It’s not as easy as it sounds. Think about it: there are millions of actual human beings who struggle with this idea every single day. Little experiences like waiting in line at the coffee shop, getting a parking ticket, or realizing we’ve lost a sock can knock us off our game. And that’s without even mentioning things like job stressors, financial planning, or even our own brain’s chemistry acting to hamper our progress. Brands don’t have to endure these obstacles (with the exception of financial planning), but they are at a bit of a disadvantage: they’re NOT people.
So how do they shed the perception of being monoliths in the uncaring abyss of transactional existence? Is it even worth it? First off: Yes, it’s worth it. If people perceive a brand as human, they’re more likely to trust them, listen to them, and interact with them. People don’t send tweets out into the ether to hear them echo unanswered in their own consciousness. They’re doing it because they want someone to relate to it, to think it’s funny or smart or cool. They want to feel like someone understands them. And if brands want people to let their guard down, we have to understand that it’s not going to come from 20% off coupons. Sure, coupons are great, but that immediately establishes a relationship as transactional. That’s low-stakes, easy, short-sighted, and more than a little desperate—especially at a time when consumers are basically tattooing “INTERACT WITH ME, BRANDS!” on their foreheads and strolling through Times Square.
Not literal Times Square. The figurative Times Square of the Internet. Massive cultural crossroads with unprecedented traffic, performers begging for interaction, thousands of brands clamoring for attention, a previously unparalleled monument to capitalism that brings out both the best and worst of the world and concentrates it into a teeny-tiny bit of real estate? Yeah. Consumers are making themselves easy marks. So how do marketers help brands become living, breathing Cousin Lindas or BFFs? We don’t. But we can get close, and there are a few ways. But until we teach robots how to love, we’ve got some work to do. Here are some of the steps we can take:
The groundwork already exists because most brands are already set up to have the conversations that everyone told them they should have. The problem? The conversations themselves. When we spend so much time talking about ourselves and adhering to a content calendar or “planned real-time” content, we lose the spontaneous nature of social media. People should feel like a brand’s tweets and Facebook posts are from someone they know and want to keep up with. That often means that brands don’t get to decide what to talk about. Their followers do.
We often get bogged down in the data that come from our extensive analytics reports. Those reports are an outstanding tool, but they also present a challenge. How do we use the data we’ve compiled without being beholden to it? One way is to think about our data in terms of what will work NEXT, not what has already worked. The most important thing there? Those two things are NEVER going to be the same.
Now, that doesn’t mean we have to completely overthrow the way we view social media and analytics. It just means we have to look a little deeper to find a real connection with consumers. This all sounds pretty big, so let’s justify our section heading. Why “Start Small?” Because it only takes one small piece of common ground to make a connection. This kind of thing is rooted in understanding not only your target audience, but yourself as a brand. Which, funny enough, provides a pretty nice segue to our next section…
Know who you are
You know those personas we always do? They grow from focus groups, data, and some mild stereotyping, but usually serve as handy tools when determining our target audience. Thing is, when you’re starting to refine your social media presence, the first persona you create should be your own. Each post you create should have the same voice, the same presence, the same vibe (to borrow a term from Instagram). Each piece of content you produce should embody your brand’s identity and fit seamlessly into the life of your persona.
It’s almost as though you’ve created a character to represent your brand, and that character controls all the social media apps. This person needs to be consistent without staying the same, possessing relatable qualities found in your desired audience while sprinkling in unique personality traits that make them real. Maybe they like knitting. Or car shows. It can be nearly anything as long as you’re grounding your character in the real world and not trying to create some positivity paradise that literally no one is living in. This might even mean posting things that (brace yourself) are not about your brand.
The Internet, like Chicago or New York, Los Angeles or Oklahoma City, is a place where people live. It has its own language, its own commerce, its own currency, and even its own celebrities. So when you’re interacting within the market of the internet, you have some rules you need to follow and a few you can afford to break.
The most breakable rules you can find are the ones that exist in the real world. The internet is not the real world. It’s this twisted hybrid reality/fantasy realm where people can create entire lives for themselves from their beanbag lap desks, or pretend to conquer mythical orc realms from their desk. The point is that people’s personality changes on the internet, and a brand’s should, too. And that means finding new ways to interact with people and new content ideas that feel unexpected and, wait for it…like a person. And that includes choosing who to interact with.
In that instance, it’s a numbers game. Dakota Fanning might not retweet what you have to say, but who knows? Maybe ELLE Fanning will. The point is this: become a part of the platform you’re on. Interact with celebrities, comedy accounts, and randos who just happen to be internet famous. You don’t need to pay people to post about you on Insta if you do something that’s WORTH posting on Insta. This often requires a lot of attention and time, but that’s what community managers (and sometimes interns) are for.
Stand for Something
It doesn’t have to be about the big, hot-button issues that today’s society is facing. It could be as simple as “rainbow sprinkles are bad.” But you have to believe in something and work toward that. We can learn from sketch comedy writing on this one. In your very first sketch writing class, you learn that every character in a sketch has to WANT something. Whether it’s world peace or a glass of Pino Grigio, each character has to be driven by a desire. That’s true in sketch comedy. It’s true in life. It should be true in brand marketing.
Will there be fallout? Maybe. Will people not like you because of what you stand for? Probably. That’s something all brands need to be prepared for. Not everyone is going to like you. Just like with people, there’s no such thing as a brand that’s universally loved. Every new initiative is going to be met with backlash, and every period of stasis is going to be met with calls for real, substantive change.
You’re not going to win every battle. It’s just not in the cards. And that means rather than trying, you have to stick to who you are. Look at each new business initiative through the eyes of your persona. See each element of your brand the way your consumers look at it, and adjust your message accordingly. You don’t have to be invincible. In fact, vulnerability and willingness to listen are even more valuable. The problem is that it may require understanding your shortcomings as a brand. That’s really hard for marketers to do, because no one wants to be introspective when their job is on the line. But when you do the cost-benefit analysis, a more human presence in social media means more brand favorability, more interaction, and more followers. You add all that up and your job looks a lot safer without sacrificing much at all.
Don’t be afraid
Trust your social media partners to say things that represent you, even if they aren’t connected to a specific business objective. Obviously don’t let them say anything horrible, but the social media sphere has a short memory. Sure, people will screen cap tweets and show you receipts any time you’re being disingenuous, but that doesn’t mean you have to resort to circling the wagons. It means you can afford to be bold within the bounds of the identity you’ve created, but understand that people are also capable of contrition. If your brand messes up, you should fess up. Like a person.
This also helps underscore the importance of developing a consistent voice and presence. If people sense change, they get uneasy, so it’s tough to create a brand persona without ruffling a few feathers. If you stick with it, though, you’ll start to make new, more meaningful connections, so the ones you lost are just part of the process. And hey, some of them will probably still buy your stuff. Now, this is the part where I mention the difference between “consistency” and “sameness.”
Your social media team should view each potential post through a very specific lens: “Would our character say this?” Like actors on a movie set, we may have to improvise and get creative so we can adjust our main messages into something our brand would actually talk about. Your brand persona is capable of evolving, but it’s important that each evolution feel organic to who they are. Your brand is now an Internet Person, so people are going to be looking at it closely. Some might even ask “r u ok?” or say “Sir, this is an Arby’s” if you’re going too far afield. Take it in stride and adapt. The only real crisis will come if you say something outright inflammatory in a bad way. And yes, there is such a thing as inflammatory in a good way. Remember the debate about the blue and black dress?
Give a little
We all have budget constraints. But there’s no such thing as a person that is struggling to meet their quarterly projections. As a result, that can’t be your motivation. First and foremost, this has to be about making connections. So that means you have to put yourself out there: give away some tchotchkes, maybe a couple of free hats. Throw a party or two and pay for the schmancy Snapchat filter. Invest in the persona you’ve created and do the things they would do to make new friends.
That means paying attention to the constantly-changing news cycle, engaging in the conversations that feel organic to your character, and taking some calculated risks. Each one might not pay off, but if you cultivate your presence and work at it consistently, it’ll build over time.
One of the main challenges about this approach to social media is that it’s hard to measure ROI on it. However, you can definitely see the connections you’ve made. And it’s easier than ever to analyze in real time. People do it for you: likes, comments, retweets, follows, and even something as simple as profile expansions are useful tools at our disposal to figure out what’s falling flat and what’s creating new connections. And connections are as good as money these days. That’s an unfortunate truth for humanity, but a major opportunity for brands. And that’s why we do what we do, right? Which leads me to my last, internal-only point:
In the end, it’s still about your priorities: meeting projections, promoting the brand, and increasing engagement and brand relevance. It looks a little different than it did even a few short years ago, but that’s ok. It’s time to acknowledge that consumerism has changed and do what it takes to catch up to it. In short: be a person.