Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

Inviting social to the table: how Systems Thinking can help brands connect on social

by Tom Wrigley, Digital & Social Communications Strategy Director, 1HQ UK

It’s ironic that, despite our name, social media specialists have long worked in isolation. For too many years, social media departments have been relegated to weaving the mysterious dark arts of social in shady corners, while the ‘real’ marketers get a seat at the brand table. Sure, we might get a sneak peek of a marketing plan or be on the receiving end of new brand assets that refuse to squeeze into a thumbnail but, for the most part, we’ve operated in a social vacuum that stands apart from the wider brand ecosystem. 

This approach flies in the face of Systems Thinking. Rather than look at a brand world as an interconnected whole, the reductionist view of many social media practitioners focuses on social media in silo, reducing it to its most basic parts – likes, impressions, posts and channels. This approach may have worked for a while but, given social’s increasingly important role in brand discovery and consideration, it’s time for the boundaries between ‘brand’ and ‘social’ to be removed. Instead, we need to explore how social media can become an extension of the wider brand world. 

The problem with reductionism in social media

Social media plays a significant role in contributing to a customer’s overall experience of a brand. No other medium allows customers to talk to a brand, to engage with other customers, to seek entertainment, to access customer service, to buy their products. When done right, social media can become a living, breathing embodiment of your brand, an extension of an entire world for customers to experience. When done wrong, social is reduced to likes, views, comments, single pieces of content, all cluttered with jargon that serves to keep it firmly within its own separate domain.

This reductionist view has very real effects. Despite the year-on-year increases in social media spend, according to the CMO surveys, the level of impact social media has on businesses has flatlined. And yet, every week, my inbox is flooded with success stories of viral branded content that achieves reach in the millions. These figures might look good on a marketing report but, by reducing the purpose of social media to these basic components, it limits social’s potential to deliver real brand and business impact. Systems Thinking offers a way to change this. A way to bring the worlds of ‘brand’ and ‘social’ a little closer, to meaningfully connect with customers, and deliver the metrics that truly matter.

Social media should be an extension of brand experience

Systems Thinking shows us that it’s the interconnections between many things that truly make a brand. Logos, product experience, advertising, semiotic cues, in-store experiences – all things that form the greater whole of the brand experience. Stronger together, weaker apart. And social media needs to become woven into this world too. 

Perhaps this sounds simple, but it requires a fundamental shift in marketer’s thinking:

  • It means dissolving the barriers between brand and social within internal marketing teams and external agencies.
  • It means moving beyond measuring social’s impact in terms of reach and engagement metrics and asking the harder questions around how it influences brand and business objectives. 
  • It means social becomes more than just social – it becomes an extension of the wider brand ecosystem.

Some of the most successful brands have achieved this. Take ‘All Things Hair’ – the award-winning social channel set up by Unilever, that delivers hair tutorials based on the latest Google searches. Or ‘Lego Ideas’ – the co-creation hub that encourages creativity and playfulness at any age. Both are more than just social channels, more than just content, more than just impressive viewing figures. These brands use social media to extend their brand experience and deliver genuine brand and business value to their organisations as a result.

Putting this into practice

So, how do we stop treating social in isolation and start treating it as part of the brand ecosystem? It starts with one simple question: What is the reason someone will engage with, and remember, your brand on social?

If half as much time and energy was spent answering this question than is currently spent on churning out branded content, brands would discover that social can contribute a lot more to their business. Putting this into practice has its challenges. Companies must evolve an overarching brand positioning to become the north star for all social activity, reject the usual static brand book and co-create with brand and social teams to ensure a brand can live, breathe, talk, engage and add real value. 

To embrace a positive change, companies need to break down silos between brand and social teams internally, and brand and social agencies externally. Upstream brand thinking must also be extended into downstream social experience, ensuring a feedback loop is in place to continually optimise both. Only by giving both brand and social teams seats at the table will this be achievable. Executing this seamlessly will help social to become less isolated and deliver an impact that can be felt widely through the business. And by inviting social to that table, it’s my hope that it will become, well, a bit more social.