What no one ever tells you about Social Media

‘How should our brand write for Facebook, Twitter and [insert the next big thing here]?’ That’s a question nervous brand managers ask us a lot at the moment.

To their slight dismay, we don’t hand over a template, a guideline or a guaranteed-to-get-you-more-retweets-than-that-Oscars-selfie trade secret. Because social media is different to other writing. You’re talking to people, so it’s even more important to sound like a real person when you write.

It’s probably no surprise that the best brands’ Twitter accounts often just have one person writing their updates. And they don’t just understand the brand they’re writing for, they put their own personality into the words too:

This is a hard lesson for old-school branding folk to get their heads around because it’s almost impossible to replicate or neatly slot into a template.

But that’s not all. We’ve noticed that the more brands go off on tangents or say things that don’t necessarily sound ‘on-brand’, the more people warm to them.

Some of these examples have been doing the rounds on Twitter recently, so you might have seen them, but they help us show what’s going on:

Or take these tweets between O2 customer services and one of their customers:

This breaks every rule in the old-school marketing book. If O2 wrote like this or mimicked their audience elsewhere, it would be embarrassingly bad. But on Twitter it works. That tweet, by the way, was retweeted over 5,000 times. Not bad for a customer services’ enquiry.

And that’s the thing about social media: anyone can eavesdrop. The world and her dog have a glass to their ear, listening to your every murmur through the wall. When O2 were having problems with their network back in July 2012, we, like a lot of people, searched their Twitter feed to see how they were managing it. As it turned out they were doing a sterling job. Their deadpan replies, especially, made some of the more extreme abuse from angry customers seem uncalled for and unfair (although, importantly, they didn’t ignore them either).

What happened next was just as interesting. Twitter’s eavesdroppers picked up on the conversations and joined in.

O2 showed that if social media is managed well in a mini-crisis, customer service doesn’t just help you deal with people’s problems, it can also help to show how good your customer service is. Full credit to them. This only worked because they gave the people dealing with the complaints enough freedom to give real, unscripted (and funny) responses.

And in the best examples, even if the response is scripted, it will work as long as it’s not the expected press release blah. Exhibit A, Bodyform’s reply to a comment about them on Facebook:

It’s much more all-singing and all-dancing than a little tweet, but it shares Twitter’s speed (it was made over a weekend, faster than any ad campaign) and humour. It’s brilliant because it’s so surprising for a brand to take off their suited-and-booted corporate mask and laugh at themselves. Hats off to the brave client.

These examples are still, alas, exceptions to the more empty-headed rule. Most brands still treat their Facebook and Twitter accounts as ticker feeds for rolling promotions, adverts and retweets of people saying how much they love them. If you ask an open-ended question you might well ‘start a conversation’ as the social media mantra goes. But if you’ve got nothing to say, the internet’s replies will always outsmart you.

And worse, if brands carry on as they are, and don’t react to what’s happening around them, they can be left standing around looking stupid. Or grossly insensitive, like this:

Eurgh.

The sparky replies from the likes of Waterstones Oxford Street and O2 do it differently. Here comes the theory…

1) They’re immediate. With social media, fourteen rounds of amends and eighty editors just doesn’t work.

2) The Waterstones and O2 examples are arguably a lot more interesting than the brands they’re writing for (O2: blue, bubbles; Waterstones: slightly bookish but trying to leave their 3-for-2 days behind). It’s what makes them even more surprising.

3) The writers have the freedom to put their personality into the words.

4) It’s not direct mail – they’re not selling at you. Or when they are, they do it in an unexpected and witty way.

5) There’s no template.

6) They’ve actually got something to say.

All this reflects where branding as a whole is heading. Gone are the days of the logo being king, in one colour, in one place, with an accompanying 4,000-page guideline. Things are loosening up a little.

But the main reason these examples shine is that the people tapping away at the keyboard are good writers. If we had to boil everything down to one tip, in 140 characters or fewer, it’s this:

Hire a good writer, not a social media manager. Then leave them to it.

End of theory.