Twistance image courtesy of @StollmeyerEU and poster design by Vanessa Whitter
Right or Left, if there has ever been a time where you’ve become jaded to the power of social media, the last 10 days should restore your faith in the power of the medium. It also reinforces a few lessons that individuals, brands, and yes, even governments, should know – at least they should read the manual before engaging.
I’ll be honest, I’ve worked in the social media space for so long, and seen so many trends come and go, that I’d started to become immune to its power, and the reasons I became so passionate about it to begin with. I was sure that Twitter was on its last legs as a platform, and might not make it through 2017 in one piece. I have been known to tell anyone who cared to listen that Facebook was evil, and that it was more concerned about its dominance than for its users.
I still think those things to an extent, but I think the social media deluge in the last few weeks has lessons for these social media superpowers, too, to adjust, survive, and actually maybe thrive.
Let’s take a look at a “10,000-foot-view” roundup of recent Twitter events.
– There’s a POTUS that uses Twitter to express his every thought, every moment he has one.
– There’s an army, for both sides of the political spectrum, using Twitter to press an agenda, taunt the other side, and “trend” topics to present such an array of false information, that no one knows the truth. (Gaslighting/alternative facts.)
– And there’s a grass-roots movement, so swift, so sweeping, that it’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen, to make sure that there is a #resistance to both of these things.
Then, there’s Facebook. I don’t know about you, but my Facebook feed used to be useless. Full of “I had a sandwich for lunch today!” and “I’m so important!” or “My life is so awesome and other useless drivel!” that it was my social channel of last resort. A place for photos and sentiment that I put there only so my parents and in-laws could feel connected to our lives many states away. Between photos of everyone’s kids and dogs and these ridiculous graphics that let us quote ourselves so we’ll feel more important, I would dread the daily check in. To quote a recent meme, I’d look to see what was happening aaaaaand I’m now in an argument.
But in recent days, it’s become a place of information. Advice on how to know what is and is not fake news. Voices of reason (thank you Dan Rather) in an otherwise tumultuous assault on my political senses. No longer filled with partisanship, there is a sudden awareness of democracy, the process, and a new urgency from despair that maybe we’d gotten a little too complacent as a citizenry.
I’d forgotten, as I expect the US government had as well, that Facebook and Twitter brought about an Arab Spring. In a few short months, an entire ruling body was brought to its knees by the power of the people displayed through social media.
Even Instagram, my recent social media channel of choice and serenity, has taken on a new tone. It’s still full of engaging photos and visual moments, but those moments have become much more visceral, much more personal, and much less a carefully curated existence.
What can Twitter and Facebook (the current landlord of Instagram) learn from all of this?
For Twitter, I think they should note that is their real-time nature where lies their strength and sway. From moment-to-moment protest information to breaking news, Twitter is directing an entire movement from place to place, hour by hour, even minute by minute.
I remember vividly now how I knew that pop-icon Michael Jackson had died about a half hour before the traditional news media aired their first broadcast, so this should be no surprise. Twitter, I think, has tried to become something it’s not, becoming too concerned with advertiser drivel and paid emojis (which they denied to POTUS and he still resents – again, WRONG FOCUS.) There’s a place for that, but not if your audience abandons you before you figure it out.
For Facebook, it all centers around community. The ability for users to come together around a common enemy or cause, and join together, stronger as one voice than as separate shouts. Mobilizing with moments, and allowing one side or the other to drown out the propaganda and post real stories from real people.
What can brands and businesses learn from all this? I think it comes down to a few key points.
1. Authenticity drowns out marketing. This is why I fell in love with social media from the very beginning. It allows for one-on-one connections, a way for people to filter out the noise and find their own truth (true or not.) I think that perhaps the current administration, in all their love for a medium that allows them to carefully stoke an undercurrent and craft an alternative universe, forgot that social media makes the world a much smaller place than it is. Individuals have a voice, and they can use it. They ain’t buyin’ what you’re sellin’ – it applies to more than politics.
2. It’s all about trust. Edelman should pay me a royalty for how much I reference their annual trust survey information. I don’t know if the last year helped the gap of trust to grow to such proportions, or if it’s been cracking for a while now (I suspect a bit of both), but this year’s survey showcases how untrusting we are. People are far more trusting of their networks of friends, family and colleagues than they are of a brand (or government.) This is why if you are right-leaning, your Facebook feed will be filled with those like you, and the same for the left-leaning. But I think again, what the current climate is filled with, is distrust for anyone in power. Heck, even employees in the latest numbers are trusted by 16 points more than the CEO for cripe’s sake!
Brands, take notice. You are spitting in the wind. If your customers, your employees and your influencers aren’t authentically (back to number 1) saying what you’re marketing, you’re wasting your money in the end.
3. Storytelling for the win. Sweeping generalizations are becoming marketing noise, and individual stories are now the currency of social media. If we take, for example, the latest uproar around the perception of a #MuslimBan, it is the individual stories that have compelled a response. Individual detainees in airports have seen their stories become national news. One former US soldier (through about 20 Tweets) made a case for a refugee who he thought faced certain death by helping his squadron in Iraq. From Olympians to scientists studying diabetes, it’s the story that sways perception, not the Twitter posts of a failing PR machine.
4. If you try to silence your critics in social media, you actually empower them to be louder. In trying to control perception, the US government has actually empowered a new kind of voice – the ALT government account movement, I’ll call them. To battle a stream of alternative facts, they became the home of the TRUTH (all caps for effect.) These ALT accounts (the ALT EPA, the ALT National Park Service, etc.) have been empowered to become the voice that was being drowned out. It’s the same for brands and businesses. The minute you try to remove a bad review, or don’t respond to a genuine concern out of fear for your PR machine, you allow these voices to become louder than your own, and take on a life of their own. You’re far better off by responding authentically (there’s that number 1 again) and admitting mistakes than trying to PR your way out of something. What’s to stop the next Alt-Uber, or Alt-Google, or ALT-your-business?
I don’t think we’ve learned the last lesson of social media. In the coming days, the #resistance may teach brands even more about a world where each person has a voice, and can create insta-celebrities out of regular people. The lessons mentioned here are not new, but rather re-affirmed in a brave new world.