The Social Overwhelm

“We want brands to be there when we want them, but not when we don’t. We want them to be funny, and yet serious. We want them to know what we need, but they mustn’t listen in on our conversations. We’ve created a monster, and now we need to tame it.”

Tamara Littleton, founder and CEO, The Social Element

Global brands feel they’ve lost control of their social media. That is the finding of our research into 60 top global brands; when asked how in control they felt, they hit a worryingly low 6.5 out of 10.

The issues behind this lack of control are: a lack of resource vs the size of the challenge; containing and engaging with consumer content; and having too many channels to manage. Brands also feel unprepared in the event of a crisis, and worry about having a lack of consistent content across markets.

We tackled some of these issues in our ‘Social Overwhelm’ event for brands, held in central London this week. Our panel of speakers included: Reuben Arnold, VP Marketing and Product, EMEA, Starbucks; Debbie Vavangas, iX Industrial Sector Lead, IBM iX; Lee Goodger, Social Media Business Strategist, Shell; Tamara Littleton, Founder and CEO, The Social Element; and Blaise Grimes-Viort, Chief Services Officer, The Social Element. Chairing the panel was Justin Pearse, partner at Bluestripe Media, and the editor of New Digital Age.

The discussions focused on four main areas:

Global brands struggle with how to manage multiple social media channels across different regions, cultures, languages and sub-brands.

Arnold advised brands to think about how they present themselves as a global brand, but in a locally relevant way. “We take a toolkit approach,” he told the audience. “We provide the core assets at the centre, and a lot of the content, which can be edited by markets to be relevant, but in a controlled way. There are certain things they can’t change, but others they can.” He talked about using a combination of guidelines, guidance and guardrails to keep control.

Grimes-Viort stressed the importance of aligning social media with business goals. He recommends an immersion session as the first step, to understand how social media fits with the business. Next, run an audit of your social media as it is now. Then define your objectives and strategy, before you look at the structure for implementation. Then finally, create the rules of engagement, looking at things like tone of voice and governance guidelines. Supporting all this is great technology: “Technology allows us to tighten up workflows, make consistent decisions and eradicate errors, and continue to scale,” he said.

Balancing the requirements of the global brand versus local relevance and engagement can be challenging. Littleton and Grimes-Viort recommend a hub and spoke model for brands that want to retain some central control but still deliver relevant, localised content and engagement where they need it.

Within the central ‘hub’ sits the overall strategy, creative direction, tone of voice, brand guidelines, and standards for engagement and reporting. The local ‘spokes’ take responsibility for implementation of the strategy, localisation, engagement, quality assurance and data analysis and insights.

Brands are overwhelmed by the volume of content they have to deal with.

Insights gained from social listening programmes will help you understand what you should prioritise. Tamara Littleton said: “There’s a perception that brands should monitor and respond to absolutely everything that’s being said about them. They don’t.” Goodger agreed: “There can be an expectation that social can do everything and it can’t.” The answer is to prioritise. As Arnold said: “If someone puts their hand up and says they want to have a conversation with you, that’s an opportunity for the brand.”

Those conversations are all about creating genuine human connections. Vavangas said: “If you’re striving for 100 percent control, it’ll never happen. So instead, focus on how you can create a sense of brand belonging. How do you make people feel? Tap into something intrinsically human.” Technology can help you decide how and when to have those interactions with consumers, she said: “Consumers want relevant messages and you can’t get that without insight and data, driven by technology.”

Social media should support the business strategy.

Goodger advised brands to look at how social media supports their business strategy, rather than coming up with a social media strategy per se. “I prefer the term social business,” he said. He encourages people to bring their personal experience of social media into the business: “The more people use social media themselves, the more they’ll understand the nuances, and the better their decisions will be around strategy.”

Vavangas agreed: “Social media can’t be separate from a business strategy. Social is one of the execution elements of the business strategy,” she said. 

An issue will flare up and spread quickly across markets on social media.

“Issues are amplified if you have a global brand,” said Arnold. “Some can be handled locally, but others might need to be escalated to a central hub.” Littleton encouraged brands to collaborate when dealing with an issue, and not to overreact. “There’s a lot of negativity on social media and not everything is a crisis,” she said.

Grimes-Viort advised brands to break down silos. He referred to a book by Patrick Lencioni, ‘Silos, Politics and Turf Wars’, which makes the comparison to a hospital: “In an ER room, there are no silos. Everyone has a single purpose. That’s what you want when managing an issue. In that moment, there should be a single purpose – to protect the brand.”

Finally, each member of the panel was asked to give one piece of advice to the brands attending.

“Don’t think of social media as separate, but as part of your business and comms strategy,” said Arnold.

Goodger said: “Use online listening so you understand what your audience wants, and give them that.”

Make sure the business understands what you deliver and how it integrates with wider branding and marketing activities, was Grimes-Viort’s advice. “Ask your boss’s boss if they understand what you do.”

Vavangas asked brands to use social media responsibly: “That terrifying future of Black Mirror is possible if we don’t use social well. Use it responsibly, embed it in your business responsibly, teach your children to use it responsibly. Be good humans.”

Littleton advised brands to go back to basics. “Research your audience – who they are and why they talk to you – to find your purpose. Look at all of your social media accounts,  and channel Marie Kondo: ‘Does this give you joy?’ If not, cull it. It’ll help you get back control.”

For more advice on how to simplify complex social media environments, see The Social Element’s guide: Simplifying complex social media for global brands.

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