I am fairly sure that Shakespeare didn’t have brands in mind when writing Hamlet, but I would argue that "To thine own self be true" is sage advice for marketers too, particularly when thinking about how a brand behaves on social media.
There is no doubt that social offers great opportunity. Large brands can reveal humanity through authentic interaction, and small ones can use creativity to access an audience that they couldn’t afford to reach through traditional media.
Some of the risks are obvious, too. Misjudge the context or your audience and you could tarnish your brand, potentially long term. Despite all the cat-video evidence to the contrary, the internet doesn’t suffer fools.
However, these are not new issues. Brands are tackling them already, some with great success. There is, however, a subtler point emerging that should be a significant consideration – dissolution of your brand’s tone of voice.
In a race to stand out, we risk all sounding the same.
Take our recent experience at Yorkshire Tea, when a customer invited us into a Twitter conversation with Tesco Mobile. What started as gentle banter grew to encompass multiple FMCG brands (most notably Jaffa Cakes) and many, many consumers. When BuzzFeed picked up on it, the conversation went viral. It has been read by 2m people and is still spreading.
On the surface, this was a perfect example of social done right. Human interaction, attentive listening and a quick-witted response yielded an absurdly positive outcome.
That said, deciding how to act, particularly during the peak, wasn’t simple. Have a look and you will see we held back from a lot of opportunities to become more involved. We felt there was a risk in getting too carried away. We were frugal tweeters.
This was not the case for the many others who boarded the "brand-wagon". Whether they should have joined in or not is an interesting matter, but a more important question is this: while many of the brands involved sounded human and personable, how many were genuinely distinctive? And how many were completely interchangeable?
This theme is playing out on a larger scale. In a bid to make the most out of social, many brands are adapting how they behave and speak. Although this is eminently sensible, it’s vital that you don’t go too far.
Tone of voice remains an incredibly important differentiator. The transformative effect of social media, through its democratising transparency and the frequency of unexpected opportunities that it offers, should not be underestimated. Without a clear sense of your brand’s identity, you could find your brand being reformed by the channel.
Embrace the opportunities, yes. But don’t lose sight of who you are on the way.