Getting it right with social when everything we know is wrong

There was a time in history where the prevailing wisdom of scholars was that the Earth was flat; the brightest minds of their time were certain that reaching the end of the world meant reaching a cliff, rather than an unending continuation. When reflecting on the early history of social media and the views of the visionary class, you might be forgiven for thinking their opinions represented unwavering fact.

Consider just the following views, starting with sheer viability (especially in the wake of MySpace’s demise):

  • Facebook remaining relevant as audiences grow older? A fad that will age poorly.
  • Facebook scaling an audience? Impossible.  
  • Pinterest? Mom’s play site. 
  • SnapChat? Your kids’ sexting app.
  • Of course earned media will always reign supreme!

The early wisdom of the social space was one of distance – it was not a place for brands and digital marketers. It wasn’t until brands noticed the ongoing dialog that the industry began to rethink this. Social platforms presented a new opportunity to connect directly with audiences, and, in a quick 180, brands began talking to people as if they were long-lost friends and family.

But the desire to make social the new source for customer service has also created as many problems as it has solved. Brands struggled to find balance between buying exposure and favor with earning trust and inclusion at every turn – that is, until the 2013 Super Bowl.

Everyone knows the story of the blackout during the game and how Oreo’s real-time response via its “Dunk in the Dark” tweet changed everything we thought about social. With reported figures suggesting more than 500 million earned media impressions, this was a historic moment for the industry and a huge moment for brands.

Now brands had a new purpose – to find its own Oreo moment. Many have tried, yet few have succeeded – actually, most have looked laughably bad. But striving for Oreo greatness created a reason for brands to be on social, with smart, hip, culturally relevant content as the ideal target to hit.

Living in Missouri, the utilization of social media has created a very different experience over the past 18 months. I live less than 15 minutes from #Ferguson, so the social rise of #BlackLivesMatter and the efforts of ConcernedStudent1950 (@CS_1950) from University of Missouri are very close to home. They’ve all played out for the world to see, and this is largely because of social media.



For years, Twitter’s conversation on the Arab Spring felt distant – as things happening across the globe and beyond our daily lives tend to do – but the events of August 2015 changed everyone’s personal perspective. Complex issues were truncated to 140 characters and dangerously debated in Facebook posts. Suddenly, for better or worse, social media was driving the story.


Once again, this abrupt shift social’s functional objective calls everything we thought we knew about these communication platforms into question. And, if everything we once believed to be true about social media has been proven wrong, perhaps the target for brands is more complicated than fulfilling the role of that quick-witted guy in the corner with topical joke and wink.

When I began this column, I was actually on a plane – the date: November 13, 2015. Taking a break from emails, I fired up Hootsuite only to discover that the world had been rocked by the news from Paris. In the aftermath, brands have respectfully shown support and compassion for the lives lost, acknowledging the larger tragedy. These responses represent progress and show early steps toward becoming social brands of the world.

So, did we have the role of brands on social all wrong? Now the answer seems obvious.

As brands seek to play a role in people’s lives, they cannot simply be there to add a funny quip or a solution to a simple problem. Just as scholars realized the world was not flat, this realization opens up a host of “Now what?” moments, posing a plethora of new questions: How can we do that? Who do we empower to do that on our behalf? And, to twist a famed Facebook mantra, are we ready to “fail fast” when the stakes are higher than ever before?

If the social media world is round, fully-formed, and connected, then brands have an opportunity to be both citizens and partners on the voyage ahead, thus creating a better place for all.

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