Coffee N5 - Rahaf Harfoush

Episode 117 – Coffee N5 – Community Building and Branding in the Digital Era with Rahaf Harfoush

In this new season of Coffee N° 5, we welcome digital anthropologist and best-selling author Rahaf Harfoush. 

Rahaf deals with how brands can use new technologies to build their identity, social media content, and community-building today and in the future for millennials and Gen Z.

What you’ll learn:

  • The future of influencer marketing 
  • Social media and free content creation
  • How TikTok changed the way we engage with ideas and communities online
  • Discord and the rise of micro-communities

For more information, follow Rahaf Harfoush on Instagram or Twitter or visit her website

Follow our host Lara Schmoisman on social media:

Instagram: @laraschmoisman

Facebook: @LaraSchmoisman

LinkedIn: @laraschmoisman

Twitter: @LaraSchmoisman

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​​Lara Schmoisman  0:05

Welcome back to coffee number five. I always thinking about how my wall change. When I was a teenager, I didn’t have a cell phone, I cell phones then was only like I have certain minutes and I can only use it then emails. Then we have the IP see. And I started communicating with my family. And then we were able to add video, and oh my god like the world change. Now from our sponsor, we can talk to whoever, whenever. And you know what, you don’t even have to pay extra for that. So this world grew up so much in this technology era, and, but also modify our society. Today. I have here Rahaf, and I have our posts. Did I say it right? Or not? Okay, welcome. Um, so you said everyone misspelled my, my name that I guess that it’s okay, that happens. So thank you so much. For being here today. I’m super excited. So the first thing I want to do is any introduce yourself, because you did so much in your life, that I feel like I’m not going to be doing justice.

Rahaf Harfoush 1:35

Sure, well, thank you for having me. I’m delighted to be here. I am a researcher. I’m a digital anthropologist, I’m an author, I’m a professor, I generally focus on the intersections of technology, culture, and leadership, or whether that’s, you know, branding, or whether that’s, you know, retaining people or whether that’s marketing, it’s very much about how are the technology tools that we’re using? How are they building, community building identity, building relationships? And what are the emerging new markets that we should be looking into. And I do that type of research and a lot of different ways. And so I write books, I speak at conferences, I teach at one of the business schools here in France. And I do a lot of consulting and executive coaching around those topics as well.

​​Lara Schmoisman  2:27

Wow, it’s amazing. And I’m sure you’re quite busy, because technology was changing so much in the last few years, and how we use technology more with COVID. And they are one thing that I noticed is that there’s company companies are always trying to be trending, and they use technology, even when that technology is not ready, or we don’t have things that are clear. And I love that you do the research and proper research with this. And for example, right now I see that it’s a trend that NFAs even fashion industry are getting into that and this and when we don’t have enough data, we don’t know enough how interact with the entities.

Rahaf Harfoush 3:10

Yeah, I think I mean, there’s kind of two different ways to think about this. Right? So the first is, when you have things like new social platforms that emerge or you know, like you have brands that want to use tick tock or want to use Twitter, on social media. And it’s really important to not just rush in and to try to really figure out how is this digital space going to help build our community build our brand, with new technologies like NF T’s I’m a little more forgiving. I think people can have like an experimental approach, like one of my core philosophies as a researcher is that digital is a contact sport, the best way to learn and grow is to just get in there, obviously, carefully, thoughtfully intentionally, but you can’t just sit on the sidelines. And so with things like NF T’s I’ve actually out of all the different applications that I have seen that make no sense. One of the few applications that does make sense to me is with luxury brands and fashion now there’s a lot of adjacencies digital collectibles have been popular for years way before NF t’s the extension of luxury goods into digital spaces that also tracks with the way people want to show their identity online want to communicate with their community online. And so when you see somebody having an NFT, you know, like a board a NFT that they’ve paid hundreds of 1000s of dollars for, even though I might not do that, personally, I can understand the logic and the psychology behind wanting to signal your wealth using technology. It’s the same thing as having a luxury handbag or driving an expensive car. It’s from a psychology perspective. I understand that the technology is not exactly the same as an actual physical good, but it’s Like, logically, I think it’s really interesting. So if you’re a luxury brand, using that type of technologies as an experiment to reach out to your most loyal customers to extend your brand into new spaces, that’s cool. Sure experiment. What I don’t like is when brands or companies come out with these like, large philosophical statements where they’re 100% sure that NF T’s are going to be the best thing ever. And it’s like, no, nobody knows, yet. And so coming out, and being all in isn’t really my style or my strategy. And so that’s where I start to see some tensions. Because when you go all in, then strategically, you it’s in your best interest for that technology to work out. So I find that companies that are so invested over invested in new products end up ignoring warning signs, red sic red flags, ignoring ethical issues, ignoring technological limitations, ignoring consumer hesitation, because they just want to be like, see, we were right.

​​Lara Schmoisman  6:05

we were first, yes, yeah. And what I found out is that a lot of companies or even smaller brands, they’re trying to be everywhere. And when I always talk to my brands, and my clients about having the resources, and the resources is their time, their budget, their team, and their knowledge, knowledge is a huge resource that if you don’t have know that knowledge, you don’t have the knowledge that your target audience is they are, or I mean, there’s so many platforms, you’re gonna put an effort of time, you’re gonna have to hire a team or do it yourself, and it’s gonna have the cost to do it. Right? So if you want to do it, right, and also you can, you’re gonna have to put all these resources, and you need to measure if it’s gonna do it for brand awareness for return. Because normally, I don’t see that return of investments from social media likely. I don’t see creating that. And I don’t know, if it’s because we’re trying to be everywhere all the time, and not selecting or we are malicious, we need to be a little more careful because those platforms don’t belong to us. We cannot control the narrative.

Rahaf Harfoush 7:18

I think you’ve raised two really important points. One is that from a strategic thinking side, a lot of people are always focused on execution. And they think strategy is just execution. And to your point, such a big part of developing expertise these days is in developing knowledge, as you said, So setting time aside, as a part of strategic planning, to learn and to experiment, and to educate yourself is often the thing that gets the step that gets the most overlooked when people are in a rush to be on 17 Different platforms at once. And the second point that you raised I think, is essential, especially with what’s happening on Twitter right now, which is we are we have been because of this iteration of the information ecosystem, we are building our homes on rented land as my good friend, Laura Gassner Adi likes to say, and that means that we’re investing digital labor, we’re putting our relationships, we’re spending all of this time on platforms that we don’t own. And at any point in time, just like Twitter, it could get purchased by somebody whose use you might not be aligned with, or in terms of Instagram, or Facebook, they might tweak the algorithm, and then suddenly your metrics or strategy no longer applies. And that’s something that I’ve noticed.

​​Lara Schmoisman  6:05

Even in in Tiktok, that still is a gray area, if it’s not allowed in the US or not. Yeah, so yeah, I agree. 100%, I always say to my clients, and my friends, social media to support your marketing, but you cannot just create your marketing in Ebola. And because it’s not even renting is borrowing, because you go away, and they shut down your account. And if you have all your business built in social, what happened? You can not control the narrative, you can even not control when something happened to your account called customer service. Money’s tied, because it’s a free service for you.

Rahaf Harfoush 9:09

Yeah, yeah. And I think there’s a bigger question about the exploitation that some of these platforms have just kind of been doing for the last, you know, decades. Exactly. And it’s like, all of a sudden, we all woke up and we said, it takes effort to make content. Not only are we putting our labor in our relationships and our brand and our graphics and our captions and our words into social media, we’re also we are the products because then we’re putting in all this labor, and the result is that data is being analyzed and that is being sold to you know, who knows founder. And so it’s it’s, it feels like I know you feel this it feels like it’s like a social media moment of reckoning where like a lot of people are really questioning the role that social media has in their lives should have in their lives will have in their lives in the future.

​​Lara Schmoisman  9:59

I Yeah, I agree with you. And I see it also, that’s why I always say that your home needs to be what you really can control, then it’s your website, that you need to use all your supporting tools that today social media in the future, who knows what it’s going to be. But everything needs to go back to your home, which is a core of your ecosystem. That is what you can control.

Rahaf Harfoush 10:20

Yeah, I think this is why also even like, email is still so powerful like the you have to own your own list, because that’s the only way that you can contact the people who are committed to buying what you have to sell.

​​Lara Schmoisman  10:35

Absolutely. I love that you go deep into the origins and to understand the behaviors and why we do this. And right now, we there’s a lot of conversation about that we’re our content creator, creator economy, what’s your thoughts about that? Because I know that I have conflicting feelings about it. I mean,

Rahaf Harfoush 10:59

that’s, that’s a great way of putting it, I also have very conflicting feelings about it. Honestly, we are living in this really bizarre world where we’re producing a lot of content for free, most of us and we’re consuming a lot of content for free. And from a business perspective like that, that shouldn’t be the case like it does. The business model doesn’t really make sense to me. And I think the biggest challenge to me from a creator economy is when you look at the accounts of whether it’s tick tock creators or Instagram creators or YouTube creators, what you see is a giant curve, where ultimately, it’s almost like a bell curve, where, you know, you’ll have like the top, maybe 5%, generous, if that that are making a lot of money. And then you’ll have the giant middle that are not really earning enough to live, when you look at, for example, average revenue from a YouTube channel, it’s like the average YouTube channel is making at best, maybe, you know, 10s of dollars a month, or maybe a couple 100 bucks a month, the channels that you’re seeing that are earning millions of dollars a year, those are statistically like anomalies. They’re not the norm. And so I find it what go ahead

Lara Schmoisman  12:14

and know that it’s really affecting our society, because I can see it, I always said, I everyone knows I have teenager kids or almost adult kids, that there is this fantasy that you can go online, have a YouTube channel, and you don’t have to go to college, while you get yourself in that is modifying how our society is seeing their future. And that’s a huge concern for me.

Rahaf Harfoush 12:37

Yeah, it was one of the top rated I don’t remember the exact percentage, but one of the top desired careers of Gen Z. And even the younger generation Gen Alpha was to be sort of internet famous or to be an influencer. And I think it’s interesting because as the market itself matures, the ways that you can make money become harder and harder to break into, right, because it’s not just, it’s not just the advertising models that are also deeply problematic and fundamentally broken. It’s brand sponsorships, it’s your own product lines, its merchandise. And all of these are not without risk. I remember there was a story, I think it was like last year, and it was a fashion influencer, who launched a clothing line. And she wasn’t even able to sell like 16 T shirts. It was like she had millions of followers. But those followers did not translate into people purchasing.

Lara Schmoisman  13:34

Although I see this with my clients all the time. I have clients with 100 1000s of followers, but then we see that their revenue doesn’t come from social.

Rahaf Harfoush 13:45

Yeah, so this is this is also a part of the metrics and when you think about the social aspect, what we’re actually doing is we’re rewarding the wrong thing. We reward people that have big followings. So everyone then is motivated about I want to build a big audience, I want to have as many followers as possible, when from marketing, you know, we should be rewarding engagement, we should be rewarding conversion, you should be rewarding the people that are going to buy your stuff. Even if that’s a smaller audience, I would rather have 100 people that were obsessed with what I was doing than 100,000 people where nobody cared and nobody was engaging.

Lara Schmoisman  14:22

To me it’s always about the theme or what you’re doing as a content creator and I see lately that their content creators and try to say, Okay, who are they? I don’t I see are their feed, but they’re trying to sell me so many products i Okay, is someone who is really into motherhood and has knowledge that can help the audience or just putting content what kind of content I will. I’m a firm believer that every content that we put out there in need to be informative and educational, somehow, besides being actionable or memorable, but we have to give something with content, just putting content per putting content is all against what I study in my life and my first degrees in screenwriting, my secondary degrees in Production Direction of television, I work in the marketing world. And it’s all about putting content that will connect with your audience. And I see content that it doesn’t get to anything. So what’s happening with the content, what’s happening with intention on the content?

Rahaf Harfoush 15:26

I think that socially living online has changed the way people think about content. And now it is second nature for every person, whether you are a brand or an individual to be commenting, capturing, creating, so you have to understand that the information ecosystem isn’t just flooded with people who have a purpose, it’s also just flooded with people that want to share parts of their lives, because we have built business models and content ecosystems where we reward people to share parts of their lives. And that all becomes integrated into our feeds. And so what ends up happening is that the first generation of influencers came on board, because they had expertise, right, they were experts in makeup, or experts in movies or experts in in I don’t know, electronics are experts in chemistry. And they were using that expertise, they had an expertise that was combined with a platform that gave them access to a one to many model. And that was what was so game changing was they have the expertise. And now they have the amplification. What’s happened since then, is that it doesn’t you don’t have to have expertise anymore. There are influencers who are famous that have no expertise, there are influencers who are famous, that have no skill sets. And that’s a big shift for people from our generation, or people from the previous generation. Because we were always used to, you have something important to say, and that’s why I’m listening. And now the model is everyone’s talking all the time, because everyone’s talking all the time. And that’s the way that it is

Lara Schmoisman  16:55

oh, and on top of that you have all the people whispering in your ear, because when you’re trying to do something’s gonna tell you Oh, my friend did that. And my friend is this other thing, or it’s using this platform. And what they don’t realize is that there is what work for your driver doesn’t necessarily work for you because you’re different. And you’re not going to have exactly the same people following or you need to find who’s your market and what works for you. And I love the example that you just did about the influencer, who couldn’t sell their line. And from your point of view, or from your experience that you work with incredible brands, how do you find if they want a brand or an influencer need to do in this case, or entrepreneurs that want to come up with a brand? What are the first steps before they go on? They create their brand, and they and they produce it?

Rahaf Harfoush 17:51

I mean, for me, I think the the thing that has remained consistent through all these iterations of technology is the desire for community. And I think community is a word that is thrown a lot around a lot. Now community does not mean followers. Okay, community does not equal followers necessarily, you can have a lot of sort of that community. And so for me, I mean, ultimately, that we’re going to be very optimistic. And if we’re going to say, marketing at the core of your brand, and at the core, you believe that you have something that is going to be of service to somebody else, something that’s going to help solve a problem that is fundamentally what all products and services are trying to do. So the natural step actually becomes in in a world where there’s so much noise, you have to start by going and finding and building a community of people who are very interested. The twist and why a lot of marketers get wrong is because marketers for the last, I don’t know 25 years have been used to marketing strategy where they talk and other people watch their ads and other people consume their content. And being a part of community actually involves listening and participating and collaborating and CO owning, and as an example, I would actually tell you that Tik Tok, I think was the first social network to really do that properly, because it was the first social network where I saw branded content from companies that wasn’t just here’s our message that we’ve decided behind closed doors, we’re pushing it out as usual. They were listening. They were responding to trending sound they were they were responding to community stories. They were engaging with individual users, they were commenting on individual user accounts in a way that was that was creating this conversation. And that I think was a really interesting shift, because Twitter was the first app that gave permission for brands to be less serious and the conversation. Yes, yes. So Twitter was like the first time that you didn’t need like to be so formal in your brand communication, but Tik Tok was really the first social net work that in a multimedia way, right allowed people to be playful. I mean I think about I think about like Duolingo is account I think about easy jets account, I think about Ryanair, I think about the Washington Post, like there are brands that are doing really funny, engaging content that you would not expect to be represented.

Lara Schmoisman  20:23

I love that people got a little more casual, and Twitter 100%. Until now, it really was that place. I love that also, we bridge a gift with the journalist, thanks to Twitter, there was a conversation and a lot more social listening from their part. And, and I love what they talked to our society before I used to make this job that it was all about social media was about to say, Oh, I’m going for a romantic walk with my husband, I take a picture and how romantic can be if you’re really posting. And also is was to show that the my grass is greener, and my life is perfect. And I love that tick tock the contract, that feeling of social media was about being a lot more organic and to to be real. And if you can see this in the face of Instagram, and all even in LinkedIn, everything became a lot more real.

Rahaf Harfoush 21:27

Yeah, I mean, the, from a from an algorithmic perspective, what you what we have to understand why tick tock was so different is because all the social networks that came before tick tock, every single one had a model of engagement that required either a single opt in or a double opt in. So a double opt in is I send you a friend requests, you accept the friend request to work connected as friends. And a single opt in is I follow your content as a follower. And I’m connected to you that way. So all the social graphs were built upon the premise that I had to choose who I follow, and that content creators have to build audience. What tic tock did that was so groundbreaking is that they’ve made it possible for people to see content from accounts that you didn’t necessarily follow, which meant you weren’t just consuming content from people that you knew or celebrities or big brands, it really started to feel like a town square, you were here. And the algorithm was so good that it was giving you content from other people who were sort of like you interested in the things that you were interested in that we’re adding relevant content, this is a really big deal. This completely changed the way that we engage with ideas and communities online and now because of Tik Tok. Now you see on Twitter and on Facebook and on Instagram suggested post suggested accounts. But that really started on tick tock. And so that’s why I think it created such a disruption in the social discourse space, because when I go on tick tock, it’s like, as you know, there are times when the entire community is talking about something and you get to hear that conversation from people that you might not necessarily be connected with people who might not have a big audience, people who aren’t verified, and it doesn’t matter. Because the views and the algorithms sort of creates this like this, this ability to have a dialogue that I find doesn’t really exist anywhere else right now on the web.

Lara Schmoisman  23:25

Okay, so we know what’s going on with Twitter, Twitter right now. And I’m not gonna get into that. But those users that they were used to tweet, and there are a lot of people leaving Twitter, people that I follow, and I respect and I have respect for you in Twitter, too. And but we’re going to be able to share that message where they’re going if you can see the future, what do you think that it’s going to happen with this? Communication? What platform?

Rahaf Harfoush 23:54

I don’t know. And here’s the thing you can never know, because there’s always a it’s never linear and it’s always unpredictable. Like I think something is going to catch people’s imaginations, whether it’s Mastodon, whether it’s post, whether it’s true social, but whatever it is, like I think, I think we just have to wait and see for that lightning to strike. People have options now. But there hasn’t been one that that has sort of captured the imagination of everybody. But you know, on another level, it’s like maybe, maybe we lived in an era that’s also coming to a close, maybe being connected to everybody all the time in and of itself isn’t the best thing for us. So I’ve been sort of following a few alternatives. But I’m kind of also just waiting to see because the funny thing about it is there’s always an element of the unknown timing, luck, circumstances.

Lara Schmoisman  24:43

Honestly, the whole Twitter thing happens so fast that it was unpredictable, unpredictable. We can know that will happen. But I have to say there is one more digital movement that I’m very interested in. And this is this chord. You Yes, I’m fascinated because I see that Z generation and alpha generation is the only way they communicate now, through this court. Yes, no text messages. No. So what are your thoughts about this? And how this, because this is a whole new way of communications. I mean, they don’t use WhatsApp. They don’t use text, they don’t use email, all their communication happened in discord.

Rahaf Harfoush 25:23

Yeah, and I think Discord is reflective of the rise of these micro communities. Because one of the biggest things that we’ve seen in the social network space are people moving from public facing to private, this is actually very much aligned with Gen Z, and how they use social media, which is why apps like Snapchat and be real are becoming so popular. Our the millennials, and the extroverts, you know, those generations experienced a sort of permanency to social media posts, right, you posted something on your grid, and it lived your in your grid forever or lived on your posts forever. It wasn’t the habit of the user to go and delete it to change it. It wasn’t really until Snapchat came that said, Hey, we’re gonna have content that disappears, that then became you know, stories, etc, etc. And even now, we’d be real, the whole concept of images and photos, that sort of photos that that disappear after a while and that are very close circuit. So what we’re sort of seeing is the pendulum swinging to the other extreme, not extreme, but to the other direction. So from open and permanent, we’re now seeing two closed and temporary there are discord servers that are invalid invite only, obviously. So there’s a lot of micro communities that are being formed where you have to be invited to join, there are a lot of discord servers that have a 24 hour or 48 hour delete policy where everything on the server gets deleted every 24 hours or every 48 hours. So what I’m seeing is that we are moving back towards a time of of more privacy and of hidden communication. And so what surprised me because remember, Gen Z and ALPA generation, they’re growing up with their parents posting baby pictures about the posting a lot. So does it surprise you that when those kids grow up, they say, No, thanks, I want to be connected with my friends. But I want to have it in a community and I don’t want pictures of me when I was three to exist on the internet years ago.

Lara Schmoisman  27:23

Oh, also, I have to tell you, and I see this firsthand. My, my sons have friendship built online deal on novel location, like we had to grow up and, and have our friends that they were in our schools in our community, like my older son, he’s very into movies. And he actually even has a podcast with one person in a New Jersey, and trapeze people in England in different ways, and never seen any of them. And they even know how they look like. Yeah, I have these conversations. And it’s even like, adventure together.

Rahaf Harfoush 28:01

Yeah. And I think this goes back to the first point that we’ve talked about for brands, which is ultimately all of these tools. All of social media reflects a fundamental human need that every single person has, which is the need to be connected, the need to be seen, the need to be heard the need to be recognized, right. And so if that network can help your son have conversations where he can share his love of movies with people that make him feel seen and heard that make him feel like he’s a part of something right, belonging, connection, validation, that that’s amazing. The thing that we should also mention, because we haven’t really talked about it is that for every single positive that we’ve mentioned, there is an equal and opposing negative that has been mentioned. And those are things like radicalization, on groups, even discord, you know, people that are sharing fake news or people that are doing bigotry or hatred. And I think that we should just mention that a little bit.

Lara Schmoisman  28:57

Locally, absolutely. The sense of communities or communities that they are very productive and very healthy, because it’s a place to belong. Poor as a kid, who was he don’t fit in, you know, our local community or a teenager is it’s fun. And actually, it’s positive to be able to engage. But also we need to be aware of all the bad things that can happen. And for me, it was very hard to try to explain my kids from a very early age and how to be safe online and how to connect with people and like we have communities for good, we have communities that they are not that healthy. And so we really need to talk about this is a conversation that should exist and we need to be careful in what places we are really getting on on the message that we’re getting is like she has seen one side of the story many times

Rahaf Harfoush 29:55

and from a brand perspective, I would say that the what’s how Penang with this radicalization and with this increased discourse is that the age of like business neutrality is over, in the sense that I think companies and employees expect brands to take sides and they expect brands to whether it was the the war in Ukraine, whether it’s the environment, whether it’s, you know, social justice.

Lara Schmoisman  30:24

Situations that just happen. Yes, we are. How do you feel about this? Because we’re, we’re forcing brands to make business decisions because of social issues.

Rahaf Harfoush 30:40

I mean, I think I think it’s good. I think that for too long, businesses have just been focused on profits and revenues and not the impact on the community. And I think if we can use our collective power and our collective voice, to minimize harm, and to help people and to make the world a bit safer, and fairer, and more equitable, and more sustainable, then I’m all for it.

Lara Schmoisman  31:12

I agree with you, 100%. Thank you, thank you. Thank you so much for being here. And coffee. Number five was a pleasure having coffee with you and we will be in pads. And I know that we are going to be hearing a lot from you, and with this ever changing world.

Rahaf Harfoush 31:30

Thank you so much for having me.

Lara Schmoisman  31:31

Thank you so much for being in Coffee Number five with me today, as always, is a pleasure to have you they are and remember to follow me on all social networks, so you know what’s coming up and also subscribe to my email list and go to LaRouche And you can get all my emails with all my next podcast and who knows what else so see you next week with more Coffee Number Five.



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