To move beyond social media, business must first create from within

Moving beyond the initial hashtag and into action is harder because its, well, harder. An authentic message is required that connects to the very core of a company. With complete buy-in, initiatives can be planned and messages strategized. To move BeyondThe#, we must begin working long before any social media campaign is drawn up.

With no real action, any marketing campaign will ring completely hollow. This is something that should seem more obvious with every trending topic that fades into oblivion before it catches the mainstream’s attention. Of equal intrigue are trends that do catch fire but have absolutely no merit to them. #mannequinchallenge anyone? But what is it that keeps drawing business into a seemingly unproductive spiral of posts and tweets, only to end with a choppy and uneventful monologue that even Yorick would roll his eyes at? The problem is two-fold. For the user, retweeting or liking is actually doing something, it’s just not much of something. Then for business, the campaigns are, usually, pretty weak to begin with and their understanding of digital is still budding. So let’s take a brief dive into these issues.

The User

In the olden days, pre-2007, participating in a social campaign required getting up and taking action. Whether that was writing a member of your government, picketing an organization, or even telling a friend but in person *gasp*. Over these many years, our extremities have evolved to include smartphones that connect us across the globe to billions of others.

Literally billions.

Source: Internet Live Stats

With the shrinking of distance and the perforation of borders, it was only natural to feel that our voices carried the same weight that they once did. But the internet was not a tool for amplifying your voice any more than it was an empty, unresponsive universe. In this emptiness came a savior in the form of social networks. You began having real connections with friends again. These connections would play out in real business opportunities or even drawn-out conversations, often carrying into real life. As people grew accustomed to this activity, they started walling off issues they didn’t care about or ones that were at best annoying, at worst hostile. A likely side effect of freewill.

But then came the catch. Those 68 Twitter followers started to come with a sense of vindication in the form of Likes. Retweets and shares on par with being anointed. So when it came to social causes, people would boldly make their voice heard, sometimes resulting in a comment thread, the holy grail. People began taking time to research their point, link an article, and ultimately prove themselves correct or reach consensus (rare that may be now). Effort would be spent and the task accomplished for all four people that followed the back-and-forth. There’s going to be an interesting study in the future about mental anguish spent on social media “debates.”

Nonetheless, social media gave and still gives people that dopamine hit of accomplishment when there actually hasn’t been anything accomplished. This is, sadly, not reflective of only one thread. There is a wealth of posts with similar passion behind them ultimately drowning out any value that could come from an open, real debate. Meanwhile, the campaign or movement wades in a sea of pound signs, expecting the wave to break and carry it ashore. However, there is often a reason that wave is never even coming.


The lack of irl (in real life) action being taken cannot wholly be blamed on the user, quite rightly. Business rarely uses social media for anything meaningful, opting for witty one-offs or two week hashtag campaigns. Banter, granted sometimes top notch, does not rally the user base into full support of an organization. Hashtags and share requests also do little if anything in the real world. The whole concept of the hashtag is to connect bits across a platform, but too often, hashtags are employed for companies to attempt becoming a “Trending” topic. But why do you want to be trending? Trending, by its very definition, has no staying power. Further, a paper in the Journal for Consumer Research found people that support organizations in public are less likely to actually contribute to the cause; those that participate in slactivism privately are more likely to actually contribute. Meaning (from the paper’s abstract) “[c]onsumers exhibit greater helping on a subsequent, more meaningful task after providing an initial private (vs. public) display of token support for a cause” rather than a “socially observable” display of “token support.” In other words, the cause needs to connect to the values of someone to get them to act, so they are not interested in just looking like they care. Though, even those token engagements do very little for the cause because people have walled off their social network circles to mostly like minded individuals.

why do you want to be trending? Trending, by its very definition, has no staying power

Though, social media is not for naught. There can still be value generated from social media campaigns. One possible way is for them to be incentivized, as recently described in the MIT Sloan Management Review. It states that, based on research, “incentive networks are an important middle layer between ideologies and culture on the one hand, and the simple digital fingerprints left by social movements in online digital platforms such as Twitter and Facebook.” By using incentives, social media can bridge a Tweet to action by making the action meaningful. Too many campaigns “[neglect] key latent processes such as the ideological, cultural, and economic incentives of actors,” which ultimately does not make it truly meaningful.

So where does this leave social media for business? To start, businesses can focus less on getting Likes, more on driving real change that is authentic to their organization. This authenticity must come from a deeper understanding of the company, the campaign, and the audience. In a sense, businesses need to assume the role of good managers for their initiatives. You, hopefully, know the ones that fully understand the person, the role, and the outcome. As one Harvard Business Review paper puts it:

“the best way a leader can drive motivation is by designing jobs well and putting people in the right roles. This means paying close attention to the functional and psychological characteristics of the job, ensuring that it fulfills each employee’s basic drivers, and helping each person to achieve something they see as meaningful.”

“But, Eric,” you scream, “incentives, authenticity, managers, you yammer on about things that we already know. Where’s the point?” The point is, knowing, saying, and doing are three very different things that don’t always overlap for business. You can know tactics for marketing, you can say your company cares, but very few organizations incorporate these campaigns and messages into their company DNA. Let’s look at two recent social media campaigns that have garnered attention for real issues to drive this puppy home.

When Campaigns Truly Catch our Eye

A GIF from Audi’s “Daughter” commercial

Daughter” is a stirring commercial from Audi that tries to create a larger conversation surrounding gender income inequality. With some great copy and a finely shot race, the campaign boldly states “Audi of America is committed to equal pay for equal work,” while including a nice hashtag, #DriveProgress. As the commercial aired on TV, though, people were quick to point out that Audi of America’s executive team has 12 men and 2 women. While diversity at executive levels was not the point of their ad, it is nonetheless a part of the overall conversation. Audi was quick to defend its message (and admit that it is also not yet perfect), but this brings to light exactly why businesses need to have commitment to a cause woven into their fiber well before making a statement. Otherwise it will sound hollow, however heart-filled their attempts at improving truly are. (I have no doubt Audi has and will continue this initiative)

Frame grabbed from GE’s “What If Scientists Were Celebrities?” commercial

In a similar vein, another campaign sprung up recently from General Electric using the hashtag #BalanceTheEquation. With a stronger injection of humor, GE criticizes how male and female scientists are not celebrated in the same way by imagining paparazzi following Millie Dresselhaus. Unfamiliar with her name? Precisely the point.

But this campaign goes beyond social buzz, GE has announced its goal of 20,000 women in STEM roles by 2020. This is a commitment that the corporate culture fully invests in and a problem that GE confesses only makes sense to solve. Diversity and equality within creates new innovation and fosters greater curiosity. With a culture dependent on teamwork and talent, this campaign connects directly to viewers because it is authentic of GE and is an initiative that has had complete employee buy-in for years. It also sets hard goals to reach with deadlines to hold itself accountable and provide a framework that is in a relatable context.

Creating marketing buzz and a trendy hashtag does not drive change. Genuine commitment does

Both initiatives are certainly worthy and, frankly, past due. A huge amount of work needs to be done to reach these goals, which are plainly about equality and fairness. But creating marketing buzz and a trendy hashtag does not drive change. Genuine commitment does. As the saying goes in some form or another, “don’t talk the talk, unless you can walk the walk.” Social media created a category of campaigns that focus solely on talk (and by no means am I saying either Audi or GE are all talk). Or worse, they jump on a hashtag and try to wrangle it into a cheap marketing opportunity only to look like Steve Buscemi with a skateboard.

Creating value and action from social media is hard because it takes significant energy. Social media has made it easier to channel emotion and energy into posts instead of trying to change things. This doesn’t mean social media is going away, but it does show that companies must work hard to establish their voice. A voice that people respect and appreciate. That is why it is time for business, marketing, communications, PR, advertising, everyone to stop looking for buzz and look to build upon an authentic message with authentic action. for businesses to go BeyondThe# they must first commit themselves to initiatives that speak to their core.