During the initial wave of social media adoption by businesses and brands, conversation was key.  Brands were lauded not for using these tools to sell, but for using them to chat.  To listen.  To appear human.

But that mentality may be shifting.

Remember Seinfeld?  It was one of the most popular TV shows of the ’90s, but it was also (in theory) “a show about nothing.”  Each episode consisted of a tightly-wound series of in-jokes derived from absurdly pedestrian circumstances, which gave viewers a chance to relate.  In short, it was the kind of show designed to be relived around the water cooler for not just the next morning but the next few months… or longer.  (Personally, I have friends who still celebrate Festivus.)

Why did Seinfeld succeed?  In part, it was because — at the time — no one else was talking about nothing.  When everyone else has a plot, you can break the mold by only having subplots.

Social media works the same way.  When everyone else is selling, it’s easy to stand out simply by offering customer service.  But once everyone starts using social media to “join the conversation,” the conversation itself becomes diluted.  That’s when people start needing something… else.

When we helped Bigelow Tea create their Twitter and Facebook channels, conversation was key.  Just chatting with tea lovers was enough to help Bigelow gain traction with the social media users they connected with.

These days, every tea company with access to the web is on Twitter and Facebook, which means Bigelow needed to shift their focus away from mere conversation and back toward informational value like their content-rich blog.  They’ve begun offering successful sweepstakes on Facebook and Twitter.  And their Facebook page has become a conversation that’s heavy with links to their teas and gift sets.

The results?  Facebook is now one of the primary drivers of Bigelow Tea’s online sales, with plans to expand their strategy even further in 2011.

What has this shift taught us?  Yes, people still like to talk tea… but they haven’t stopped needing actual value from their brand interactions, either.

So… what’s your brand’s Seinfeld ratio?  How much time do you spend talking about nothing?

Is it working?