Is social media good for my brand?

|| July 23, 2014

Organisations have been quick to jump at the possibilities offered by social media, because it proffers the opportunity to engage directly with thousands or millions of people. This appears to be backed up by numerous studies. However, meta-studies (studies of studies) indicate that failure rates are much higher than usually reported. Public Relations specialists can also point to the high risk of 'getting it wrong' on social media. At the same time, this is an area which cannot be ignored.

The three key issues for brands are:

  • authenticity
  • shareability
  • governance


Users of social media expect to interact with real people. Although it's acceptable to have a corporate Twitter account and a Facebook page, this is really no more than on-line advertising. Social media success is more often found when enthusiastic brand ambassadors post about the brand. However, social media is very quick to punish shills — people who claim to be independent but turn out to be paid by a company —, sock puppets — accounts that appear to be owned by people but are run by an organisation or PR agency —, and spammers or trolls — people who register on forums and social media sites with the sole intention of advocating a product or brand (spammers) or stirring up controversy (trolls).


Content will only be shared if it's interesting. For example, most commercial and public sector YouTube videos are only shared or even watched by employees of the organisation, but one man's attack on an airline which broke his guitar was seen by millions of people and knocked a vast amount of the company's share price. During the swine flu pandemic, a video released by the UK's Department of Health was watched by around 3,000 people in the first weekend — fewer than the number who actually worked there — while a video of a dancing pig gained a million views in the same period. Generally speaking, content which is shareable tends to pull on one or more of the following:

  • topical — ideas that engage with current news, and current popular memes tend to do better
  • clever — the 'I see what you're doing there' factor makes people feel that they are in the know
  • controversial — controversial material gets shared. One study showed that it continues to be shared even when disproven
  • emotional — people share to heartwarming stories, even if they doubt their accuracy
  • narcissitic — people love doing quizzes to find out about themselves
  • celebritised — almost anything shared by George Takei will go viral on Facebook, as will anything shared by Stephen Fry on Twitter. However, Takei and Fry operate their own filters: they became highly followed by excluding things they found uninteresting


One bad tweet, ill-conceived blog or badly thought out Facebook response can do more damage to a brand than all the benefits it may have gained. Any brand that wants to engage in social media needs a clear set of rules about who can post what, where, when, and how it should be checked first. Good governance must be balanced with authenticity: nobody wants to read Facebook updates that look like they've been edited by a committee. At the same time, a second pair of eyes is something that brands need which individuals don't. Experience shows that when a brand appears to break its promise on social media, it does not get forgiven in the same way as when a private individual posts something stupid.