Sep 07, 2012

The Gift Economy & What it Means For Communicators

At Content Marketing World 2012, Mark Bonchek (@MarkBonchek) described two economies – market and gift – how they relate to social and why some brands simply aren’t getting it. While many of us understand a market economy, he offered an example to help us understand what a gift economy actually is. While there are others, I have to use his. There is nothing more universal than helping a friend move. Did you pay that friend in cash money? What about a tough move? Like from the first floor to the third with no elevator? Of course you didn’t. You didn’t write your buddy a check or dole out dollars. As Mark put it, you “paid” your friends with what is traditionally the going currency for helping a friend move – pizza and beer. You wouldn’t pay professionals movers with pizza and beer, because that relationship exists in a market economy, while the other in a gift.

Mark summed up the differences between the two economies this way:

Market Economy –  contractual, transactional, the individual’s status is bought

Gift Economy – communal, relationship-based, individual’s status is earned

If we look at the world of social media, it’s apparent that it exists in a gift economy. We join groups or platforms because we want to engage with like-minded people. We are interested in communities. Our likes, shares and retweets are relationship-based. We want to hear from others, and we want them to listen to us. The experts that we follow or friend earned that position in our life by proving themselves as the go-to on topics that we, personally, care about.

On the other hand, if we are engaged in a transaction, these characteristics don’t exist. We want it. They sell it to us. We walk away. Mark explained that this is exactly why some brands are finding social so difficult. They are trying to engage in financial transactions in the universe of a gift economy. Of course, no one is saying that you can’t sell your product or service to someone through a social channel.  But to do it successfully, you must first build an engaged community. Mark provided some simple tips for doing just that.

  • Build relationships. One-to-one relationships are great, but allowing individuals within your community to build camaraderie with each other is even better.
  • Earn status. Promote your own work or successes, but allow others in your network to do the same thing. This helps to build a shared sense of community.
  • Create a social currency.  What is important to your fans or followers? Is it a discount? A free trial? Is it a competition among each other? Get creative.

While these three tips seem obvious, there are so many brands that simply aren’t doing it. Incessantly pushing your product out to me doesn’t work. And begging me to “like” you certainly doesn’t cut it anymore either.  If you want to be successful in today’s gift economy, you must look for ways to build trust with those who are interested in your brand and find creative ways to engage that community.

Did I mention I’m a sucker for pizza and beer?

Author Stacey Lawson is an account manager with PR Newswire. Follow her on Twitter at @StaceyLawson

1 Comments on Blog Post Title

Mark Bonchek 15:28 EDT on Sep 7, 2012

Thanks, Stacey. Great summary. If anyone is interested in reading more about the Gift Economy, see my Harvard Business blog post at

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