We chat to psychologist Dr Paul Marsden at Syzygy Group about the notion of the ‘extended self’ and hear why brands that help consumers manage their identities online will thrive in the future.
Who’s more real? The version of yourself lolling in front of the TV in your dressing gown with a tablet balanced on a pizza box? Or version 2.0, striding heroically through the virtual realm posting impeccably cool content and filtered Instagram pics?
Without getting existential about it, while one version is packaged for public consumption, the other probably isn’t. There’s nothing new in the observation that our public and private selves aren’t always equivalent, but according to psychologist Dr Paul Marsden at Syzygy Group, it’s our online activity that’s beginning to define us as we curate – or simply create – our digital personas. Welcome to the age of the extended self.
The concept is derived from Richard Dawkins’ 1982 book The Extended Phenotype. “The idea is that you can’t understand a bird until you understand its nest,” says Marsden. “You need to look at what the bird creates.”
By analogy, if brands are to understand what motivates consumers, they must recognise that what we create online – our Likes, Pins, Tweets and comments – don’t just express who we are. They also express how we want to appear.
“As our lives become more digitised, how we are in real life becomes less important,” says Marsden. “With the idea of the always-on user, so much is based on how we present ourselves digitally. There’s a fluidity to how we see and define ourselves.”
Help Yourself To Sell
Since the arrival of mass-media advertising, brands have sought to present themselves as helping consumers. That involves shaping public perception of a brand and enabling consumers to communicate something about themselves through their buying decisions.
“Digital has introduced a huge new aspect to our ‘selves’ that brands have to manage,” says Marsden. “That involves what I call ‘impression management’. The extended self is becoming more important because brands have the opportunity to help users mould an impression of themselves.”
For Marsden and the team at Syzygy this is part of a broader shift in perception and, they suggest, the internet is fast becoming the arbiter of reality. With #NoMakeUpSelfie, #RightToBeForgotten and #TheFappening, 2014 wasn’t just the year intimacy went public. It was also the year our extended selves started reaching back into the material world to shape the media agenda and our personal lives. If it didn’t happen online, it wasn’t (or may as well not have been) for real.
What Not To Like
Marsden’s work involves helping brands adapt to these new technologies and behaviours, so what challenges and opportunities are presented by the notion of the extended self?
“Ice Bucket Challenge was a watershed moment last year as brands realised they didn’t need to plaster their logos over everything and talk about themselves. The opportunity now is to let people talk and conduct themselves online as they like. That ethic is going to be increasingly important. When you Like something on Facebook it’s got nothing to do with what you actually like and everything to do with what you want to beseen to be liking. People also want a sense of discovery and to feel they’ve found cool stuff themselves.
In the past users were more likely to Like something a million other people had already liked. There was a follow-the-crowd mentality. But recent research I’ve done with Gen-Y and Gen-Z suggests it’s the exact opposite now. Everyone wants to be the first person to discover something, and the fact that a brand already has a million Likes is a really good reason not to Like it. In this sense I think we’re seeing a backlash against the democratisation of social media. Rather than sharing everything, people want to feel different and separate. From a generational perspective, there’s a real distinction between Gen-Y and Gen-Z. Whereas Gen-Y were part of a ‘share everything, let it all hang out’ culture online, Gen-Z are much more cynical.”
Real-Time = My Time
That cynicism tends to be focused on brands that haven’t earned the right to communicate with Gen-Z in their favoured channels. This is a demographic that places far more trust in its peers than in advertisers. Conventional thinking has greater personalisation as part of the solution to that problem. But, says Marsden, this may be to misunderstand what it is that consumers actually want from brands.
“The whole idea of brands trying to anticipate people’s needs and personalise experiences is one of the biggest mistakes they’re making. What consumers want is for stuff to be available on demand, which is not the same thing. At Syzygy we’ve been looking at real-time marketing. Time, in this context, is relative. What ‘real-time’ means is my time. Availability on demand is more important than personalisation. People want clear value propositions from brands and for services to be available on demand, via mobile. Digital will be a channel not just for communicating value, but for delivering value, and it’ll be on demand rather than personal.”
Allied to this is what Marsden calls the “Uberfication of everything” – the subject of his next book. “The on-demand driver-for-hire mobile service has become the poster-child for digital disruption and convenience tech,” he writes on Syzygy’s Digital Intelligence Today blog. “Digital innovators are seeking to ‘Uberfy’ the world with convenient on-demand mobile services that digitally and conveniently match demand with supply.”
The lesson for marketers is that digital disruption isn’t just about technology. It’s about economics. “The digital economy is incredibly Darwinian in that it favours the survival of the fittest,” Marsden says. “The first thing you learn when you put aside all the jargon and techno-babble is that digital rationalises everything. It strips out time and effort. It makes things faster, better, cheaper and more efficient. It took out the inefficiencies in the music industry. Now it’s taking them out in the broadcast TV networks and even taxi-driving. Everywhere it goes it takes out inefficiencies. Now, that sounds good. But it’s also worth remembering that a lot of people’s livelihoods have depended on those inefficient markets.”
Demand And Disruption
So, on-demand services like Uber offer consumers greater options, enabling them to make what Marsden calls ‘value-maximising’ decisions. To put it another way, services like this help us to act in (what we perceive to be) our best interest and prioritise convenience above all else.
The lesson for digital marketers, he explains, is that they need to target inefficient markets with information, choice and a disruptive value proposition that has clear economic, functional and psychological benefits.
Interestingly, Marsden has analysed the psychology of the Uber model, and his findings lead us back to the extended self. Services like Uber offer a combination of instant gratification, effort-saving simplicity and the comforting illusion that the world revolves around us. As our digital
identities become increasingly important, it makes sense that we should seek new forms of emotional sustenance online. As consumers, one of the things we want from brands is to be reassured that it really is all about us. As, increasingly, it is.