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Marketing Briefing: ‘An era of outrage porn’: Social experts weigh in on the value of brands’ edgy, viral content

Brands pushing the envelope on social media isn’t a new concept. But as the social landscape has become more crowded and advertisers look for ways to stand out, it’s a marketing strategy that’s become even more popular in recent years, social media experts say.

Social media experts have mixed feelings on how much value the strategy delivers, noting that it’s a high-risk one that can come with a viral moment and boosted sales or online calls to cancel the brand and bad press.

There’s Snickers’ sexually-charged vein tweet or even Oreo’s celebrated Dunk in the Dark tweet. But what happens when brands fly too close to the sun and end up facing public backlash? 

It’s a lesson Duolingo learned last week, coming under fire for a comment on TikTok about Johnny Depp and Amber Heard’s defamation trial. The pushback quickly reignited conversations around brand safety and how far is too far when it comes to creating edgy, viral content. The language app has yet to comment publicly. Earlier this year, Pabst Blue Ribbon beer brand found itself in a similar situation after posting a sexually explicit joke on Twitter.

“I’m just curious what the total end game is and if this will be a domino effect, or brands are going to take a step back and… focus on overall product value and what makes them unique,” said Brandon Biancalani, head of paid advertising at Modifly social marketing agency.

While it can be argued that all press is good press, experts say there must be a method to the madness and some topics are off-limits. “Anything that is dealing with tragedy is not a place you want to approach it in a light-hearted way, because it’s just going to fall flat,” said Noah Mallin, chief of brand strategy for IMGN, in a warning to all brands leveraging social media.

That’s not to say that brands can’t speak to issues that are important to them and their consumers. But it only works if the brand has a history of aligning itself with said issues, Mallin added. “The other danger there is it feels like the brand is hijacking an issue to make themselves the center of it,” he said. 

Many times, it’s a high-risk, high-reward responsive marketing play, social media experts say. In a crowded advertising landscape, brands are constantly working to break out from the noise, often playing into cultural moments to capture a portion of the attention around the day’s topic. But, experts say, it’s a tough line to toe in today’s highly polarized society.

“It’s almost like you don’t say sorry these days. You almost just have to either stand by [the misstep] or remove it and wait,” Biancalani said, adding that consumers hold brands to a higher standard today than ever before. Seemingly, brands can either play it safe and sit out edgier, potentially viral plays, or take the risk that could be a viral reward or viral blowback.

That blowback comes with the territory as “we live in an era of outrage porn,” Brendan Gahan, partner and chief social officer at Mekanism, said via email. Per Gahan, the strategy works for brands like Duolingo, which is known for its so-called “unhinged” content. And as long as there’s an audience of consumers to be won, brands and advertisers will continue to push boundaries, both knowingly and unknowingly, he added.

When it does happen, Gahan said it’s unlikely many will remember these “perceived missteps.” In the grand scheme of things, the blowback toward Duolingo and others that have pushed the boundaries has been minimal, he said.

If anything, brands should take more risks to stand out from the crowded digital advertising space, Gahan said. “To be able to cut through the clutter is incredibly difficult. It’s only going to get harder,” he said.

3 Questions with Jamie Norwood, co-founder of Stix women’s wellness brand

Why is organic strategy so important for a niche brand like Stix?

Like any other direct-to-consumer brand, when we first got started, we learned quickly that we didn’t want to be at the mercy of Facebook. We really went all in on organic and built out Real Talk. It’s our hub for sex and health education. It’s definitely not to say we don’t use paid. We absolutely do. We’re finding a lot of success on TikTok ads right now. We definitely route a lot of our strategy in organic. Because there’s so much education and content within our products, it really allows us to own that relationship [with customers]. 

What have been the results of those organic efforts?

We’ve seen a lot of success with loyalty and repeat orders. The number of orders per customer is really affected by organic, especially when we are getting information from our customers. We have a quiz so we know from them where they are in their life stage when it comes to their health, are they trying to get pregnant, are they not? We can then go on and recommend specific products to them. And not just products, but also content and education.

Conversations around diversifying media spend and marketing mixes have been bubbling up again with data privacy regulations and creeping CPMs. How has that impacted your team?

We think about channel expansion and diversification all the time. [In] our monthly marketing meeting, one of the areas we spend the most time dissecting is revenue by channel. We want to make it as even as possible. We really want to even things out and add new channels in all the time. One of the worst things we could do would be to say these five channels work for us. We’re going to stick to these and not look anywhere else.

By the numbers

Amidst the talent wars, Great Resignation and push to return to the office, companies are also dealing with the workplace generation divide as Gen Z joins the workforce. This next generation of employees has a different definition of success than previous generations, according to new research from learning management system TalentLMS. See key findings from the report below:

  • 77% of survey respondents find it important to work for a company that cares about diversity, equity, and inclusion.
  • 7 in 10 Gen Z survey respondents find it important to have in-person socialization with their colleagues.
  • Of those surveyed, 31% find it difficult to cope with pressure and stress at work.

Quote of the week 

“We’re not seeing advertisers cancel budgets — it’s too early to do that. There is, however, a cautionary note in a lot of the plans we’re working on now. Clients want to hold on to as much of their budget as possible while they wait to see what happens.”

— Dave Mulrenan, head of investment at Zenith U.K., on how marketers are preparing for more uncertainty in 2022.

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