Putting the “fun” back in social media

Last week I had the privilege to be one of the judges for The Drum Social Buzz Awards. When they approached me for the “gig”, I accepted gladly because I wanted to see what smarter people were doing in social media and I eagerly waited to go through the initial shortlisting exercise and then debate about the finalists and winners on the judging day.

Papers were discussed and winners were decided but this is not about that. You’ll have to wait until the 27th of November to find out more.

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This is about an initial chat we had during the pre-judging where the key question was “how do we make this fun again?”. Ostensibly, “this” was using social media for marketing but some people, myself included, wondered if “fun” was the right way to frame the problem.

I completely understand the “fun” part, don’t get me wrong. I don’t agree with the premise of the question, but I understand the place it stems from, because, for a very long time, I was one of the people that moaned and pointed at social media platforms for the loss of “fun” (although I might have called it connections, communities, relationships, democratisation of brand-consumer ties).

We all remember the times when social media marketing was all about creating virals, when Oreo broke Twitter with their Super Bowl tweet and created a new meaning for “content calendar” on Facebook, when brands’ social media teams got into hilarious arguments and Old Spice was able to create bespoke replies to everyone over a 24h period. Back then, creativity flowed free, there were no “reach” barriers between brands and the people who’d chosen to follow them, and all of this made social media cool and respectable across agencies and marketing departments.

Yet, I think more fondly of other things too. Like when social platform metrics were not called “vanity” and dismissed as pointless because they were not; when brand communities on social media platforms were a sign the brand was doing well; when we all hoped those communities could result in meaningful things for the brand itself; when you could actually “talk” to the people who had put their trust in your brand by liking a page; finally, when things like social commerce, friend endorsed purchases and other meaningful community-endorsed interactions were possible. That’s when it was “fun” for me.

However, none of this lasted. The reach wall came down, formats got more prescriptive and, if I’m interpreting the question correctly, the fun went out of social media. However, if by fun we mean we don’t get to make a one-off creative execution for Halloween, I am not that sad. I never thought social media for brands was about that.

I always imagined that social was a new kind of operating system enabling brands to create interactions for their communities. Much like KLM started to do before that got cut off as well.

For me, the fun is less about us, the marketeers and ad markers, getting to do something cool and more about the endless possibilities created when there is a malleable interface between people and brands. Websites would never have been able to be that. The internet’s just too big. The same for apps. There’s only this much stuff the first or second screens can hold. But social was maybe that space. It’s clearly possible because it’s being done in China. It’s visible through Facebook’s Donate feature. It’s taking shape in the Instagram video product collections and merch-drop subscriptions. A “fun” social media is possible and I wonder if the way to get to it is to demand that the platforms allow more access to the API, enable more interactions within their ecosystem and stop relying so much on cramming spec-sensitive ads into people’s feeds.

I spoke about this two years ago at Social Media Week.

Since then nothing much has changed except for some scandals which have plunged the big platforms into an abyss of distrust. The very foundation of how some of these are built is wrong and if we want to make it “fun” again, we will have to talk about more than restrictive ad formats or dwindling reach. We will have to be able to engage with the very foundations of how brands live on social media platforms.

And we might need to re-image again how we think about brands on social. Maybe less like “just another friend” and more like a set of branded tools within a wide system of interactions.

Digital Strategist. The Internet will save the world (pending verification). Views expressed here are my own/should not be construed as coming from my employer.

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