A shameless attention-grabbing post title, but corporations, feelings and attention-grabbing are essentially the key points of what follows. A couple of weeks ago, I noticed a posting on one social media site (not linked, as membership is required) where one contributor had spotted a posting on a corporate social media account, expressing how ‘stunned’ it/they was/were and how ‘thoughts are with’ those affected by the bombing of the Boston marathon. What had fired them to repost it was a combination of a) a sense of ambiguity over appropriateness and b) the social conundrum of an organisation – when all is said and done, an abstract entity – tweeting an emotional response. I’m not going to play ‘name and shame’ – it’s not entirely clear to me that shame is a word to be used – but it was an interesting point: how can something that might be a legal entity but isn’t an organic, living and breathing one feel the sense of sympathy that someone within it has chosen to use a social medium to express?
The company in question has a very active online presence, which is carefully pitched to be cool, youthful, hip and touchy-feely. We all understand that this is a branding thing, even if the collective appeal of Instagram snaps of someone else’s cupcakes and macarons does tend to lose its flavour over time. (Are pictures of food this year’s ‘dancing about architecture’?) They use words like ‘interactive’, ‘experience’, ‘yummy’ and ‘love’ a lot. Oh, and ‘community’. They are plainly sociable, sharing people. That’s all fine – I’m not especially in the market for their services, but their branding is both zeitgeisty and product-appropriate. If I was in their demographic, I’d doff my beret to them. But …
… over on the other social media platform, people who read a lot of tweets, status updates and the like are also people whose lives are sufficiently saturated in digital communication strategies that the intentions of the tweeting organisation were not greeted – or interpreted – as appropriate. Their overwhelming consensus was, to quote Euan Semple’s book title, Organisations don’t tweet, people do. (Although he did tweet a link to a Mashable article, Boston Police Schooled Us All on Social Media that deserves a read.) But that consensus contained a rainbow of shades of response:
- Terrorism is undeniably awful, but I don’t need to hear a potential supplier’s thoughts on it (frankly, the automatic assumption is that everyone thinks it appalling: some things don’t need to be said)
- Emotional responses to major news events, particularly of this kind, are understandable and human, but why not tweet them from personal accounts? – ie accounts clearly identified as being that of a person, not a collective entity (although exceptions can of course be made for heads of state and of government agencies involved in the incident response)
- Unless your organisation is directly engaged in some way (eg the location of the event, the ‘industry’), are you drawing attention to the event or to the organisation – even unintentionally, the strong consensus was that this was (at best) inappropriate.
One poster was blunter, pointing out that they typically avoid social media for a couple of days after such events as “social media is filled with grief junkies”.
There is also the non-unrelated angle of ‘what is news?’ The event, tragic or otherwise, is; using social media to alert the public to dangers, crowd-source evidence and quell rumour and speculation is news-ish. Tweeting your personal anguish probably isn’t. And for some people, tweeting your corporate anguish borders on bad taste. (Of course you’re upset at some level: we have already assumed that you are not sociopathic.)
The divisions between appropriate/inappropriate and news/not news are not the only ones that can be detected here, but perhaps the most pressing one is not to be found in the tweeted words – or in their absence. They are to be found in the people creating them.
A colleague pointed me to a blog by Xerox Chief Marketing Officer, Christa Carone, on her own experience of using social media. Two quotes in particular stood out for me, both at which illuminate aspects of the difference between the ‘corporate voice’ and the personal, human one:
Our executive team is proud of the Xerox brand presence in the social space, but we have a team-oriented, humble culture. I didn’t want to be seen as a chest-thumping “celebrity” executive who uses social media as a megaphone and whose personal brand can outshine their professional one.”
Although this is separated by several paragraphs in her blog posting, I couldn’t help but notice a more direct connection with a subsequent section:
Following a speech I delivered at an event in Philadelphia, a woman approached me and said, “I never thought I’d see the old brand Xerox represented by a woman in an orange dress who tweets and talks like she’s my next door neighbor. I thought Xerox was stodgy; now I can tell you’re not.” I wasn’t sure at first but I decided to take it as a compliment. We can’t all have “geniuses” representing our brand like Apple does, but never underestimate how brands can be personified by the simplest virtual and face-to-face social communication.”
I read this as indicating that she has understood that social media is a conversation like any other, but which takes place over wires and wi-fi networks rather than over a garden fence, a coffee table or a few carpet tiles in an office corridor. These new conversations may connect smartphones, tablets and laptops but that’s not really the point – they connect people.
And like any conversation, it tends to be more fruitful when you’re mindful not just of who you’re having the conversation with but of who they are having the conversation with. I would hope that we all know from our social experiences that a conversation with somebody who is talking with you rather than at you is one you’re more likely to extent or repeat.
Social media may happen on screens, but that doesn’t mean it is a form of television: it’s an invitation to dialogue, not broadcasting. And dialogue is something that we wish to have with a human voice, rather than the carefully scripted voice of a corporate brand: that, of course, has its place, but it is not ubiquitous.
Way back in 1997, Gerry McGovern wrote an article about one-to-one marketing – One to Robot? – and about how most of it was really no such thing. As he pointed out then, relationship marketing that forgets that relationships are involved misses its own point, but he also included a sentence that I have remembered for 16 years that we might adopt as a useful filter before tweeting:
Don’t send out a robot to do a human’s job.”