Social media: what’s the story?

The world of social media can feel quite alien when seen from a traditional business marketing communications viewpoint. The immediacy of feedback, the lack of control, the seemingly indistinct audience, and often a simple lack of familiarity all combine to form a confusing picture.

Social media is often discussed as a risky option for business. A channel to be handled carefully, or to be advertised into, a channel to be controlled rather than embraced. This is to miss the point of social media, and it is to miss a tremendous opportunity to present our businesses to the world like never before.

At its core, social media is simply about identity and storytelling.

Every tweet, every LinkedIn ‘like’ or post contributes to a story. Many of these stories are about ourselves. When I ‘like’ an Harvard Business Review article I’m telling the story that I’m smart enough to read the magazine, and that I’m smart enough to see the value in this article in particular. When I ‘share’ a charity fundraising request I’m telling the world that I care. That I’m nice. When I post a selfie as I get onto a 747 I’m telling a tiny story about my lifestyle. I’m a jetsetter. I’m international.

We no longer tell our whole story in one place. We drop hints here and there. We build a picture in parts. In person, on LinkedIn, on Twitter and Facebook.

But we aren’t the only author of this story.

My own story continues to be told when a colleague tags me in a group photo at a charity half marathon, or endorses me on LinkedIn for my excellent scones. I have no control over this. It just happens.

In many ways these parts of my story are the most powerful. They are independent, so they are less likely to be spun. They carry a different type of truth.

These stories being told on Twitter and LinkedIn don’t really look like stories. They are disjointed. They are incomplete. They switch tone of voice all the time. They are most certainly stories however. And they have a large audience as well as a number of tellers.

In the mind of the audience these many disconnected fragments of story build into a composite identity for you or for your company. An identity story that can be hard to pin down, and can be radically different for different people, depending on what they read.

I guarantee no one has ever read every word of my LinkedIn profile. A large percentage of people I connect with will read some of my updates on a regular basis, or read other peoples comments which mention me. They form their image of me from those updates, not from my carefully worded profile.  

These stories are being told on social media whether you take part or not.

When social media is well harnessed it allows people and brands to positively influence how their own stories are told, and how their own identity is presented. A successful social media campaign will engage both the audience, and those with the power to further influence that audience, by amplifying the truth of your story fragments.

The most successful businesses in social media are those that consistently seed positive stories, and actively nullify (or even reverse) negative ones.

Stop worrying about presenting your whole organisation on Twitter, LinkedIn and the dozens of other channels that will come and go over the coming years. Instead, focus on contributing positive fragments to that composite identity of you being formed in the minds of your audience. Do this wherever you see the opportunity. Encourage as many people in your organisation to adopt this as a default behaviour.

Give your staff clear, concise, permissive guidelines about what you would like them to convey on social media. Impress upon them the importance of engaging with this storytelling, and remind them of the key characters and plot points which present your company in good light.

Social storytelling shouldn’t be the reserve of the marketing department. Key senior people can be incredibly valuable voices on twitter. It’s no surprise that @richardbranson has 20 times more followers than @virgin.

So make sure you and your business are telling your customers why they should be working with you. Social media could be the secret weapon you’ve been waiting for.

Top tips

  1. Roll with the punches - Although you can encourage positive engagement most of the time, inevitably there will be the odd follower who uses social media vent a frustration or two on your page. Research shows that companies who deal with negative comments openly and directly gain more credibility than in any other situation so use these situations as an opportunity to portray your business in a positive light rather than a chance to delete your Facebook account.
  2. Learn from your posts - Monitor which of your posts get the mosts likes, shares and comments and use this information to continue to improve the content on your pages.
  3. Link posts to your website MOST of the time - Nobody likes too much of anything so although it’s good practise to link posts on social media back to your website, the impact of doing so is greater if you don’t add a link every single time. Use the 80/20 rule and you won’t go too far wrong.
  4. Engage with all stakeholders, not just clients. Suppliers, employees, partners - they all form part of your story, so make sure you engage with them as well as you clients.
  5. Be generous with feedback and interaction. It’s like karma, it will be returned to you.