Nearly 100 years ago, director Erich von Stroheim completed his masterpiece. It was a monumental work called Greed – the most ambitious film ever made until that point. There was really only one problem. Audiences absolutely hated it.
Stroheim had made a 462-minute black-and-white silent film which mirrored, with perfect fidelity, the novel that inspired it. Every scene in the book, and every line of dialogue (shown via title screens between shots), was reproduced perfectly. The film was made with great skill, to be sure, but its nearly 8-hour running time exasperated audiences, whose impatience in turn infuriated Stroheim. At screenings, the director was the only person who failed to understand that film didn’t – indeed, couldn’t – follow the same rules as literature.
Film students today shake their heads in disbelief when they hear this story, because our generation would never make such an obvious and fundamental error when they produce content for mass consumption. Right?
It may not feel like it, but social media today is as young and novel a platform as film was a hundred years ago. Modern film schools didn’t exist back then, so the studios and their auteurs had to figure out the rules as they went along. Now, just as before, the most vivid way of learning the rules is to observe the overwhelmingly negative audience reaction when other content creators unwittingly break them. Our previous blog post used exactly this formula to offer guidance on how to prevent your social media efforts from backfiring disastrously.
But preventing failure is only half the battle; how can social media efforts truly succeed?
New Medium, New Message
What von Stroheim refused to see was that a new medium demanded a new approach, and modern marketers fall into the very same trap today. With decades of experience crafting newspaper ads and TV commercials, many social media marketers simply use the same tricks to fill their social media accounts with content.
They fail to take into account that newspaper ads and TV commercials work by getting people’s attention while they are busy doing other things. Social media follows, by contrast, are voluntary. An repetitive and annoying jingle might stick in the head of a radio listener, reminding them of your brand the next time they are out shopping … but try the same tactic on social media, and the most likely response is that they’ll mute your account.
Paid advertisements on networks like Facebook and Twitter can indeed insert your message in front of users, but the purpose must be to have them value the interaction; otherwise they will never follow you of their own volition and you’ll need to pay every time you want to reach them. For this reason, a continuous stream of advertisements is the wrong approach. This single-dimensional strategy may work in other forms of media, but there’s nothing in it for the social media audience, and so they are bound to switch off. You will be an outsider in their space, uninvited but pretending you belong.
By now, most companies have learned to add a second dimension to their social media efforts. Coupons, special offers and promo codes give audiences a reason to read and share your posts, while relevant blog articles can bring people to your website on the promise that they’ll read something interesting when they arrive. These efforts genuinely increase circulation and web traffic, which is why they have by now become standard for many companies in the world of social media marketing. As always, however, higher quality means greater effectiveness in this realm, and quality varies greatly between practitioners.
Still, these strategies are often not enough to inspire ordinary social media users to follow company accounts online. They rarely turn regular people into genuine fans. Most of us like to use social media for, well, social reasons. A private company needs to do something pretty special in order to convince people to invite it into their regular newsfeed.
What indeed would inspire an average person to click the ‘follow’ button on a company account? The answer is in the third dimension.
Coupons and promo codes can exist just as easily in newspapers and magazines. Blog posts are for websites. What, then, is ideal content for social media?
The answer, so elusive for so many companies, comes naturally to them when they have clocked out of the office and are online chatting with their friends. What social media is best at, is showing off your personality to your friends.
Very often, companies’ instincts have them carefully keeping their public image serious and professional, even at the cost of neglecting personality almost entirely. They’ve seen how dangerous it is to court controversy on Twitter and Facebook, and they want to cultivate a purely vanilla brand image in an effort to avoid getting into hot water.
But social media works by inspiration, and to find real success, you’ll have to do better than vanilla.
An otherwise ordinary affordable chain of American diners, Denny’s has long held one of the world’s best corporate social media accounts. Someday, when universities begin to hand out bachelor’s degrees in social media marketing, the Denny’s Twitter account will be studied as a model of perfectly irreverent brand building. It invented the comedic persona of someone who is obsessed with eggs, coffee, pancakes, hash browns, and everything else the diner serves – and then turned its content into jokes, memes and silly ideas that are perfect fodder for retweets and shares.
The Denny’s account, in short, is cooler than most of your friends online. That’s why people follow it.
As C.S. Lewis wrote, “When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.” People come onto social media to enjoy themselves, and Denny’s lets them. The implicit question within Denny’s tweets is aimed squarely at other companies: Why so serious?
There’s Plenty of Room in the Third Dimension
Not all companies can afford to be playful, of course. If you’re running an accounting firm, tweeting bad puns and haikus can be a risky endeavor. Denny’s personality works because that is Denny’s personality. Your company’s personality will be different, and that’s okay; the important thing is that it’s distinctive, attractive, interesting and entertaining. If it can be informative as well, all the better.
Think of social media’s third dimension as something analogous to how regular people use their own personal accounts. There’s plenty of room for variety.
Even plain frustration – in very specific circumstances! – can be called for and highly praised if done well, as we saw from the Twitter account for San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transport, during periods marred by significant service delays. As that episode reminds us, the other unique benefit of social media is that it allows us to respond personally but publicly to our customers, clearing up misconceptions and misunderstandings.
It can also solicit feedback and engagement of other kinds. Companies can ask open questions like, How can we make our product better for you? The car manufacturer Tesla asked this very question in recent weeks, and customers appreciated its decision to consult them. Incidentally, Tesla also asked its own customers to make ads for the car company for free, offering a modest reward for the best homemade video, and its fan base obliged.
Trivia questions, contests and competitions can raise audience interaction if they are promoted and designed well, but a significant foundation of followers is necessary to make the experiment work. To get that following, consider other types of valuable information you can give away on a regular basis.
If you are in the food & beverages industry, for example, why not tell the story of where your food comes from? Describe the people who make it, the region it comes from, and the traditions it continues. If you sense that many customers have a poor understanding of your product, have one of your experts deliver a tweetstorm to educate people in an entertaining way, using interesting facts and data to make your story more engaging. Make explainer videos to add further clarity and let the public understand your brand in greater detail. Create LPTs (“life pro tips”) to show users how they can get even more out of your product than they had realized.
Companies whose social media accounts regularly go above and beyond the call of duty can pique the interest of online communities, who sense that your future communications are going to be more interesting than the usual corporate-speak to which they are accustomed. If you want people to be curious about what you’ll say next, don’t be so predictable about what you’ll say next.
An Interactive Future
Social media is the world’s most powerful communication tool precisely because it is different from all that has come before it. Success is earned through making full use of its new techniques for messaging, including an unprecedented level of engagement and interaction. No wonder so many people are left unsatisfied by social media accounts that craft their messages the way their parents’ generation would have expected. If society wanted newspaper ads and TV commercials, it would read the newspaper and watch TV. People are online because today’s internet holds so much more promise than mere one-way ad-based entertainment.
Social media is all about communicating freely, so don’t limit yourself to rigid structures when you post. Filling your profile with ad copy is the wrong move. Adding blog posts and other content to benefit users is an important step in the right direction, but users may still sense that something is missing, as this two-dimensional approach remains rather … flat.
To attract new followers en masse, you’ll really need to make your profile shine. That takes a few special ingredients, namely genuine creativity, an instinct to entertain, and above all, a human instinct rather than a corporate instinct. Social media users are adept at spotting fakes and pretenders, and you’ll need plenty of preparation time in order to craft a viable online identity that holds up under scrutiny. Just as actors need time to ‘get in their roles’, you’ll need to develop your own language and mannerisms if you want to create a character for real people to engage with.
For many, the type of approach we recommend here will be daunting. Certainly it is easier to write a script when you have a template in front of you than when you start by looking at a completely blank page. But there are always other accounts to look to for inspiration – and besides, the nearest mirror is never far away. Feel free, at long last, to just be yourself; that’s what social media was intended for, after all. But always strive to be the best parts of yourself. And if you ever feel lost for what you are ‘supposed’ to say next, just remember: