Real-Time Content Breeds Real-Time Discontent

My team is a team of spectacularly talented people. They are arguably some of the best minds in this field — the field of spontaneous creative brand communication. If that seems like a series of buzzwords, I’ll remove the wank factor — we’re social media strategists. We’re the people who impersonate your favourite brands on Facebook. We write the tweets. We make the carefully planned and executed ‘hidden camera’ pranks. We are the ones who find a link between Kim Kardashian’s latest news making selfie and a chicken burger. We are the ones deciding whether your online snark constitutes an actual attack on our brand, and in all probability, we’re the ones who write back for your favourite tech company or fast food brand or car maker.

It’s an interesting and ludicrous profession, tantamount to impersonating fictional characters. Brands aren’t real anyway, but at least twice a day I have conversations about what a brand would and wouldn’t do. Brands don’t have lives, but I run their Instagram accounts and pretend they do. And I’m part of a team of more than twenty people, who (to varying degrees) either sit at the digital coalface and respond, or sit in the brainstorming vault and come up with cool shit for brands to do, so that people buy their product, based on a Facebook post. It’s a hard job to explain to the family.

For as long as I’ve done this job, there’s been a debate about the nature of ‘reactive content’ vs ‘ narrative content’. Is it better to jump on the news cycle, or to start one? Is it better to create fast, unrefined content to attach yourself to the news through parody/comment, or create something that might get picked up and become news?

The truth is, it’s both. But the other truth is, it really depends what kind of brand you are.

This trend of ‘real time content’ (RTC) has a success ratio that inversely mimics the size of purchase. You’re probably not going to buy a truck or a computer because you like the jokes they make on Twitter. And given the way Facebook’s algorithm works, you’re probably only going to see the hilarious piss-take your favourite brand of detergent did of the Oscars if you’re already an active fan, or in their core demographic. If keeping the brand fresh and top of mind from a social media perspective to influence daily purchase decisions is your goal, then real-time content works very well.

However, the trend of brands moving to an RTC model has become a bit of a trap. It’s quite difficult to align core marketing objectives (which usually involve a version of “build trust, encourage loyalty, drive sales”) with the ability to be bitchy, snarky and constantly commenting online about what’s in the news. It’s full of potholes, and after 18 months of constantly doing it (and no small amount of time selling it!), here are a few of the traps.

It makes your brand into Jon Stewart
(at best).

Writing comedy isn’t an easy job, even when you know the delivery patterns of your talent. Heck, it’s not even an easy job to walk the line of benign violation when you’re paid to do it for a living. Those who can do it and do it well, do it because they have support teams of other writers, and a talented performer whose personal charisma can smooth the road. Even then, not every joke’s a winner, and people are much more likely to forgive a comedian for a bad joke than they are to forgive a brand for tasteless, offensive marketing.

It dilutes a reputation for quality
(more often than not).

Given the amount of money and time that brands spend on their set pieces (such as TV ads, outdoor ads, digital, websites, etc) it seems counter-intuitive to lean on high-speed content creation to drive awareness and reach. Does taking a photo of your new gourmet hot-dog on your iPhone and editing it in Instagram help reinforce your brand’s commitment to bespoke marketing images? Does it support your traditional look and feel so it’s recognisable? And if it doesn’t, what does it say about your recognisable and expensive ads, that the best way to reach people is to look line something else?

Most companies aren’t set up for real-time approval.

You’ve either got it or you don’t. And by ‘it’, I mean an approvals process that limits the amount of feedback that goes into ‘perfecting’ an RTC post. How many people (yours or the client’s) are feeding into what the brand should think about Kanye’s new joint? Every voice beyond the person who wrote it and the person who ultimately approves it only serves to dilute the power of the post.

Their shelf-life is at odds with what it takes to make them.

These things are visual snackfood — high-calorie, throwaway content to keep people feeling fed enough that they don’t go looking for dinner elsewhere. They’re the Doritos of the soul. They’re designed to live brief lives of high shareability and then evaporate. As moments in time, they’re eminently forgettable, designed to elicit an amused grunt from a fan or follower. But as pixels which make up an image of your brand persona over time, they add up to a lot of in-jokes which stopped being funny when the world moved on.

The trend of making stuff that won’t matter tomorrow seems like an odd way to build love and enthusiasm for your brand, unless your brand only wants love today. If being ‘cool’ and ‘with it’ means more people get to lunch or dinner and think about your product because you said something funny on Twitter, then maybe you’ve done your job and can call yourself a Marketer with a capital ‘M’ for today. But if you’ve sent hours working on a Facebook post to promote a $40K SUV that trades on something that’s already yesterday’s news, then you might want to look at what you’re doing with your time, energy and money long-term.

Good communication (for both people and brands) involves knowing when to speak to people in their language, and knowing when to say what is uniquely your own, so that your voice becomes part of the language tomorrow. Cover versions rarely make it to number one. And given the machinations behind trying to make the brand sound like a cool, authentic contributor to whatever cultural moment is currently making waves, there seems like a lot of work to make something that, by definition, is designed to be forgettable.

Posted on February 24, 2016 .