Monday, June 11, 2018

Today in Social Media: Nothing Will Change and Everything is Ruined

So today, a large company made a large announcement concerning a decision that, if true, is a massively stupid and expensive marketing move and an arrow to the knee in their already perfectly good branding. People are reacting as one might expect: with call-outs, complaints, jokes, and overall loud-but-not-positive feedback.

This sizing-up of the situation alone lets us infer two things:

1. If it's a bad and expensive marketing decision, it probably isn't real.

2. If it's an expected reaction, that means it's a counted-on reaction.

You all know what it is. If you don't, check the trending sections of your various social media. I'm not giving the name of the company for two reasons. One will become clear as I go on. The other is simple: this isn't the first time this advertising scheme has been used, and it won't be the last -- so best to confront it without its brand trappings from the get-go.

This isn't a piece to tell everyone to change their reactions or their feelings. Everyone is responding to the move as they would about anything -- across a broad spectrum -- and just because you're doing what the marketing team counted on doesn't mean you're wrong for doing it. It just means the marketing team knows people. And that's their job.

Rather, it's to inform you of what these moves are like on the inside, contrary to how they're presented to you. So that you can decide where your energy goes, recognize these moves for what they are, and learn to navigate online news in a more helpful way.

The Things We Do for Social Media

If you've got a job, a volunteer gig, a side hustle, or anything that requires you to make use of social media to get your message out, you're well aware of the hot mess that this has become in recent months and years. There's a reason there are regularly updated blogs and websites devoted to how to tame your various accounts: because the algorithms are constantly changing, and they're changing from two sides.

It helps to think of social media as a dance between you -- the user, the person making the posts and trying to get your name out there -- and the company running the platform. If you're both dancing to the same tune, then everything's cool. But if you're both trying to lead, problems arise. The platform wants Thing A while users want Thing B, so they set it up in such a way that doing Thing A increases the likelihood of Thing B. Instead of doing Thing A, users then study the algorithm and find end-arounds to achieve Thing B. In retaliation, the platform cinches up the conditions for achieving Thing B, bringing them closer to obligating you to do Thing A. Rinse, repeat.

Take Facebook, for example. Anyone who's not a major company and is trying to get their work out on Facebook knows what I'm talking about. Things are shifting as the company makes a few changes here and there, but for the past few years it's been an uphill climb. Run a business page? You'd better have x many followers and make them click a special button to make sure you get seen. Alternatively, you can pay for views. But only a certain number of views, and they may or may not get prioritized. Want more views? Buy them -- and it may or may not work.

Facebook appears to be moving away from this model as, surprisingly, people were getting a little tired of the stuff they wanted to see getting quashed down by the stuff people with more money could afford to promote. Then again, Facebook has a shedload of its own problems.

Other sites -- Twitter and YouTube, for example -- are hotter on the "trending" angle of boosting things. (For more on how YouTube in particular rides this concept, check out MatPat's video on the topic.) A lot of social media platforms are skewing toward being beneficial for accounts that are backed by 24-hour teams of content creators, but that isn't all that's at play when it comes to what gets boosted on social media.

The concept of "trending topics" is, at its core, a pretty sensible one. I mean, we're already wired to go along with it. "Oh, everyone's talking about such-and-such, it must be important." And that's... not necessarily a flawed viewpoint. It's pretty rational. After all, it's highly unlikely that several thousand people will just start simultaneously talking about cheese for no reason; something must have happened.

The issue comes when companies decide to use trending as advertising -- which leads them to do Interesting Things.

On Trend.

There's a reason you see people getting hyped about their events or products trending on Twitter. For one thing, it's nice. For another, it means that even people with no interest in what's going on will see it, perceive it as important, and look in. See above.

So creating social media hype is a big deal. And if you do something hype-worthy, well, you'll get the notice and you'll get trending. But what if you want to ensure that you will trend? What if you can't afford to wait and wonder if people will latch on to what you do?

The obvious answer is you roll out a publicity stunt.

Publicity stunts are nothing new, but they take on new importance in a wired world. Where before it just generated buzz, now that buzz translates into more buzz. Use of hashtags, or even just straight mentions, gets you trending. Uninterested parties see it and get interested. And depending on your platform, that hype causes the algorithm to go "Oh, this is important. Better prioritize it." And you get an actual measurable bump to your exposure.

A former manager of mine once said that "all press is good press," and while I know what he meant I disagree. All press is serviceable press, provided your goal is to be seen and to rule the social media algorithms. And that's because, well, one thing algorithms can't do yet is figure out why people are talking about something.

Are people mad? Excited? Do they think it's stupid? Are they mocking it? The algorithm doesn't know, and it isn't programmed to. They don't know why something is trending... they just know that it is. I mean, hell, think of the stress you feel now whenever you see that a celebrity you like is trending. Is it because they're dead, a sex offender, or just did something really cool?

Whenever you see a company pulling an Idiot Move, they're counting on that. They don't think the campaign they rolled out is any better than you do... they just know it'll get people talking. And as an added bonus... not only have they already figured out whether or not they'll be rolling it back, the rollback is almost certainly already in their social media calendar.

The Surprise Is There's No Surprise

Hearken back, if you will, to the garbage fire that was McDonald's bringing back Szechuan Sauce. They "accidentally" used Rick and Morty evocative art that wasn't close enough for a lawsuit, they "accidentally" sent around so little that cartoon anarchists were throwing literal or metaphorical rage fits, and then they launched an awkwardly referential letter to the public saying that their response had "convinced" the chain to bring the sauce back properly.

And, y'know, that's an entire large pile of bull.

While it is not above any company -- regardless of success level -- to pull a "whoops," this reeked from here to the Cronenberg Dimension of a publicity stunt. I can't confirm it, but I would be extremely shocked if I found out that the low numbers of sauce packets were accidental or that their decision to re-launch the sauce was a result of consumer reaction. It's far more likely that this whole thing was presented start-to-finished, packaged, and rolled out on a schedule.

And I guarantee you that's the state of things with the latest "big news." While the company in question may be expanding its offerings, it has no intention of changing its name. That's just a way to get you looking at their new ad and get themselves trending. And as we speak, I guarantee there's a tweet already schedule for a few days from now along the lines of "The public has spoken, we aren't changing our name, but we're still offering this new stuff."

The algorithm is doing all the heavy lifting, fed by natural human reaction to someone doing something utterly ridiculous.

Now, whether the real change they're making is ridiculous or not, I don't know. I know nothing about the restaurant business. I'm a picky eater with childish tastes so my preferences aren't really going to tie into the common demographic, anyway.

All of the above also isn't to say not to take part. I've seen some hilarious posts come out of this whole thing. And, again, this is a marketing team banking on human reaction and social media algorithms, both of which are gonna do what they're gonna do.

Rather, this is more a thing to stick in your back pocket for the future. On this particular campaign, what's happening is sitting in front of you like a giant sore thumb. (Or sore thump, I guess.) A few seconds of logical thought will tell you that, no, this isn't a branding choice that will hold, and it's just a publicity stunt to get people talking.  Is it elegant? No. Is it working? Well... yeah.

And that's something to bear in mind next time something looks especially popular. Is it popular because it's notable... or is it popular because someone in marketing decided that negative or mocking press was worth the risk in order to build up hype?

Eye it carefully. Then decide for yourself what's a big change and what's a shot in the dark.

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