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Forget Branding, Effective Social Media is About Building

Updated: Jun 22, 2020

Bold, in-depth cover stories about social media always fill me with a mix of apprehension and optimism. Coverage in mainstream media means that marketing communications’ use of social tools is finally being taken seriously by older generations in leadership positions. That’s good for business at, and better for consumers like me, who use social media every day—to cultivate personal and professional relationships, to share what we’re doing or learning or reading (or eating), and to make buying decisions.

When companies or nonprofits I care about use social media well, I feel more informed about my decisions, empowered to share my positive experiences, and am predisposed to return as a customer or donor.

So I had that familiar frisson when I saw the cover of Harvard Business Review’s March magazine, which touted the article “Branding in the Age of Social Media.” Its author seemed to have true bona fides (former Harvard and Oxford professor turned founder of an agency), but I also knew I should gird myself against big pronouncements and limited practical information.

Author Douglas Holt’s thesis, that the use of social media for branding has turned out to be largely disappointing due to companies’ and creative agencies’ expenditures of obscene sums of money to create branded content, is insightful and sort of interesting. Especially if you actually conduct branding for a firm that has an enormous marketing budget. His coining of the term “crowdculture” for the way digital creators form their own niches, co-opt brands, and create their own (much more interesting) content hearkens back to something the visionary author William Gibson said to me in an interview way back at the turn of the century. He told me that the new “bohemias” were happening online—the confabs of misfits and artists, niche hoarders of media and inside jokes, and the original meme creators (remember “All your base are belong to us”?) weren’t gathering together in grottos and sketchy neighborhoods anymore. They were finding their tribes online.

But, as is so often the case with articles like these, where the author proclaims definitively that something has failed, the reality of the situation is much more nuanced. If you run a giant digital agency or are CMO of a multi-billion dollar consumer brand and you put the majority of your budget into branded content that you’re hoping will “go viral,” then you’re missing the point and the power of social media.

But if you’re a communications manager of a national nonprofit or a chain of retail stores, or you’re the founder of a burgeoning startup, or the marketing director of a medium-sized tech solutions company, then splashy videos, hashtag takeovers, and PR stunts aren’t feasible or even worthwhile; they’re not going to help you meet your goals. You’re focused on the less-sexy but more worthwhile day-to-day interaction and engagement.

What articles like this one never seem to provide is practical, relevant insights for marketing and communications professionals who don’t have billion dollar budgets; for people who need to create sustainable, ongoing interactions with current and potential customers; for people who are held accountable for every penny spent.

A potent social media program leverages a mix of content sources:

Owned — Photos, videos, blog posts, and other branded messaging. It’s the most powerful and authoritative type of content—it uses strategic key words and phrases, is easily shared, and often lives on the website.

Earned — Articles and blog posts about your brand from third-party sources. Earned content connotes credibility. It’s repackaged and used across social platforms and the website.

Curated — The majority of posts and tweets are curated and link to external blog posts, news items, inspirational quotes, or additional information. Curated content helps your brand become a resource for target audiences, supplements your social presence, develops thought leadership, and demonstrates generosity and community spirit.

Paid — Advertising, advertorial, and paid engagement. It’s resonant and strategic, tied to target audiences, and linked to relevant pages on your website. Its look and feel are co-opted into your social channels to provide brand unity.

Practical social media isn’t just about those big, sharable pieces of owned content. In fact, although they can be helpful when kick-starting brand awareness, their value is time-limited, quickly becoming last week’s (or last night’s) news. You spent $100,000 making a funny video that captures the soul of your brand while demonstrating that you’re up on pop culture and the latest coolness. It was viewed hundreds of thousands of times (it was that good, and you had the right people sharing it). You drove a bump in traffic to your website, or were mentioned by Good Morning America, or called out on Conan.

Then what?

Do you have a plan for making the most of that short-lived attention?

“Branding” doesn’t help if it doesn’t drive measurable behaviors that are tied to business goals. And because social media is the confluence of strategic thinking between PR and marketing, tying these disciplines together and making them less distinct from one another, branding has become an integrated piece of the entire communications suite — it no longer stands alone.

The best and most effective use of social media has never been as a broadcast channel for your own stories. It has always been about steady, consistent give-and-take—sharing owned content and messaging, of course, but also generating and maintaining relationships by creating a sense of community and thought leadership.

It’s the curated content, usually comprising 40% - 70% of your weekly output, that generally results in the measurable, useful, rewarding outcomes that make social media a worthwhile effort.

As our own Operations Maven Leah Charney says, creating a content calendar of curated stories is like stocking the refrigerator. You want lots of delicious stuff in there. Most of it is nutritious, but you also lay in an assortment of confections. Curated content sources include mainstream media, influential blogs, inspiring “words on images,” and real-time trending news. Finding and positioning curated content is a down-in-the-trenches activity that involves mining the web for tasty bits that your brand’s target audiences will find relevant and useful, or at least entertaining.

Not only is curated content helpful in supplementing daily output, so your brand is not always broadcasting about itself, it establishes your social platforms as a resource for your target audiences. It gives your current and potential customers a reason to follow your social channels. If they know they can count on a daily mix of useful information and branded messaging, they’re more likely to remain engaged over the long-term.

Curated content plays several other roles, as well.

Sharing content from influencers or interacting with them conversationally puts you on their radar and can develop goodwill. Influencers are more likely to amplify your messaging if they see you being generous with theirs. We often ask our clients’ PR teams for the names of outlets, reporters, and bloggers they’re trying to get in front of so we can “soften the market” before they begin pitching by following, sharing, and interacting with them on social channels. Same for the development teams at nonprofits, when they’re trying to attract the attention a major donor, potential sponsor, or strategic partner. Sharing others’ owned content and providing context can be a simple, elegant way to begin a conversation.

When a brand (or small business or restaurant or global nonprofit) integrates thoughtful curation and relationship-building with a strategic owned content plan, and generates steady, consistent value in its social presence beyond some flashy one-off, key behavioral information and measurable results begin to emerge.

But all that takes work. It requires thought and time, and a strategic outlook. It requires more than making a cool YouTube video or co-opting a pop culture meme or recruiting makers with their own audiences to share your message. It’s not sexy and it can be a slog.

But the results are worth the sustained, ongoing, daily effort.

As CEO and Chief Strategist of, Eric brings nearly two decades of of experience to our clients. In his other life, he’s a single dad, a good eater, and a bourbon aficionado.

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