a one size fits all solution is very appealing and based on what I’ve read around the web, that seems to be the general attitude surrounding social media engagement. “Well, if it’s working for Nike, we should use it too!”But I want to examine these audiences as my experience tells me that their usage behavior is informed by the type of relationship they have with differing entities.

Here are the relationships as I have interpreted them:

Communicative – Typically found between friends and family. Social media channels are used for interaction of a communicative nature in which thoughts, ideas, conversation and life are shared back and forth. This is an arena that marketing teams new to social media wrongly believe that they will fall in once they begin their outreach efforts. They are, in fact, closed off from this stream no matter the depth of the relationship they believe has been forged, they will never become friend or family.

Symbiotic – Successful for-profit entities engage in symbiotic relationship building. Finding audience members (aka consumers of their product) that want to promote their product through their approval of it. It is a powerful tool to harness, the value of a happy customer, and it is meaningful to both sides. Nurturing and valuing these advocates/champions can please them further which in turn increases reach and impact of message. In addition to building individual relationships, value added engagement such as providing content beyond product being sold serves the community while bringing attention to the brand/company. A great example would be high quality behind the scenes images from the Olympics posted to Instagram by a sporting goods retailer. Giving people something they might otherwise not get while drawing attention to the brand as a whole. Trust building through generosity.

Parasitic – Now, parasites are generally seen as a negative, the word itself heavy with negative connotation. However, most academic/non-profit entities are engaging with parasitic audiences. Because nothing is being sold, there is no product, typically a cause or concept is being championed and asking people to help support it. It is important, then, to remember that the audience is looking for a stream of information and engagement . . . from the entity, but without intention to reciprocate and engage in return. Their engagement comes in the form of support of the cause. Social media then, becomes a form of stewardship of a constituency while serving as an outlet to keep the audience informed. Another major difference in the academic/non-profit social relationship is that any particular audience member may or may not have anything in common with another.While philanthropy may be a hobby for some, it is not a foundation on which relationships are based, it is an action as a result of relationships formed. The academic side is even more parasitic than the non-profit side. Prospective and current students are happy to use social media . . . to engage with each other. They just want information from a school or center or club. Faculty are the same, they are not interested in engaging with students through a third party, they will engage directly. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, students are a transient entity, their time at an institution exists solely to achieve a goal before departing. Therefore, any social media manager operating in an academic setting must remember that they are there to service their audience and not expect relationships to form.

Self-Serving – A new group (not entirely new) has surfaced and they are self serving. You might ask, “Is this not parasitic?” Yes and no. The self-serving group can be challenging to identify and engage because they can fall into any of the other categories and can be useful so long as their needs are being met. In a communicative relationship, the self-serving might be looking to bolster their activity or otherwise gain more attention from others by engaging with you.

In a symbiotic relationship, the self-serving will advocate and champion on your behalf so long as you supply them goods/services/praise. They are a false advocate/champion, they care only for personal reward and not because they value a product/service being offered. They might prove valuable as you may gain reach with them, but they are essentially acting as paid marketing.

In a parasitic relationship, the self-serving as seeking additional information/resources in order to hold it over others or to otherwise serve their needs. Wikipedia might be a fantastic example in which most of us behave as self-servers towards it. Very few engage in and act to improve/promote it as a tool, but we gladly use it for writing papers, winning silly arguments, gaining knowledge or whatever other use one can think of.

And this brings me to my final point, a person who is a champion to one brand may not be willing to champion another. Or a parasite of one entity might be willing to form a communicative or symbiotic relationship with another. As social media continue to mature as a concept, we are seeing major brands mistakenly identify “high value social media users” who have large followings so that they can engage them to help sell their product. They may agree to champion your product, but they will do so as a self-server and the rest of your audience may pick up on it and see them as paid advertising. A certain car commercial comes to mind where social media stars are given free vehicles in hopes that they will energize and engage their communities. The car is simply payment, they are nothing more than temporary staff who are serving their own needs for reward.

The best engagement and growth is organic. The truest advocates and champions are those who found value in your product/services/institution/cause/etc and wanted to share with others. Just be wary of what your audience wants from you and avoid using a one size fits all approach, it doesn’t.