Brands–When it comes to Twitter, Think Human

Over the last three years, the No. 1 question I’ve gotten from brand marketers is: “What should I tweet about?” These are not small brands, either, and not junior marketers. The industry seems to be confounded with its new-found power to speak directly to audiences. Marketers know it’s worth collecting fans and followers, but once they have them, they’re left with little to say. They’ve been creating content in the form of advertising for years, but something about the flow of new media isn’t jibing with the old methods.

So they give away coupons or they apologize for not having given away any coupons since last week. This is sort of a joke … but not really. I’ve heard from many marketers that Facebook is out there telling them this is what people want. My reply is, invariably, “Of course that’s what people want. Has anyone ever responded to the question, ‘What do you want from a brand?’ with anything other than, ‘More stuff, cheaper’?”

But, there’s more to it. Many of those brands belong to the biggest companies in the world, and they are proven money-making machines. They manage global distribution networks and put products in millions of stores worldwide. What to post on Facebook hardly seems like one of the more difficult business decisions they’ll face today. Yet, it turns out to be exactly that.

The answer to why may lie in the industry’s history. When brands created content, it was mostly of the traditional stock kind (commercials, print ads). They did it with the help of their partners — ad agencies — that helped them consume and boil down the world. By delivering insights and creative ideas and hooking them up with the core brand identity, the brand/agency combo was able to create relevant content in the form of an ad.

While this method still works well (I’m not in the TV-is-dying camp), the rise of new social platforms and the audience that comes with them has replaced one commercial every three months with one message every three minutes. (Or, in actual numbers, it’s more like three to five posts per day on Facebook and 10-15 tweets per day.)

What eludes brands so persistently in new media comes to people naturally. When you observe people’s behavior on online platforms, all you see is content, not the 140 characters they write, but the link or photo attached to it. Half of all tweets include a link and that number only goes up for topical discussion. The content people are sharing, unsurprisingly, is the content they are consuming. This isn’t new: just think of the water cooler or book clubs. What we are consuming has always been the content of our conversations.

That’s the difference between brands and people. Brands have a narrow focus, while people tend to ingest a broader swathe of the world around them. Even when brands do consume content, they’re more likely to be listening for mentions of their own names than paying attention to the world at large. This approach doesn’t make a brand (or a person) interesting; just ask the people stuck listening to the guy who can’t stop talking about himself at the cocktail party.

So what’s a brand to do? For starters, brands can learn from the best publishers on the web, like Huffington Post or Gawker/Gizmodo. These outlets combine small amounts of stock content with large amounts of flow content. The former is used to attract new audience and the latter to keep them engaged. To achieve this, brands need to start thinking about their inputs, or who they pay attention to, as much as their outputs, how they look, act and talk. They have to think of their channels less as CRM and more as owned media. In a nutshell, they need to act less like brands and more like people.

Noah Brier is co-founder of Percolate. He was head of planning and strategy at the Barbarian Group, and a strategist at Naked Communications. He loves the Internet.

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