Many years ago, we taught a social media class that focused on making content. We charged the students to find small local businesses that would authorize them to write content (specifically content for Twitter, because it was simpler to create and review) for them over the semester. And the students learned two things almost immediately. First, that all social media is different – Twitter from facebook from Pinterest from Instagram and on and on. They have different strengths and different weaknesses, and that the ways that people engage with them are distinct as well. And that therefore it is the job of marketers to understand these differences and to learn how to use them to their benefit. Or, said another way, there’s more to what makes Twitter Twitter and Instagram Instagram than the fact that one is owned by Mark Zuckerberg and one is not.
And second, that no one cares about what you have to say. That no one is sitting around waiting for the next tweet from the pizza shop or coffee shop or boutique you’ve given this sweet deal to. Hell, they’re barely waiting for what Nike has to say. Which were good things to learn because not only are they true about social media, they are applicable to marketing in general.
But a third insight developed during the semester which was also a surprise to them and it was this: the use of social media for advertising is fundamentally different from the use of it by humans. Which they discovered in a couple of ways. First, as they learned that they were supposed to write in the voice of their client’s brand and not in their own. And that therefore second, there were tones of voice, topics, and even timings that might be fine for their personal accounts but that didn’t make sense for clients.
And the thing about this third insight is what it reveals that is unique about social media – and that creates unique challenges for the marketers who use it. It reveals that social media is, at its core, consumer-based. That is, unlike tv, radio, newspapers, out-of-home, and all the rest, social media began as a medium that consumers used to engage with other consumers. Or said another way, consumers didn’t make TV commercials, or billboards or newspaper ads to show their friends what they were eating or what cute thing their cats had done. Those media forms were always corporate-based. But social didn’t start there. Indeed, it started so far from corporate that the challenge for it has always been around monetizing it. That is, getting big companies to pay to use it for advertising.
Now, in what other era has advertising had to deal with this kind of media challenge? The challenge of taking a consumer medium and overlaying it with the specific needs and wants of advertising? “Needs and wants” like differentiation or activation. Because these are not things people who use facebook, twitter or, in this particular case, Instagram, do. They’re not trying to “activate” people. They’re not trying to “look relevant”. Hell, they’re not even trying to relate or connect the way brands are; that connection already exists because they’re friends on social media. Friends do not use social media as a way to say “hey, I’m just like you; like me and give me your money”; they’re using it for entirely different reasons.
So no wonder our students didn’t understand that brands couldn’t talk to people on twitter the way they did – because talking to people the way they did was, in a sense, the norm for twitter. And advertising – despite the billions of dollars it generates to fund it – was the aberration.
And nowhere is that more apparent than on Instagram. Instagram, who understood before most others – facebook certainly – that mobile was the future. Instagram, the one platform of the big four, that is the most directly creative. Where consumers don’t just comment on, or pass along, or curate existing things, but where they actually generate their own new art. You remember art, right? One human’s personal expression of what it means to experience the world around them?
Which is why this is a good time to revisit Jason G. Miles Instagram Power; to remind ourselves of the fundamentals and the challenges facing us, despite the fact that so much has changed in the social media landscape since its publication. Fundamentals that Mr. Miles articulates clearly and succinctly, like “Your aim and ambition must be subordinated to the aspirations and goals of your clientele.” And “Why should I follow you on Instagram if I already follow you on Twitter (or Facebook or Pinterest)?” And perhaps most importantly “When you sell a service, you are really selling a relationship.”
As we said, fundamental marketing concepts. But concepts that can never be repeated too often, to novice marketers or those who should know better. Concepts that take on a different meaning when one thinks about social media as presenting an unexpected challenge to marketers when it is understood as being a uniquely and intrinsically consumer-first medium. And therefore is competing daily with consumer content in a way that all other media is not and never has done.
And yes, advertising has always competed for attention with consumer content on some level. Because it exists in the world, among the things of our lives. Which is why Howard Gossage was so right when he said “People pay attention to what interests them. Sometimes that’s an ad.”
The difference today is that in the past, we fought that battle to win consumers’ attention. With social media, we’re trying to win their attention while fighting against them.
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