Marketers have never had this amount of marketplace to work with…or social noise to wade through. While it opens the door to seemingly endless opportunities, it’s both a blessing and a hurdle. But we’re living front and center in the “experience economy.” A term surfaced in 1998 by Harvard Business Review, and now super relevant in today’s socially-driven society. When authors Joseph Pine II and James H. Gilmore initially introduced the concept of experience economy, they spoke of outsourcing experiences, like birthdays at Chuck E. Cheese’s or Discovery Zone, where everything is staged and personalized for you. Today this idea has evolved and looks a bit more like socially-engineered pop-ups, curated subscription services, even branded hotel chains. People crave brand and retail experiences that can adapt as rapidly as their social-fueled lives are changing. Their desires lie in more meaningful, tailored experiences and fewer material things. Some tend to see social as a barrier disconnecting people from real life experiences. Yet more than any other channel, social drives and invokes the concept of the experience economy and the human nature behind it. It just looks a little different today, as social forces brands to wear their identities and values on their sleeve. To succeed in the social experience economy, cultivating trust, transparency and relationships are crucial. The tried and true exchange of goods and services hasn’t been enough for people in a while. Services are now a stage, goods the props and the experience you provide is what people ultimately walk away cherishing—it all better be worth a standing ovation.

Set the stage for active participation

The way people view their role in the market has changed—they no longer want to passively consume or have strategies positioned at them, they want to actively take part and co-create with the brands they love. Social drives this shared experience through building on that communal feeling. Look at bloggers and influencers. By nature, their medium fosters a sense of online community. And those communities are fully invested in the brands they rally around because they become part of the journey. In these and similar scenarios, customers are not just an output at the end of a funnel, or one side of a transaction—they have equity in your growth. Expectations around transparency are growing daily. And brands are finding that long-term relationships inspires long-term trust. When people feel like they’re clued in, they’re more forgiving of hiccups or inconveniences they may experience with you along the way. According to Sprout’s Brands Get Real data, for brands that have worked to develop a history of transparency, nearly nine in 10 people are more likely to give them a second chance after a bad experience. And 85% are more likely to stick with them throughout a crisis. Sophia Sherry, Head of Social at The Skimm, recently sat down with me at an event in New York to share some thoughts around how brands can foster this sense of transparency and community. Throughout our conversation, she stressed the role trust plays being vital to expanding your brand not just across social, but through other channels. “When you launch a new venture or make a mistake, [your community is] willing to stay on that ride with you,” Sherry said. Inviting your community to be a part of the ride doesn’t mean relinquishing control. In fact, it puts you at the helm of conversations happening around your brand. There’s a clear return on breaking that proverbial fourth wall and folding your audience into your story.

Honor insights gained from shared experiences

A lot of this can sound like “head in the clouds” marketing. But numbers don’t lie. Statistically, experience data is the new currency for big business. Less than 25% of companies consider themselves good at making changes to business based on customer insights. That’s likely because 86% of marketers feel they’re collecting too much operational data (sales leads, email click throughs, etc.) rather than data that drives better customer experiences. Brands that are disrupting the industry are the ones taking a people-first approach, leveraging the experience where their customers live—social. Instagram Stories has become a haven for the companies that want to share a little bit of themselves to the world. It’s where brands and the C-suite alike are answering peoples questions, showing glimpses of employer brand to offer a window into things deeper than office culture and get at the heart of a brand’s goals and values. Assunta Catalano, Social Media Manager at Kiss Products, joined the conversation with Sophia and me and shared her thoughts around cultivating a social presence. She thinks the key to compelling, transparent content is the personality behind it. “I can’t tell you how many DMs we get when we do a behind-the-scenes,” Catalano said. “You’re literally texting people back. So it is a personal relationship that you’re forming.” There’s a reason communication is the crux of any relationship: humans are emotionally driven by the underlying desire for acknowledgement, connection and mutual respect. For so long brand identities have cultivated—and been heralded for—traits like being clever, witty or funny. It works, but what about being honest, trustworthy, and even vulnerable? It’s these authentic characteristics of humanity that get glossed over in business and much of marketing, yet the best environment to display them is often social. Of course, being charismatic and being authentic aren’t mutually exclusive—but a brand without the latter would be unfinished in today’s marketing landscape. Sprout data shows that the traits people identified as most important are honesty, helpfulness and friendliness. In fact, 68% of people expect brands to participate in conversations they’re directly mentioned in on social. This kind of experiential relationship requires more than marketing tactics. It’s the hard but necessary work of cultivating emotional connection, an everlasting brand identity. Data shows that values are the most coveted topic people want brands to communicate transparently about on social. It goes to show that people aren’t just looking for behind-the-scenes peeks or well-crafted PR crisis comms, they’re looking for a living, breathing identity. “Building those intimate relationships, just me talking to you like a friend, is really important,” Sherry said, noting the range of topics discussed on TheSkimm varies widely. “So when I do want to tell you about mental health or the tax exchange, you’re going to listen to me, because I’ve built that equity with you.” The same way we connect to people and personalities, brands have a space to cultivate their own persona for a community to embrace online. When you don’t fill that void, you’re making it harder for people to connect the dots between your brand and their life. Brands that have intelligently embraced traits like transparency and vulnerability find that their customers tell their story just as well as they do. A longstanding leader in experiential marketing, Dove, has a clear identity and wears its values on its sleeve. The acclaimed Real Beauty campaign is an ongoing collection of ads that feature real women exploring their insecurities and discovering the beauty in self-acceptance. It’s an effort that aligns the brand’s marketing so harmoniously with its mission statement. They’ve been able to change public perception to a brand that authentically champions women’s empowerment and wants to change the conversation around beauty. As an accompaniment, Dove hopped on the pop-up trend and created its first “wellness bubble” pop-up experience in Paris, positioning them even closer to the daily lives of its customers. While this is an optimal example—a brand crafting a full-circle experiential campaign from ads to pop-ups—it’s not a new example. This should be the norm. More brands need to be connecting these dots and executing holistic, values-driven, experiential marketing. Creating a memorable experience, increasing customer loyalty and supporting a sense of strong brand identity—it’s all there. That’s how you establish your brand experience in the new world of social selling.

Take a cue from the crowd

There’s always more than meets the eye—and no one know this better than marketers. In every campaign, there’s ongoing work, detailed research and constant prep happening behind the curtain. In the experience economy, success is rooted in breaking away from traditional methods of reaching your customers. The same way that they themselves are breaking away from traditional buying habits. Gleaning insights from data and using social listening or other forms of monitoring helps you adapt alongside the rapid change of social. It enables you to see around the corner, predict trends before they explode and move at the speed of the social conversations happening around your brand. Brands that adapt to this change are outpacing competitors not only in customer care, but product development and transformative decision-making. There’s so much opportunity for real connection when you lean on data to drive innovative paths, rather than regurgitating outputs that your audience has experienced before. While i’m certainly not their target demo, I appreciate a solid story: San Francisco-based bra powerhouse, ThirdLove, has used an inspiring data-driven approach in order to drive growth in a crowded industry and create just the right brand experience for its community. The online-only company considered the traditional brick and mortar route, but instead went with the instinct to let its customers’ form their retail path. The company gathered 600 million data points from over 11 million women, culled from an online questionnaire. Going the extra mile to understand not just what they believe people need, but what they’re customers want led them to create both an experience and an end product that fit its target customers’ lives most wholly. ThirdLove chose to challenge existing retail and iterated on its online-only model by making a try-before-you-buy program. In 2016, more than 75% of ThirdLove’s new customers came from this program. Through personalized ads that showed visual examples of issues its customer base identifies with and re-inventing a vital aspect of the modern woman’s shopping experience, the brand was able to gain the trust of its target audience without a physical brick and mortar presence at all. With veteran lingerie giant, Victoria’s Secret, taking up a third of the market, ThirdLove is creeping up on them with only five years in the industry. They’re leveraging their insights and taking bold routes to extend their message to a larger audience. Moves like this pay off in more ways than one. First of all, millennials are becoming the largest living generation, effectively taking over a significant chunk of the population. The key difference between Millennials and yesterday’s consumers is the demand for an inside look at a company’s values. Sprout data shows that values rank the highest amongst product info and even employment practices for Millenials. People demonstrate everyday that they’re doubling down on that desire and expecting brands to address what they stand for and who they are through the experiences they create. The brands that are smart enough to listen and take a cue—much like ThirdLove has—are reaping the benefits of a loyal community. The brands that aren’t listening, are learning what that means in today’s market.

Earn that standing ovation, over and over

Branded experiences no longer live in a bubble: experiential social unifies the siloed mediums that all your marketing efforts used to live in and creates truly loyal customers. It’s your job as a marketer to continuously innovate and take the people’s lead when it comes to developing the sort of immersive, total-experience strategies that elevate your brand at every touchpoint. Your community is savvy. It’s made up of enlightened people who are hip to how things work. And social has empowered them to not only be in tune with what they want, but to put the pressure on brands to “get it right” or risk losing their business. At the end of the day, you’re not just trying to convince people of your product’s worth—you’re showing them what their life can look and feel like with your brand in it.