Three ways that brands can move from social pariah to social star

Brands have forgotten what being 'social' actually means and need to put more effort into 'working the room' on social media, says Rena Varsani, head of copy, Rufus Leonard.

Brands need to be as witty and amusing as Stephen Fry on social media
Brands need to be as witty and amusing as Stephen Fry on social media

Bear with me for a moment while I ask a patronising question: can anyone tell me what the word ‘social’ means? Well, the Oxford English Dictionary defines it as: Relating to or designed for activities in which people meet each other for pleasure.

If you think about how you use social media – at least in your personal life – it’s a definition that probably rings true. After all, Facebook started out as a way for college students to exchange messages (talk to each other), post status updates (let others know how they are) and add other users (become friends).

Somewhere along the way, brands seem to have forgotten what being social means.

So far, so social. However, somewhere along the way, brands seem to have forgotten what being social means. They got the first bit right: observing where consumers like to spend their time and following them there, instead of expecting the mountain to come to Muhammad. But they’ve failed to observe the social etiquette that comes with being on these channels.

Imagine that social media is a big party with drinks flowing, canapes circulating and lots of charismatic people to talk to. Brand X walks into the room. More often than not, they talk about themselves, they post unoriginal, uninteresting content, they are slow to respond or even ignore the people who talk to them. Not someone you’d happily chew the fat with.

That’s why brands need to put more effort into ‘working the room’. To create the kind of social allure that make them as popular a party guest as Stephen Fry or Caitlin Moran (both as charming and entertaining on Twitter, incidentally, as I imagine them to be in real life). Much like in real life, social media etiquette can be complicated. But there are some basic niceties brands can observe to help them stand out from the party crowd. Here are three simple ways to avoid becoming social pariahs:

1. Bring a gift

By which I mean create original, interesting content and share it on your social channels. It’s the equivalent of a conversation opener – a way to convince people that you’re worth spending time with, and a way to increase engagement and number of fans. And it’s much more compelling and effective than simply asking people to like you or follow you, without giving them a reason to do so.

2. Balance listening and talking

There are many recommended ratios for achieving the perfect balance of sharing content from others, publishing your own content or updates, and responding to direct questions or comments. But balance is the key word here. If you’re always retweeting others, it looks like you have nothing interesting to say. If you never answer queries, it looks like you don’t care about your customers. Do a little of everything, and you’ll soon work out the best ratio for you.

3. Go with the flow

You can’t control what your customers want to talk about on your social channels. So be ready for some difficult questions. Starbucks’ director of marketing and category Steve Flanagan admitted that exposing the brand to social media "is a double-edged sword" – especially when customers challenge the company’s well-publicised corporation tax issues in the UK. How you respond to your own challenges will determine your brand’s social engagement success or otherwise. 

And, Lastly...

Before you do any of this, it’s important to decide if you even want to show up to the party in the first place. A social media presence isn’t mandatory. Perhaps you operate in an industry where your customers genuinely don’t want to hear from you on Facebook, or see your Pinterest board.

Or maybe you simply don’t have the people power to regularly update your content or respond to posts, questions and comments.

It’s crucial to have the right foundations in place before you engage in social media. For example, until you know what your tone of voice is and what role social plays in your brand strategy, how can you have effective conversations on social media? Get your brand fundamentals right first, before you build your social presence.

And if you do decide to pursue social engagement, then you don’t need to be a ‘party slut’ – ie be on every social channel out there. Go where your customers are, and where you have the energy and resource to make it worth your while.

Whichever party you do decide to grace with your presence, do it with enthusiasm, interest and style. Otherwise, you risk being the boring loser in the corner who no one wants to talk to.

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