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Want to be a social brand? Don't act like a human being

by Molly Flatt on 12 September 2012

Any marketer worth their salt trips out the old truism that brands should be ‘more human’ in social media. But this year, a number of social media related experiences have planted a slow realisation in my brain. The fact is, brands acting like human beings in social media is sure fire route to disaster.

Back in February, Tesco advertised online for a night shift role in East Anglia, offering wages of “Job Seekers Allowance plus expenses”. In layman’s terms? Nada and a bus fare. Apparently part of the government’s Sector Based Work Academies (SBWA) scheme, the role sparked Twitter outrage. Guardian reporter and writer of Liberal Conspiracy blog Sunny Hundal was one of thousands who condemned it as “nothing less than modern slavery.”

Now, the @UKTesco Twitter team are usually a case study in excellent social customer care. Despite having almost 20,000 followers, their tweets are consistently quick, warm, personal and above all genuinely helpful. But when faced thousands of angry tweets, they resorted to firing off the same for several hours – [@whoever] This is an error made by Jobcentre Plus. It should be an advert for work experience with a guaranteed job at the the end. Better than ignoring them? Perhaps, but as our very own Andy Stretton pointed out at the time, it had the startling effect of making a human team of respondents sound like robots.

One of the truisms of social media is that it provides places where brands are empowered to act more like humans. But, as the living, breathing team at @UKTesco proved, sometimes the real-time demands of social can constrain well-meaning humans into sounding more like machines. When you have a prescriptive set of KPIs telling you how quickly to respond, and an approved flowchart directing you to a safe message in a crisis, how do you stop social standards from slipping when engagement reaches unmanageable scale?

A couple of months later, my experiences at Like Minds demonstrated the other side of the coin. At the Exeter-based conference, one of the Guardian’s Top 10 Global Ideas Festivals, a colleague and I decided to use our workshop to conduct a modest experiment. We challenged participants to investigate whether they could use social media to shift behaviours rather than just generate talk. Within half an hour, they had to get someone within their network (but who they hadn’t met in real life) to either donate to a specific Exeter charity, including the hashtag #likemindsdoers in their Justgiving comment; or to buy a cup of Starbucks coffee, get the barista to write the hashtag on the cup, and upload a photo as proof.

We didn’t particularly care whether anyone nailed the tasks (they didn’t). What was interesting was their reaction to being personally asked to achieve social objectives that brands – sometimes their own – chase without question every day. And it turned out that many of them instinctively employed tactics brands would be excoriated for online. No-one listened first and then personally targeted relevant individuals; they threw messages into the ether and hoped one stuck. One resorted to bribery; another piggybacked off popular hashtags. They SHOUTED. They cajoled. And even the ethical ones failed to impel their likeminded networks to donate a single pound to a worthy local cause.

This is no reflection on the character or skills of the participants, who were incredibly good sports. But it is a reflection on the hypocrisy of our insistence that brands be human online. Because much of the behavior we as individuals display in social media is underpinned by an (conscious or not) agenda of personal branding. How many of your friends use their presences to basically declare their own awesomeness, uploading their on-trend outfits and selectively broadcasting their most exciting cultural activities? How many treat them as broadcast channels, continually trying to get you to read their blogs or attend their events? How many reply tardily to questions, use appalling grammar and eschew ‘full transparency’ for a five-year-old profile photo?

What we really mean when we say that we want brands to be human online is that we want them to act out a persona of flawless humanity. Far from enhancing their ‘authenticity’, this reveals just how inhuman we prefer them to be. We want them to be warm and friendly yet available 24/7. To respect our privacy but hide nothing from us. To adore what they do but not talk about it too much. To be totally honest but to hide their fiscal motivations behind a dance of engagement. To be personal on a mechanical scale. And as they strive to act more like us, we start to become more like them.

An organized group of people (a business) cannot act like an individual. And it probably wouldn’t want to, if its aim is to build a positive reputation with widespread appeal, not to mention make money. Being social as a business takes new and unique skills and strategies, including boundary setting that reminds others what it can and can’t (and is and isn’t willing to) do. As for the rest of us?  Well, practicing not being self-obsessed morons would be a good place to start.

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