Free Social Media Advice for Brands: Find Your Obsessions

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Brands continue to flock to social media, but the massive growth phase for most networks is over and you no longer are going to rise with the tide. Now, if you want mindshare, you're going to have to fight for it. I'm here to help.

I should admit up front that I am not a credentialed social-media consultant. I don't use Pinterest and Path to sell shoes. But I do think about how to build audiences and how to design content that people want to read and share. So, consider these thoughts as notes from an outsider. I'm talking mostly to lifestyle brands here, businesses that would run ads in high-end consumer magazines/websites, but the lessons could apply more broadly.

So, first, you've got a problem. If you weren't lucky enough to get promoted by Twitter itself (like, say, Yves St. Laurent), it's going to be very hard to build a following. And even if you are YSL, most of the followers you got from being on Twitter's recommended list are dead wood. They won't actually help you spread the word.

You need to build an audience. But how? Just treating a Twitter or Facebook feed like a marketing channel doesn't work. In social media, you have to build the channel itself first, and then you can market through it. (Note that this is what magazines and such have been doing for a long time; we create the content that creates the channel and you all get to sell people stuff through it. BUT seeing as how you are determined to do this yourself, I will offer this humble suggestion.)

Lifestyle brands can't just promote their sales and send out coupon codes and retweet when people say nice things about them. Instead, they need to treat their social media presence as a kind of retail space, where they include the 10 or so things that their brand is supposed to mean or be associated with. I will call these things (topics, ideas, hobbies, ideals) "brand obsessions," which I'm sure I'm unknowingly stealing from someone's slide deck.

Take PBR, @pabstblueribbon. Scroll through that feed. You'll see not just references to beer and community shoutouts but summer rooftops, bands, bikes, tattooed girls playing basketball, skateboards, mustaches, beards, mullets (the haircut and the fish), barbecuing, people pouring beer into pink flamingos, surfing, and breakfast burritos. The feed runner has developed a voice in which it makes sense for him or her to tweet, "Just got resurrected by a breakfast burrito." It's all about saying: "This brand knows how you live. This brand gets you. This brand, too, appreciates a breakfast burrito when it is hungover."

pabst.jpg

@pabstblueribbon


Of course, you might say it's easy for PBR and this kind of engagement would be tougher for an upscale brand with an older target demographic. But I return to the idea of a Twitter feed as a retail space, not a marketing channel. Look at a gorgeous Ralph Lauren retail outlet. There's a canoe hanging on the ceiling and some old photos of aviators (the people, not the glasses) and maybe, just maybe, a photo of people playing polo. Am I seriously suggesting that Ralph Lauren tweet about games played on horses and outdoor sports? Yes! Post links to smart articles on Outside Magazine and get Instagrams of the polo tournament in Dubai and post a retro photo of a heroic aviatrix flying over France. Of course, it'll take some time to tune the the voice so that it's classy like a Wagoneer and not "classy" like a stretch hummer.

And man, take it from a media guy, voice is hard. Most upscale brands' voices on social media get stuck in the linguistic uncanny valley: not quite a robot, but not a full human either. PBR solved that problem by hiring a young person who is living the brand. It's not so easy to find someone who just happens to be in Dubai for the polo tourney and who wants a job posting 20 times a day to Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and Pinterest.

But that's actually an operational advantage of the brand obsession approach to social media. It's much easier to troll the Internet around 5 or 10 themes and then post the most interesting stuff from that work. (What do you think us bloggers do, after all?) It's almost a corporatist twist on Jay Rosen's idea of mindcasting on social media. He doesn't tweet what he had for breakfast but what he read over breakfast. And in a sense, brands can do the same thing. I'd even say it's more honest than "living" the brand because the social media operator is *imagining* what it's like to live the brand, which is ultimately what one's customers are doing, too.

And then, once you've established this deep emotional connection with your ever-growing social media audience, you wryly, knowingly cram all the promotional stuff through the channel and hope that people connect with it the same way they connect with your mindcasting. (Again, what do you think we bloggers do?)

Welcome to the content game.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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