A World Packed With Publishers
How Brands Can Make Their Content Stand Out in a Landscape Obsessed with Production
If you've spent any amount of time on social media, you probably already know that the online landscape is flooded with content. As technology has become more and more available, brands now have less control than ever over their audience- and the number of eyeballs viewing their content is dropping quickly. This is, perhaps, a natural result of the amount of competition there now is to attract attention to oneself. Beginning with MySpace, who incentivized users to increase their social standing by having as many online "friends" as possible, social media platforms are now less about connecting with friends and more about collecting influence online. For example, Twitter allows users to follow accounts, and in turn be followed back. A quick search for "Twitter ratios" brings up dozens of articles about how to achieve an imbalanced following-follower ratio so it looks like one is more popular than they are in reality. On Snapchat, users can now quickly view each other's "snap score," gaining points when other users interact with them, view their stories, or check up on their location. No matter how you feel about the communicative aspects of social media, it is simply impossible to deny that the average user is more concerned with being seen than ever before.
Brands are currently having more trouble than ever connecting with their core audience because in a way, every user of social media has become a "brand" of themselves. Users advertise their "brand" through careful curation of their feeds, walls, and stories with as much loving care and thought as an employee of the MOMA placing new pieces in an exhibit. Whether it's a set of Facebook photos from a night out on the town, a perfectly staged Instagram photo of an elegantly prepared brunch, or a joking tweet sent out to followers in hopes of catching a few shares, nearly every person on the internet who uses any form of social media, video streaming service, or message board is a publisher producing content. The barrier has been set so low that a world once filled only by those who could invest the time and money into gaining the proper equipment to engage an audience now requires little more than an iPhone, a flashy filter application, and an unlimited data package.
To better illustrate this point, let's take a look at the world of food criticism. For as long as the gourmet world can remember, the key to retaining an audience of diners was the coveted Michelin stars. Gaining one, two, or even three of the coveted stars was practically a guaranteed way to signal to customers that your food was special, noteworthy, and worth a trip from out of town. Foodies from around the world would wait with baited breath in anticipation to learn which establishments were being awarded stars (and in some cases, taken away) by experts who had tasted the best that the world had to offer. The Michelin star rating system was respected because the food was being reviewed by experts, the best-of-the-best when it comes to palettes. Then came Yelp.com, the consumer review site where anyone could submit a star rating (between one and five) for their favorite restaurants, beauty parlors, and even doctor's offices. Seemingly overnight, the phrase "everyone's a critic" took on a whole new meaning. Thousands of users flooded the site to post reviews of their dining experiences; statistician Nate Silver described the site as "unsophisticated, cheap, and obsessed with trivial details of the restaurant experience.” As the internet was suddenly overwhelmed with reviews from those who were in no ways gourmets and who spent no time developing their palettes or studying flavors, food criticism died almost overnight. Le Bernardin, a three Michelin star seafood restaurant in Manhattan, now holds a lower rating on Yelp than The Halal Guys, a food cart located just around the corner.
In the same way, an endless stream of content is being produced by all social media users, much of which is meaningless and low-quality. This is not a knock to the average social media user; it is impossible to expect a teenager with an iPhone to produce content on-par with a brand like Coca-Cola, who has a virtually limitless budget. However, in the flood of content being created, many brands are throwing their media training to the wind and going with an "everything but the kitchen sink" approach to their digital marketing. Instead of carefully creating their content with user intent in mind, they are reposting the same content to their Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Google Plus, and running generic ads on every flavor-of-the-week app game that comes to town. This is inevitably a failing strategy; if brands want to connect with their consumers, they need to do so on a psychological level. Simply gaining eyeballs is not enough.
So what can a brand do to stand out and gain the attention of their customers within a world that's packed to the brim with publishers?
The answer lies in a return to the basic principles of market research. Instead of spreading themselves thin over a number of social media platforms, brands should be producing careful content that is in-line with the values of their target audience. For example, an overwhelming 92% of Instagram's user base is below the age of 45, with the vast majority being between the ages of 18 and 29. Thus, there is no reason why the American Association of Retired Persons should be wasting time, money, and resources posting content to their Instagram page and paying for sponsored posts; the average user of Instagram is simply incompatible with the service that the AARP is offering. Instead, their team should be devoting time to more traditional forms of advertising, which users who are interested in their services are more likely to be engaged in.
Similarly, brands need to develop specific content that is cohesive with each social media platform on which they choose to engage. It is well known that users of Instagram are more focused on visually-stimulating, bright, and sight-oriented content. However, fast-food giant Burger King is guilty of cross posting their same coupons and long-winded captions along with photos of burgers shot from a distance- the same content they regularly upload to their Facebook and Twitter accounts. While the brand could find massive success posting photos of juicy, succulent hamburgers and mouthwatering French fries glistening with salt, they choose to take the quantity-over-quality approach and cross-post their content.
Brand who want to employ an effective digital marketing strategy need to remember that effective engagement isn't just about getting people to see their content. Nearly every social media outlet now offers sponsorship options, but brands are essentially tossing money out the window every time they purchase an ad on a platform that is incongruent with their audience, or promote a post that's incompatible with the landscape of the site. Instead of attempting to spread their presence over as many social media sites as possible, brands should instead focus on creating meaningful content that makes an emotional impact with their target audience. For example, a fashion brand would benefit from focusing their research on color psychology to create an Instagram advertisement, while automated mailing service MailChimp would better spend their time researching what types of subreddits they can advertise to in order to increase their click-through rate on Reddit.
As advertisers, there is a desperate and immediate need to return to quality content. Instead of thinking of the entire landscape of social media users as competition, think of them as potential customers. Know the average user of the social media sites you post to, and create unique, shareable content that is likely to psychologically and emotionally engage native users of the platform. It is through a return to the quality content that brands can make themselves heard in the endless drone of online content creation.