A Guide to Risk vs. Reward for Social Media Brands


Most brands shy away from organic social. Their internal content guidelines are so prohibitive that tweets, posts, Instagram images, and TikToks are nothing short of generic, soulless platitudes. With restrictions limiting content to boring company updates and the occasional posting of new hires or product launches, accounts get zero traction. They are annoying and are, unsurprisingly, ignored.

Those who put their heads above the parapet and generate true engagement are constantly treading the line between “Ha! and ‘Argh!’. Take language-learning app Duolingo, often praised for its humorous commentary and slightly abstract owl mascot, Duo. With 4.2 million followers on TikTok, the brand’s social team is obviously excelling, but in the past week they have seemingly surpassed the bar.

Underneath a TikTok post from American broadcaster NBC about NBC’s infamous Heard/Depp lawsuit, Duolingo asked, “y’all think Amber watches tiktok?”

Source: @ChrisHarihar via Twitter

Five words – but enough to trigger a major reaction. The comment, one of several posts from brands keen to gain traction by building on the global noise of the lawsuit, has since been deleted, with the official apologizing personally. However, some people were outraged that a brand would dare to make a lighthearted joke about a lawsuit in which the domestic violence charges are a central theme.

Of course, they are right. An active court case with such heinous charges at its heart is no place for joking. That said, it’s one of the biggest media stories of an already bad news-laden dance card, and as such, it looks like a mermaid waving at a reach-hungry social crew.

No sane brand social admin would venture into war in Ukraine to garner likes, and the energy crisis is a shallow pool to fish in for comedy, so jumping on any available trend is part of the game, no matter what. doesn’t matter how disgusting it is. But when it’s so easy to overstep the acceptable social mark, how can brands tiptoe between the mines to find the gems of rich social engagement without hurting themselves?

Branded organic social heroes are few in number and can be divided into three cohorts:

  • The challenger comedian
  • The content creator
  • The megabrand

In the first group, accounts managed by Aldi, Wendy’s, Greggs, PaddyPower, Thursday and KFC are leading the way, with follower numbers to match. Their social teams have elastic bandwidth to shed light on rivals, complementary tag-team brands, and generally have fun on platforms where smiles are rewarded with social fairness.

The second group includes many beauty, fashion, lifestyle and media brands like Gymshark, Boohoo, Innocent, Chanel, National Geographic, Go Pro and Dove, whose social accounts associate high production values ​​with images interesting, useful and clever, highly engaging videos as well as relevant social commentary for the audience.

The last group is reserved for the likes of Coco-Cola, Red Bull, Nike and Starbucks. With unlimited resources, they can replicate and sometimes surpass the rich content of expert group two brands. With video perfected by the best talent in the industry, megabrands distinguish themselves by using incredible content delivered at algorithmically perfect times by swathes of localized social teams across multiple geographies.

Not all brands have the resources to compete with the riches of megabrands, or the brand positioning, personality, and tone of voice to sit side-by-side with content creators. So unless they want to live in the forgotten doldrums with almost every other brand in the world, they have to stand out. To differentiate their social performance. Which is most easily done by taking risks, whether it’s contemporary comments or brand-relevant jokes that get audiences to hit the Like/Comment/Retweet button.

Despite its organic nature, running lots of social media accounts across multiple platforms isn’t cheap. According to Glassdoor, the average salary for a social media manager in the UK is over £33,000, not including production costs – user-generated content (UGC) is a goldmine to tap into, but brands cannot rely on all their subscribers. time, and the quality of the content is inconsistent at best. Originality is rewarded, but at a cost – and only a few highly unpredictable gems go viral. The low hanging fruit exists in social comments – building on an issue or story of the day and hoping that your brand’s take is interesting or fun enough to capture the zeitgeist.

And that’s where the likes of Duolingo come together.

For every successful collaboration, viral win, or social juggernaut, there’s an uncomfortable misstep, myopia in the reading of the room, or simple bullshit, like the one they experienced this week. Every brand in the challenger group of comedians (as well as many content creators and mega-brands) suffered at least one of these absolute fiascos, which will show that no one is infallible:

  • Pepsi’s Cristiano Ronaldo voodoo doll
  • Arsenal FC’s #DareToCreate UGC nightmare
  • Burger King’s ‘Women Belong in the Kitchen’ campaign
  • Missguided’s £1 fast fashion bikini
  • Sunny Delight’s Deaf Mental Illness Joke
  • Aldi’s #AldiPoorestDayChallenge
  • PureGym ’12 Years a Slave’ Workout

This list is by no means definitive or exhaustive. Every social account has a tweet, post or video that they would like to be forgotten forever.

So where does that leave poor social media managers? Challenged to reach viral heights every day but with a very large ax hanging over their heads, it’s a thankless career path littered with the corpses of talented individuals who have unknowingly overstepped the mark. .

Big brand social networks are consistent, understand what their audience is reacting to, react to news hijacking opportunities with a balance of mind and sensitivity, use UGC and collaborate without ego with complementary brands and rivals .

They maintain a light self-awareness. They know they’re not saving the world; their goal is to entertain the masses and build a community of loyal followers, loyalists, sharers and brand advocates through rewards. Verifying everything isn’t always possible or practical, especially when it comes to time-sensitive information diversions, which leaves detailed, easy-to-follow brand guidelines as the only possible safety net.

By outlining the ground rules, learning from the mistakes of others, and having the full support of the CMO, CEO, and Legal at all times, only then can branded social accounts work without the social managers do not retreat into secure compliance shells.

Even then, PR disasters will slip through the net, and managing them shrewdly is a skill in its own right. If brands remain obsessed with catching that ever-elusive social honey, they must be prepared to get stung from time to time.

Harry Lang is a 20-year marketing veteran and author of ‘Marks, fanfares and bullshit‘, a guide for those starting their careers in marketing, advertising, public relations and the media. You can also find him on @MrHarryLang or log on to LinkedIn.


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