Symbolic convergence theory
Why know about this:
When people come together to talk about a common experience, these conversations are about more than their own memory or understanding of the experience. A common experience, when discussed in a group of people, becomes bigger than, and sometimes even different from, what really happened. Certain aspects of the experience become amplified. Other aspects diminish. And soon, a collective account — or multiple collective accounts — emerge. Sometimes, this new account becomes the main narrative about an experience. When this happens with customer experiences, it can have a huge and lasting impact on brand perception.
What it is:
Symbolic Convergence Theory (SCT) offers an explanation for this phenomenon, and was proposed by the communications scholar Ernest G. Bormann in 1972. It explores how ‘group consciousness’ is formed, and how individuals participate, or stop participating, in this common understanding. The theory explains how this ‘group consciousness’ arises and is maintained. This can be due to elements of the conversation like the type of language used, and extends to visual and aural references. Memes form an important part of this common understanding.
How to use it:
In digital spaces where messages are propagated, shared, and created at a fast speed with a large potential for amplification, SCT provides valuable insights into how your audiences form narratives and perceptions about your brand. In crisis communication contexts, with the additional complication of misinformation and fake news, messages spread quickly and become reality. SCT allows community managers to identify elements of a message that are more likely to be reinforced by audiences, such as complaints about customer service, ‘insider’ stories, and messages that reinforce existing bias against a brand. An effective way to start thinking about this is to examine the conversations around a crisis either in your industry or in another one. Which are the types of messages which become ‘sites’ for convergence, where audiences seem to agree vehemently even if it’s not entirely true? Once you’ve identified this, consider why. Understanding this process will help you to predict and analyse how your own audiences are likely to respond to messages and events related to your brand.