Social media consultants used to talk about the difference between “broadcasting” and “listening”. You don’t hear that so much any more. One of the reasons Twitter isn’t the fun it used to be is the reversion to broadcast across so many profiles. (Combined with the rise of trolling – which makes Twitter like a party full of bores and bullies. And who wants that?)

One reason brands broadcast is because they can’t actually “listen”. Not in the true sense of the word. You can have all the monitoring systems you want, all the data gathering, all the analytics, but you can still completely miss the point.

Like puzzled parents trying to chime in with their kids’ conversations, or the proverbial dad on the dancefloor, many brands may need to face up to the harsh reality that they can never really be cool. At least, not that cool.  Not achingly hip, blink and it’s over, cool.

With the launch of Instagram Stories, we should be steeling ourselves for an onslaught of badly thought-out, boring photo montages.

Stories brings Instagram one step closer to mimicking its main rival Snapchat. And Snapchat is the preferred social channel for millennials: inevitably brands will experiment. CEOs and marketing directors will demand it.

Of course, there’ll be some gems in there, but there’ll be an awful lot of frogs.

It’s hard for brands to listen. It’s even harder for them to innovate. I love the analysis given by cultural strategist Douglas Holt in his HBR article, Branding in the age of Social Media. Holt talks about a phenomenon he calls crowdculture, which is about how digital crowds (not brands) are creating and driving popular culture.

Crowdculture has turbocharged art worlds, vastly increasing the number of participants and the speed and quality of their interactions,” says Holt. “Now millions of nimble cultural entrepreneurs come together online to hone their craft, exchange ideas, fine-tune their content, and compete to produce hits.”

For example, Holt compares PewDiePie, who sends out inexpensive videos from his home, to McDonald’s (one of the world’s biggest social media spenders). McDonald’s US YouTube channel has 275,000 subscribers. PewDiePie’s channel is 200 times as popular, for a fraction of the cost.

This is a massive reversal of how popular culture functioned in the past, when advertising slogans and sponsored tv shows dominated the social landscape. Holt goes on to describe this new type of innovation in detail:

“[It] is a new mode of rapid cultural prototyping, in which you can get instant data on the market’s reception of ideas, have them critiqued, and then rework them so that the most resonant content quickly surfaces. In the process, new talent emerges and new genres form. Squeezing into every nook and cranny of pop culture, the new content is highly attuned to audiences and produced on the cheap. These art-world crowdcultures are the main reason why branded content has failed.”

Big companies are good at coordinating complex marketing campaigns across multiple markets all over the world, points out Holt. The inevitable bureaucracy that surrounds these programmes and the necessary structure behind them often kills off the very innovation they are trying to create.

Holt concludes that companies need to shift their focus away from the platforms themselves and start looking more closely at crowdcultures. This means avoiding over-reliance on segmentation models, market reports and trending topics (because your competitors are looking at the same things), and actually listening to what’s happening at the grassroots.

How brands do this, I don’t know. Clayton Christensen identified this problem twenty years ago in The Innovator’s Dilemma – part of his solution was to establish corporate “listening posts”. But as discussed above, brands struggle to get listening right. And as cultural change speeds up, capturing the essence of any idea or movement is increasingly challenging.

One thing’s for sure, jumping on the latest new bright shiny thing is not necessarily a good idea. Maybe it’s best to forget all about Instagram Stories, and pop down your local for a chat. You never know, you might meet the next PewDiePie at the bar.

Photo: Anthony Gattine under a Creative Commons licence


Jemima Gibbons

Social media consultant and author of Monkeys with Typewriters (featured by BBC Radio 5 and the London Evening Standard). Get your social marketing up and running with my Social Media Launch Pack!

All author posts

Privacy Preference Center