Let's put the social back in social media marketing

Let's put the social back in social media marketing
Oct 28, 2019

Since REI announced in 2015 that it would close all its stores on Black Friday as part of its #OptOutside marketing campaign, it has become the paragon of social media marketing. For good reason: #OptOutside drove 1.4 million people to go outside and garnered 1.2 billion social impressions. Four years later, the campaign is still up and running.

It’s not easy to conjure up your own version of #OptOutside’s social media magic. For most marketers, the challenge comes down to fundamentally rethinking the way they approach social media. Too many have become almost singularly focused on the media part of social media. They’re fixated on impressions and attributions rather than investing in the social part – the authentic stories their brands have to tell.

If those stories are true to the brand’s values, if they genuinely reflect what the brand stands for, they’ll do more than just sell products – they’ll build genuine social connections that, like #OptOutside, create brand loyalty, even evangelism. You can’t fake that, especially in social media.

Everybody loves data

The original promise of social media was the ability to interact with the public at both the mass and individual levels – and that promise lives on. Through Facebook and the other big social platforms, brands can join conversations among individual consumers and participate in them. They can even start new conversations that consumers actually choose to participate in.

But that’s not easy, and few brands are able to pull it off. Especially in big companies, it’s far easier to justify marketing budgets with flashy short-term gains in customer acquisition, bolstered by yet more data attributing the gains to a recent blitzkrieg of promoted posts. Looking at the data makes everybody happy. The CEO/CMO gets to see the ROI on her marketing budget; the marketing team gets a raise; Facebook gets more ad revenue. What’s not to love?

The results, for starters. It’s not only that social ads seem to be losing their efficacy – more than 60 percent of small businesses say Facebook ads don’t achieve their target engagement and some businesses have even sued Facebook, claiming the ads don’t deliver – it’s also that brands who concentrate their social media efforts on paid promotion are missing a massive opportunity.

They could be building relationships with customers, creating authentic connections, using social media to show their humanity – to remind people that behind the logos and taglines there are real human beings, with purposes and values, making and selling a product they believe in.

Getting back to social

To start, you must know your company’s values and purpose. That requires taking a probing look into the culture, asking questions like “What gets our people out of bed every day?” and “What makes us feel good about what we do?”

It’s not an easy journey – identifying your values is inherently subjective and requires radical candor. The whole team has to commit to being completely honest about what your brand is about, what it stands for and what really motivates them. If everyone is telling you what they think you want to hear, or just throwing the mission statement back at you, you’ll wind up with something inauthentic – and social media is very, very good at detecting, exposing and punishing corporate inauthenticity.

REI’s campaign didn’t work because they happened to land on the right hashtag at the right time, but because #OptOutside aligned with the company’s 80-plus year commitment to outdoor life, and to valuing environmental stewardship as much as profitability. And they drew an astute connection between their established values and a real-world phenomenon they saw in the retail world: the inhuman rush of consumerism that Black Friday had become.

Given its well-established values, shutting down on the biggest revenue day of the year to encourage its customers to go for a hike instead made perfect sense for REI. You can’t fake values like that (and don’t even think about trying to fake your history) – your social presence has to reflect what your brand really is, not what you wish it was.

Partly for that reason, you can’t expect spectacular results overnight. The social media landscape is littered with brands that tried to suddenly jump into meaningful conversations without establishing the credibility to participate in them. Similarly a couple of clever tweets aren’t going to instantly convince the world that your company exists to save the Earth.

But if you seek real answers and refuse to settle for anything less than the truth, you’ll discover your brand’s essence, what it truly means. By expressing that essence and letting the world know what you stand for, you can put a stake in the ground. Social media can still provide the ground – it’s up to you to find the right stake.

ICF’s global marketing services agency focuses on helping your organization find opportunity in disruption.
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