Digital & Social Media

Don’t Let the Medium Dictate the Message


Sarah Gordon contributed to this post.

When Facebook made changes to its algorithm to decrease the number of text status updates, the social network forced brands to reexamine the kinds of content they were creating and the channels they were using for distribution. And that was a good thing, according to BuzzFeed’s CEO and Founder Jonah Peretti.

It’s time, Peretti told a New York Social Media Week audience, for the medium to stop dictating the message. Marshall McLuhan must be turning over in his grave.

McLuhan’s famous—and prescient—idea that “the medium is the message” came back into vogue with the domination of digital and the ever-expanding variety of social channels. Sadly, the theory has made brands often get caught up in the rat race of winning traffic and going viral—missing opportunities to create rich and authentic experiences for their customers with this fixation on the click-through.

BuzzFeed isn’t optimizing content for Facebook, but rather for people, Peretti claimed. Can most brands say the same?

Last year, U.S. restaurant chain Chipotle was one of many brands that tried to pull off fake Twitter hacks to garner attention. The stunt was said to be part of the restaurant’s 20th anniversary campaign “Adventurito,” a 20-day treasure hunt and puzzle series, but it lacked sincerity and led to a loss of credibility. For a company that has tried to root itself in authenticity, Chipotle’s hacking hoax hit a sour note, even if it did lead to 4,000 new followers. While you can see how many signed on, it’s sometimes harder to count how many people you turned off with a communications.

But this social blunder was an aberration for Chipotle, which has rebuilt credibility with the release of “The Scarecrow,” a thought provoking, animated video advertisement and interactive game. With no direct mention of Chipotle until the closing credits, the narrative focused on inhumane and unhealthy farming techniques and existed solely to evoke an emotional response from viewers. Chris Arnold, communications director at Chipotle, called it a “values integration rather than a product integration.”  It focused on making the message powerful enough that there was no need to worry about social messengers driving the conversation.

Chipotle is furthering the idea of value integration with their unbranded four-part online video series “Farmed and Dangerous,” which takes a satirical look at factory farms, big agriculture and processed foods. Their decision to create such an extensive piece of unbranded content reinforces the idea that sometimes the message and brand should be inseparable.

To win at social sharing, brands must begin to strip their message down to the fundamentals and find ways to connect with their customers on a higher emotional level. Social platforms will always be in transformation, but we can guarantee that natural sharing behavior will continue to evolve along with them so long as there is great, authentic content to share.


About the author

Lydia Herrera

Lydia Herrera specializes in digital communications, with experience in the location-based mobile marketing space, forecasting trends and strategy, and managing social media. Her background also includes monitoring industry trends and tracking press. Outside of work, Herrera volunteers with nonprofits that seek to empower women and girls in both education and the workplace.

A FleishmanHillard employee.