A couple months ago, I woke up, as I hope to be doing for many years to come, and went to work. I sat in a brainstorm. We came up with a bunch of content ideas for our brands’ social channels – images, GIFs and lines of witty copy. I went back to my desk, opened a container of leftover lo mein and realized I’d wasted the last four years of my life.
It wasn’t the MSG talking, and it wasn’t one of my typical bouts of chronic self-loathing. In fact, the feeling of worthlessness had been lingering for the past couple of years I’ve worked in my agency’s social department. And for some reason, that “lingering” manifested into a full-blown epiphany after three heaps of Mott Street’s finest noodle.
My role came into existence not long ago, as platforms like Facebook and Twitter began to amass huge user bases. Advertising agencies established social content departments (or “community management” departments) to specialize in setting up and managing brand pages across various social networks. Over the last five years, the social content populating those channels has gone from thoughtless copy and primitive design to, well, less thoughtless copy and less primitive design. But as you might infer from my tone, that evolution is painstakingly slow. And egregious social strategies and executions are wasting money, deteriorating the value of brands and have me sweating over greasy noodles.
The underlying issue is that social departments place too much value on engagement. Those “likes,” “comments,” “shares,” “re-tweets” and “pins” are the metrics that social content creators use to 1) judge success and 2) dictate what future content looks like. Here’s the catch. The people who are engaging with that content are predominantly worthless. Seriously. That’s not to say that all users on social are worthless. But the ones who mindlessly “like” a brand’s Facebook post because an overt call-to-action told them to are. And wouldn’t you know it, those are the users who are dictating a brand’s social content strategy. This is why the last five years have brought an influx of mindless social creative like “SHARE this post!” and “RT if you love Brand X.” They get engagements, and engagements supposedly equal success. And the vicious cycle keeps on turning.
The other abhorrent trend has been the pathetic attempt by brands to “keep relevant.” In and of itself, relevancy is important for any company attempting to message modern-day consumers. But for me, relevancy comes from a general understanding of current social norms, vernacular, visual aesthetics, etc. For instance, the bravery of showing a same-sex couple in your creative. What isn’t “keeping relevant” is creating “real-time content” that references Miley Cyrus twerking or #Whaling. And it’s certainly not celebrating the day’s obscure holiday, whether it’s National Donut Day or Wear A Hat To Work Day. But without fail, and because social content creators typically need to meet a certain quota of tweets and Facebook posts, you’ll see brands celebrating these momentous holidays each week of the year.
For brevity’s sake, I’ll only list one more gripe before I reveal the light at the end of the tunnel. The lack of creativity and innovation exhibited by those who create this social content is baffling. Well not baffling, because in most instances, they’re chartering waters only mildly understood by them — and never understood by clients. And to be fair, the demands of producing massive amounts of content in short periods of time isn’t exactly conducive to producing smart work. But the demands do not warrant the limitless imitation that happens in social. Blatantly repurposing work between competitors, ripping off popular Internet memes, no intention on differentiating one’s brand within the space. A traditional creative department aims to deliver work, whether good or bad, that’s memorable and different. The antithesis is true for social.
Of course, despite all these concerns with the industry, and the realization of a worthless life, I didn’t turn the ignition and shut the garage door. There is light at the end of the tunnel. For starters, Facebook’s change in algorithm, and the case studies they’ve been circulating, de-emphasize engagement and re-emphasize frequency and reach. We’re returning to a normal advertising structure, where creative is given media support, ensuring it’s seen by the right people. Additionally, Facebook will start penalizing brands who post creative that panders to these worthless users (e.g., “LIKE our post!”). Twitter, despite not having an algorithm, will hopefully make moves to reward smart creative, too. But perhaps the brightest lights are the increasing media and production budgets being allocated to social. This money will ultimately increase the scrutiny from clients, the need to prove what leads to ROI, and it’ll ultimately bring stronger talent to social creative departments.
It has made the last few months a bit more manageable from a self-worth perspective. But maybe that’s because I work at one of the leading digital agencies in New York. For the 90 percent of agencies or brands that continue to employee these corrosive practices, let this be a wake up call. Until then, I’m going to finish my lo mein in peace.