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If, as Mitt Romney assured us, “corporations are people”, how do they tweet? It sounds facetious but it’s a serious question, one with which highly-paid communication directors and CMOs and Creative Directors around the globe are currently grappling. The explosion of social media over the past decade has instigated a corporate personality crisis. Since social media is driven by voice, and voice – as it emanates from within – is valued by its relative authenticity, corporations are challenged to speak in a new way that transcends the twin towers of quarterly reports and advertising campaigns. And that, at the moment, is not such a comfortable proposition.
Brands clearly have “voices” that they modulate to speak to different audiences, but most seem to have intimacy issues. This is partly due to the personal pronoun problem. Can a brand use “I” credibly? Outside of a few exceptions – think Martha Stewart or Kim Kardashian – usually not. “I am ExxonMobil and I am here to tell you…” is absurd, or incredibly ominous. As soon as you resort to the first person plural, the composition of the voice is called into question. Who is this We you’re referring too? The plural implies the committee that inevitably composed it – and committees are not usually held up as bastions of authenticity. There is an inherent disconnect between the organizational entity and the individual.
Nonetheless, there is mad dash for brands to occupy social media – stoked by the mad dash by platforms to monetize access to the feeds of organic users, i.e. potential consumers – and the result is an informational clusterfuck. The very things that were attractive about peer-to-peer networks, i.e. the decentralized community of affinity and the relative absence of synthetic corporate speak, are being actively undermined by every conceivable form of sponsored content. Most of these nuggets of self-promotion are thinly veiled at best, weakly disguised to feel like something real, or at least native to the platform. But try as they might, its impossible, so far, for @cheerios or @cokezero or @victoriassecret to slip into my feed undetected. It’s an even more perverted charade than the advertorial. No wonder that my kids keep abandoning one platform after another in favor of the newest one not yet infected by marketing (though that gap between early adopters and brand colonization keeps getting squeezed, cf. SnapChat).
That sense of being late to the game – read that: 3 months later than the competition – is palpable. Creative professionals, most of whom are probably too old and too harried to fully engage social media in the first place, are alerted to an emerging phenomenon – supported by data showing meteoric rise in subscriptions in the 8-12 year old demographic – and are expected to master the medium in a matter of days. Corporate information is repurposed in a new, unfamiliar, idiom. The result is inevitably as artless as any adult who attempts to crash the kid’s table. No matter how hard they try, it just sounds weird. Somehow I’m not buying @BP’s playful use of emoticons.
Perhaps a brand voice on a social platform is always an awkward intrusion because they can’t really participate. Ultimately the promise of social media is the dynamic nature of conversation not the monopoly of corporate broadcast. To be an effective conversationalist you need to be able to engage in broad topics, flirt, argue, take contradictory views, play the devil’s advocate, hold one’s tongue. It’s a shared responsibility and incumbent on all parties to have something to say, something to add, insights to share. Most brands are like your absolute nightmare dinner companion: they only talk about themselves.