Marketers and advertisers love to talk about synergies, and the essence of most good integrated campaigns has always been a single powerful idea that goes across different media - producing a campaign effect that's more than the sum of its parts. Thus a lot of synergy is about the simple reinforcement of an idea through its presence in many media, building reach and frequency. But great campaigns can do much more than that – particularly if they create a social effect whereby the audience themselves become an additional means (medium) by which the message is spread. What we all hope for is that the idea be received so rapturously by its audience that they share it with connected individuals (via conversations and social media) giving the idea an extra dimension and a social resonance.

Yet recognition of the power of social phenomena can lead advertisers down a blind alley, because creating a great social media campaign is not necessarily the same thing as creating a great social idea.

Social media is such an important (and obvious) tool in any (social) campaign that it’s easy to become obsessed with it - yet social media is part of the story, not the whole of it. Thus, Amelia Torode, head of strategy at UK agency VCCP, said of their hugely successful CompareTheMarket (CompareTheMeerkat) campaign:

“(Meerkat) was not designed to be a social media campaign, but we believe it will be the social media case study of the year. It was not designed to be a viral campaign, but it has gone viral in a very successful way. It is also not a digital idea, although the campaign would fall flat without”

This is not false modesty, but rather makes the point that it was the power of the creative idea that made “Meerkat” into a social (media) success story. In other words, if you set out to create a social media idea, the result might well be a ‘viral’ campaign that gets talked about by advertising folk in Soho bars, or maybe seen by a few thousand people via Facebook and Twitter. There’s a danger, therefore, that a social media idea might probably remain just that – something that never transcends the medium in which it’s placed. 

Now, I may be exaggerating to make the point, but, as Torode also said, “Increasingly, clients are looking for social ideas rather than social media ideas. Ideas that are inherently participative, spanning traditional and social media”.

Thinking of advertising ideas in this way - as social ideas or social objects - is helpful because it makes us consider what it takes to make a campaign socially infectious. Not just synergistic (in a media sense); not merely viral, but something that goes beyond this. To achieve this effect requires an understanding of the emotions that underpin successful social phenomena, because to succeed at a social level, an idea has to go beyond individual response, and encourage us to share it with others.

Although we are hardwired (through an innate predisposition to empathy) to share emotions, individual emotional engagement is not enough to make a great idea into a social idea. In fact it is probably a necessary rather than a sufficient condition for social contagion to occur. Why?  Because for us to feel impelled to share an idea with others, we need to feel something beyond an individual feeling of warmth or liking. We need to feel energised by it, we need to feel excited by it and, above all, we need to feel sufficiently inspired to ‘hit the send button’ (figuratively or metaphorically) and share it with our friends, family or colleagues.

Great social ideas are ideas that impel us to share them with others; they are the spark that ignites social contagion.