Social media is a new frontier – one that can stretch a company in unusual and uncomfortable ways. Agencies should be able to guide clients through that vast space, even if it’s sometimes a scary journey for them, too.
Consulting clients through new product launches, crises and all sorts of milestones and transitions is old hat for agencies, and social media has become just another part of the job requirement. The question is: How can agencies help a company behave authentically in the social media space?
Experts say it’s done in baby steps. Success in social media – creating engaging “content marketing” – necessitates a change in culture that can be difficult, even for companies producing consumer goods. But for business-to-business or business-to-government companies, it can be excruciating. It’s why many big, non-commercial brands in the legal, professional services, pharmaceutical and healthcare industries have been slower to move into the social media space.
While there also may be regulatory reasons or questions about ROI, the culture problems loom largest. First, it can be hard for companies running on billable hours to decide to spend money on social media efforts. But in today’s world, the reality is that regardless of the kind of company, everyone is receiving information on these platforms. So, all businesses need to develop social media skills, whether they’re promoting candy or medical devices.
Second, being successful in social media requires companies to be good storytellers, to deal with the emotional and visceral, rather than the mathematical and logical. In many companies, that type of thinking just doesn’t exist. So, leaders must decide whether to bring the skill inside or try to find someone else to do it for them.
Outsourcing completely doesn’t work, and that can be scary for agencies to admit. But to be authentic, corporations need people who are passionate and smart inside to uncover and compose the best stories. Then those people can lean on an agency for advice and scaling and services. Many companies try hiring a single person to do the job, creating a storyteller or editor-in-chief who’s tasked with producing stories that are engaging and worth sharing. But that single creative person generally ends up facing down a whole group of people unwilling to change, or at least unwilling to deal with the transparency of social media. Business leaders, and their subordinates, can be nervous about posting something that random people can comment on, refute or use for unintended purposes. That two-way dialogue with the masses can be frightening.
The first step in changing the culture is to help the C-suite (and then all employees) understand what storytelling means and how to brainstorm social media stories. That means their brands are not always the hero. They have to find ways to talk about the values of the company, and the aspirations they have for their products and consumers, where the actual product or brand is not front and center, but “adjacent” to the story. That means having faith that an audience will understand it’s them, even if their name or logo isn’t plastered all over it.
Next, business leaders must think of themselves as consumers. What are they thinking when standing in line at the supermarket going through Facebook feeds? How about at a soccer or volleyball game? What kinds of things catch their eyes? It’s probably not the ads. Or, if it is an ad, it’s caught them for something that has to do with that visceral, emotional reaction, not an intellectual one.
Finally, it’s critical for leaders to understand that in the social media space, their competitors are not other brands. Their competitors are the puppy photos above them and the wedding photos below. They’re competing against everything else in the news feed, which means they must consider how their content is living in the context of all the other content within these platforms.
Once the light bulb goes off, start thinking about the kinds of stories that can be told. What are the values a company has? To whom do they want to speak? What are the values those people have? Where are the common interests? How can they create stories around those common areas of interest?
It’s unfortunately typical within big bureaucracies that an initial content idea gets rejiggered or tweaked into something acceptable to everyone, including the CEO, HR, legal, compliance, etc. All these stakeholders have to be brought along, and their tolerance for perceived risk has to be addressed. But, if they’re allowed to adjust the content to fit their risk tolerances, the end product is going to be less than compelling. That’s why it’s hard for large organizations to produce something as interesting as what Beyoncé posts. That’s not to say it can’t happen, but when it does, it means everyone decided to more or less get out of the way. Overprotective organizations end up posting content that is not that engaging. No one wakes up wanting to see something created by a committee.
Ultimately, it’s the corporation’s responsibility to create a culture where creative storytelling can thrive. Ideas need the space and freedom to bounce off each other so the good ones can take root and be grown with as little interference as possible so they reach the marketplace in ways that are truly inspiring.
Content marketing must be useful or entertaining – or it will be ignored. It’s easy to buy views. It’s tough to buy engagement.