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Killing the content plan and other ways to shake up social media marketing

Dan Pinch,  executive creative director at King James Group and co-founder of King James Digital

 Cape Town, I’m probably not alone in feeling that a lot of what brands do on social media doesn’t work that well. Despite increased media and production budgets, teams of specialists, and expensive social management tools something often feels flat. The impact for the effort involved can be missing.

It’s easy to blame Facebook and say the algorithm has killed organic reach, and that the only way to reach our audience is to buy ad units. And yes, maybe that’s true. But then where are all the promised clicks and leads from those ads? Beware of surveys of one, but since I first started hanging out online, I’ve yet to click on an ad and immediately buy anything (as far as I can remember). So are we all wasting our time here chasing a miserable trickle of leads from clicks? Well, I really hope not. The Internet continues to change the commercial world around in ways we probably all still vastly underestimate and we absolutely should be taking advantage of social media.

Although I’ve rarely (if ever) clicked to purchase anything I’ve certainly been influenced by brands online. I buy Nike because I often end up admiring their shoes on Instagram. I regularly use Airbnb because I heard about them somewhere on the web. If I were in the market for an industrial turbine, I’d certainly consider getting one from General Electric who create content the Discovery channel would be jealous of. I also watch occasional concerts on Red Bull TV, have listened to podcasts from Landrover and Nasa and shared things from Burger King (US) regularly. Again, a survey of one, but I’m pretty sure we’re influenced by brands and making purchase decisions based on social content all the time.

Although we regularly hear organic reach is dead; there are still plenty of teenagers amassing millions of views on YouTube (the top YouTuber of last year was a seven-year-old). And while there are brands with hundreds of thousands of followers that can barely muster ten likes on a tweet there are also brands with relatively small followings that get massive organic reach and engagement. There is plenty of organic reach out there still.

I really believe that digital marketing can build strong brands (and drive sales as a result). But I also think that many standard corporate practices in running social media are limiting chances of success. Many of the methods that a few years ago helped run social channels competently now actively hinder it.

So here are a few suggestions that have helped our clients:

  1. Have a strategy

Sorry to start with the blindingly obvious but not having a clear plan is still the biggest problem for most brands. A good strategy should translate business goals into communications goals and from those figuring out what is relevant on social media. Once you have that sorted there are three basic approaches to follow. I’d suggest you can choose one of the following, or a combination:

Approach 1: Promoted ads

I’d recommend this for smaller brands or those with limited resources. Don’t worry about organic content or running pages, focus on making the best ads you possibly can and target them at the right people. Just focus on a relatively small number of ads and make sure they have a clear point and that they pop in the newsfeed. If you know traditional ads it’s not too hard to figure out how to transfer your knowledge to social (you’ll just have to get to the point a lot quicker and think of the mobile environment more). I’d still not be too optimistic about a click and an immediate sale, but you can start consumers on a journey to a purchase transaction with these ads.

Approach 2: Social content

This is where it gets harder, as what works in traditional advertising doesn’t always work well in making content. I see social content as different from an ad — it isn’t talking directly about products but trying to build a relationship. Content includes the home improvement tips from insurance companies; the concert footage from drinks brands; the sassy tweets from burger chains.

This typically requires a much more consumer-centric approach than advertising. By this I mean the focus is on what the viewer will find appealing or useful as the priority not what the brand wants to say.

To be clear, I’m not saying this is organic content (I’d still promote it to the right audience with a decent budget).

Approach 3: Social business:

This is providing services and products via social channels. This includes your community managers providing a helpdesk function but also airline Messenger bots that allow you to book and manage travel without ever leaving Facebook.

A typical strategy for a larger brand can involve all three of these, but it doesn’t have to. My experience is that brands spread themselves far too thin trying to do all three and more focus would help keep costs down and be more effective.

  1. Don’t obsess over direct clicks on ads

If 90% of your business is done in-store or via an intermediary (a broker for financial services for example), then you’re probably not going to get an immediate purchase online from a click. Shaping everything around clicks is like making TV ads and only calling them a success if people phone a number immediately after they air. Most people are not going to phone after a TV ad to buy something, and most are not going to click immediately on a Facebook ad. But these ads can still persuade you to make a purchase maybe weeks later out in the real world. Being realistic about consumer behavior will help to optimize ads for the right thing.

  1. Kill the content plan

Content plans encourage laziness and box ticking. They also completely ignore that the public conversation and mood changes rapidly and you can’t possibly know the environment you’re dropping content into a month from now.

You’ll need some kind of rough schedule for larger production pieces (or the media company will hate you). However, if you’re focused on creating regular social content I would mix pre-created assets with spontaneously created posts that fit the public conversation and make a decision what to drop on any given day.

  1. Never post filler content

Filler content (to tick a box on the content plan) teaches algorithms to throttle your posts and consumers to ignore you. No one is hanging around waiting for a brand to post or keeping track that it hasn’t posted for three days (this is liberating to discover). It’s a much better plan to post something awesome four times a month than something weak 30 times.

We’ve tried to discourage the use of the description “always-on” in the agency as it also gives the impression that filler content is acceptable.

  1. Kill the corporate tone of voice

Hating a faceless corporate entity is easy. It’s much harder to hate brands that feel like there are genuine human beings behind them. That’s why the strategy of posting in the first person rather than using the corporate “we” can work so well (it’s not for everyone but works great for Wendys, Netflix and Nasa probes on Mars). I would ruthlessly weed out anything that signals “written by corporate committee” and allow some human looseness in your copy.

On this subject brand hashtags that sound like bad tag lines (or are bad tag lines) are the devil.

  1. Be playful. Be surprising.

The human brain only really switches on if it comes across something surprising and out of the ordinary. Otherwise, it doesn’t retain information (that’s why you can’t remember your commute this morning but can remember some weird thing from two decades ago). Since the start of advertising the good stuff has always had a surprising punch to it.

Brands are typically too influenced by their category as that’s what the people behind them look at all day. A starting point for me is to try and find a creative space and language that is entirely the opposite of what the rest of the category is doing (even if what they’re doing is perfectly strategically sound it will just be wallpaper).

  1. Be inspired by the entertainment world not the ad world

The entertainment world creates content people (mostly) pay money to consume. The ad world makes content people are forced to consume and often pay to opt out of (Spotify premium for example). Which industry do you think knows more about what makes people engaged?

  1. Use the data to learn what creative works

Creatives often get scared of data. I think it comes from ATL when ads go to die in research. Many brands create extensive reports on social media (often paying a lot of money for tools to make them). I don’t know if that data is making it through to the creative department to inform future content or understood well enough by them to pull the right learnings.

Social media is constantly evolving so our approaches should also constantly evolve. I hope some of these suggestions are useful to make social content we can all feel more excited about.

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