Popular on social media does not always equal good content
What's measurable isn't always what's right for a brand
Something a bit different this week as I’m returning from holiday overseas. Plenty of few topics and analysis for future Dispashes in the future, but to bridge that gap, here’s Chris Nee’s take on the current state of social media.
Chris is an agency bod (ex-Porter Novelli, We Are Social), who also started working in social media around the same time as me, around 15 years ago. His opinions on are always worth reading.
Bad content continues to lead branded content a not-so-merry dance
I don't really see myself this way, but I would be considered an early adopter of capital-S, capital-M Social Media.
When MySpace came along I was there, hard-coding a custom profile. LiveJournal was the subject of the three-hour essay I wrote in my last university exam. Facebook with an academic email address? You'd better believe it.
By the time Twitter caught on among marketers and techies in the UK, long before Philip Schofield and a wave of celebrities followed in the footsteps of Jonathan Ross to supercharge its popularity in Britain, I was working "in" social media.
My boss at that time was Mat Morrison, a man of many skills and otherworldly knowledge, and whose greatest impact on me was to encourage a depth of unprejudiced thought about what social media was, where it came from, what it could be, where it might go in the future – and why.
We spoke often about the origins of social media. I don't go back as far as Usenet but the chat rooms and IRC and forums to which I contributed before Facebook and Twitter changed the world were social media. Not some ancient Web 1.0 pre-cursor, but the real deal. The prototype.
Despite all this I'm a sceptic. Or, rather, I’ve become that way over the years, careening from advocate to indifferent observer to jaded and confused old duffer in the space of a decade.
That’s the pessimistic angle. I prefer to look at it another way.
I think strategy is important. I like brand communications to have a point, to perform a function. I want civilisation to get along with itself in a positive manner – little wonder, then, that I look at social media in 2022 and regret that we are where we are.
This scepticism gives me a different starting point. I like to sniff out bad ideas at source, to poke holes in cynical and vacuous brand work – but ultimately, always and only to serve the best interests of my clients. It can be a painful process - trying for those around me, I’m sure - but it’s one I consider worthwhile.
Those of us whose job it is to figure out what brands should be showing and saying on social media feel every day the friction between science and art. Between what works and what “works”. Why? Because popular doesn’t equal good. I believe good still matters.
Easy engagement, hard metrics
Every few months a brand posts something on Twitter and the social media team behind it pat themselves on the back on LinkedIn because it gets a lot of likes and approving emoji in the same replies normally disregarded because Twitter is a flaming cesspit.
Industry folk applaud. The numbers back it up. Everybody’s happy. Another log is added to the creative pyre in the name of lukewarm banter.
Copywriter Mark Asher punctured the illusion in a recent post on LinkedIn, acknowledging that these performatively hilarious tweets are only popular because they have big-budget backing.
“If a smaller, less known brand [than McDonald’s…Aldi or Specsavers] did the same thing, they wouldn’t get the same results because they don’t have the existing audience or massive marketing machine behind them.”
Asher is right. The unspoken truth is that this is almost always a load of guff. It aspires to be hot air. It looks up to crap. If the creative industries retain any kind of belief that great work will out, we can’t celebrate empty work just because it performs well in an easily measurable way.
Earlier this year I wrote about the creative cost of cheap social media engagements that do little for a brand or its bottom line in the long run.
It’s a broad stroke, but the essence of that particular post was that, “social media can make good stuff happen that isn’t measurable” and that we too often ignore those, favouring the easier tickboxes that are.
PR data expert Andrew Bruce Smith wrote that:
“[F]or any given platform, the typical user is a passive information consumer. They see posts in their feed, but don’t ‘engage’ with the vast majority of them.”
In other words the people who engage in an easily trackable manner with social media content are not the norm. We only prioritise them because they unthinkingly click on stuff that we can count and report upon, but they click on everything.
We create for them. We chase popular at the expense of good and it shows in the work. Its scant cause for a LinkedIn guard of honour.
Accidentally tap the Explore icon at the bottom of your Instagram app and you’ll see the problems of social media right there, gurning at you from the glow of a £20 ring light, algorithmically approved nobodies with massive views and a prominent place in discovery real estate because Instagram wants you to use filters.
Hey, it looks like they’re sad! Hilarious! We’re better than that. Really, we are. Why have we chosen to accept that popular shit isn’t shit because it’s popular?
But what’s the objective?
Brands need to look beyond all this, in terms of both their objectives for social media and how they seek to achieve them via the community.
Beyond self-appointed “content creators” and people altogether too comfortable in front of a camera. Beyond those having scripted conversations with themselves on TikTok. Beyond folk posting videos in which they just sort of look at the camera beneath a milquetoast caption intended to be somehow relatable. All of it.
Algorithms have a lot to answer for. Let’s not allow their constant rewarding of pseudo-cultural garbage fires to inspire – a word I’ve chosen deliberately and sarcastically, for the avoidance of doubt – any further deterioration of the work produced in the name of advertising and social media.
We mustn’t pander to the few active engagers and the content that appeals to them. They mustn't shape our creative choices. Whatever cultural race to the bottom is playing out on social media, the brands we represent cannot benefit by participating.
The passive information consumers are valuable. They’re the real cool kids with real deep pockets and real influence with the real people around them in the real world.
Do they like what the Likers like? The content we create every day because we know it harvests vanity measurables?
Are you sure?
Reading to make you think
Making money off milk deliveries
Two of Australia’s super-fast grocery delivery service apps , Send and Quicko, have gone out of business as VC cash seems to be drying up. Voly and Milkrun are still standing but margins in this business remains super slim and, as The Guardian point out, the more scale a grocery delivery business has, the more it needs to invest heavily in logistics such as warehouses and supply chains and staff to fulfil the orders. Milkrun says their business model is more sustainable than that of Send, although given Send’s monthly sales were $417,000 and losses over the same period were $2.38m, that’s not hard. Providing a viable business model is one thing. Making decent margins and delivering profit is a step a lot of businesses struggle with. LINK.
Advertising the Culture War (defamation part 1)
Right-wing publisher The Daily Wire spent heavily on promoting misleading information biased against Amber Heard in her libel trial against Johnny Depp. Coverage of celebrity court cases is always a bit queasy and the Depp-Heard trial has been particularly unpleasant, but also notable for the sheer volume of active disinformation around it, both from bots and paid advertising. Although bad actors will always attach themselves to major news stories, celebrity culture is a bit of a departure. As ever, the question to ask here is ‘who benefits’? LINK.
Is YouTube a publisher now? (Defamation part 2)
Australian ex-politician John Barilaro has just won over $700,000 in damages from Alphabet, parent company of Google and YouTube; substantial for Barilaro, a drop in the ocean for Alphabet. This is one of those cases that shows the dichotomy between US law and the rest of the world. Australia seems to be moving towards making publishers liable for comments on social and, in Barilaro v YouTube, treating tech companies as publishers. US law may make it hard for the courts and Barilaro to recover damages, but if Alphabet did opt to pay the fine, it creates a lot of precedents in Australian courts. LINK: story; LINK: non-payment.
Benedict Evans on data
Nice piece in the FT, on data not really being the new oil. Useful data is still siloed and not all data is useful. A like on Instagram can’t be used to alter your TikTok algorithm, data around tube journeys is essential for town planning in London but of less use to LinkedIn. LINK.
Can you reach every podcast listener with an advert?
How many shows would an advertiser need to advertise on to reach 100% of listeners in the United State. According to Edison’s research, the Top 500 podcasts will get you about 75% of the audience. Buying media with them is another matter entirely. Fragmented buying means niche podcasters could still be a valuable buy, while even getting to 50% probably isn’t worth the hassle for many media agencies compared to other mediums. LINK.
TV Freevees: the real threat to Netflix?
Netflix, Disney Plus and Prime get the headlines, but Amazon and others, including hardware manufacturers such as LG, have also been building FASTs (Free Ad-Supported Streaming TV). This is probably where the industry is going. Adverts are annoying but a trade off for viewers who don’t want the hassle or have the capital to subscribe. Ex-BBCer Dan Taylor-Watt explains more. LINK.
Thanks for reading this far. Hopefully you’ve found it mildly diverting. Like what you’ve read? Forward it onto somebody and ask them to subscribe.
Playing us out this week: Nervous by While She Sleeps. Chris is a WSS fan, and while metalcore isn’t my usual genre, this is a band and track that was on repeat on my stereo last year. If you like Bring Me The Horizon, Pulled Apart By Horses, or System of a Down, you’ll probably enjoy this.