By Tom Lyons, head of creative solutions, Code3
Social media offers a mixed bag glimpse into world events, consumer sentiment and economic health. Looking back at the social content of 2020, one major theme emerges confusion. I am old enough to remember The Superfriends cartoon: A common conceit in a Superfriends cartoon was a scientist, (usually an old, white man with balding grey hair, coke bottle glasses and a pocket protector) making a piece of technology that can be used to change the world for the better. But in the wrong hands, it can be used to cause terrible harm. And so we have the internet, with the spotlight on social.
Misinformation and disinformation ran rampant in a year marked by a global pandemic, a U.S. election, racial unrest, climate disasters and an economic downturn. Amid it all, brands struggled to strike the balance of staying solvent, staying alive, staying relevant and staying positive.
Social media remains one of the greatest tools for human connection — a tool that has been especially valuable when we must limit our physical interactions for public safety. And with a vaccine currently being rolled out, 2021 is already looking more hopeful.
By reviewing some of the key challenges that played out on social media in 2020, organizations can glean valuable insights to help them cut through the noise in 2021.
A social media reckoning
While false information has long been an issue on social media, 2020 pushed these platforms to the brink. When COVID-19 first hit, anti-lockdown propaganda and inaccurate, often dangerous, home remedy cures began circulating on platforms like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.
At the same time, consumer expectations for relevant, authentic and useful content have skyrocketed. Now, your brand must gain their trust and hold their attention with fewer available ad dollars as the economic outlook remains in flux.
Fashion brands launched masks and emphasized comfort wear for working from home. QSR brands stepped up free delivery and contactless consumption. Retailers embraced curbside pickup. State health departments launched localized awareness campaigns on mask-wearing, social distancing and contact tracing. Brands launched extensive Black Lives Matter and other inclusion initiatives. The race to normalize and socialize responsible social behavior was on, and most brands responded by leveraging the power of social media as an engine of positive change.
(Re)connecting on social media
After a largely homebound year in which much of the world’s confusion was channeled into some of the only platforms keeping us connected, organizations must find new ways to engage with their audiences on social media.
- Lean into what people need now. Your company needs to sell things to keep you in business — and your people employed — which is especially important right now. But all the 2020 planning that happened in 2019 went out the window in March. Many brands had to shift from selling what they thought consumers would need to what they learned they would need, like sweats, athleisure, paper towels, home improvement and disinfectant. This nowness will continue. Brands must continue to look at what they offer now, and strategize ways to make the shopping and buying experience as easy as possible.
- Strike a positive note. With false information and discouraging headlines continuing to circulate on social media, many users are looking for a reprieve. Framing your offering as part of a solution — as part of the social contract we all share with each other — is essential. We wear masks for others, not for ourselves. This is not new: We stop at red lights, give blood, recycle and participate in myriad other things as part of our common sense of duty.
But it’s critical your brand finds the right balance. Sometimes the best thing to say is nothing at all. While it’s true users are relying on social media to remain connected during the pandemic, most people want to interact more with their friends and family, rather than brands. Social ads and organic content with positive messages and useful information, like what you’re doing to support customers during this time, will resonate with users looking for reassurance as the pandemic continues.
- Be truthful. While this may sound obvious considering how much we’ve focused on social media mis- and disinformation this year, brand truthfulness on social media can be complex. For starters, every major social media platform allows some form of false information. Of course, advertisers face the strictest rules, but that doesn’t outright prevent them from posting misleading messages. Consumers are demanding transparency and authenticity in exchange for a chunk of their tightened budgets. Avoid making empty promises or jumping on social issue trends, unless your organization has a clear strategy to follow through. Instead, focus on issues and messages that align with your company’s values and resonate with your core audience.
For some, outright acknowledgment of the prevalence of false information on social media could be on-brand and improve consumer trust in your company. Organizations like PEN America, a nonprofit that works to defend and celebrate free expression through the advancement of literature and human rights, created an entire campaign centered on social media misinformation to get the conversation started. Through targeted Facebook ads, PEN America provided useful, digestible content around talking to friends and family about false information, fact-checking and the difference between misinformation and disinformation.
This year, we took to social media to air and fuel many of our worst fears. But we also used it to stay connected with one another during our collective isolation. Companies should take 2020’s lessons and turn them into strategies to break through the false information and negative news stories. With the right mix of audience data, empathetic ad campaigns and authenticity, your organization can achieve social media success in 2021.