Social Narrative Mastery

What is a social narrative and why do you need one?  In an earlier blog about building your social narrative, I wrote about the importance for brands and individuals to tell a story online.  Not just be online, but to unspool a narrative that represents who you are as a company or as a person.

Your customers, friends, clients, and potential employers are all seeking to know you a little better.  If they aren’t meeting you for a coffee or a drink,  they are seeking a similar connection online. They want to know how smart, capable, and funny you are via your website or social media channels.

How Many Friends Do You Have Online?

Back in the 1990s a British anthropologist named Robin Dunbar proposed that there is a limit to the number of close friends we can comfortably interact with — about 150 people. His method was scientific, citing primate studies, studies of brain size and cognitive load, but he also once said you should think of that circle of 150 people as “the number of people you would not feel embarrassed about joining uninvited for a drink if you happened bump into them in a bar.”  Social media has changed that quite a lot. According to a Pew Research study from 2011, most people in the United States are friendly with 634 people — counting both online and real world friends — and most of us are more expressive to our online friends than friends we meet in a bar, according to the Pew study.

The reason is that social media is powerful and good at breaking down barriers between people. Social media is also scattered, messy, and hard to control. Someone once wrote that social media is like a pie eating contest where the prize you win is more pie. There is truth to that. Unfortunately, also, Twitter has its trolls and Facebook has fake news. It’s not a pristine environment! It can be a black hole for your attention. Nevertheless, since much of your audience is likely to be online, you can use social media as a research tool to learn more about that audience. It’s easy to see, by looking at which posts are most popular, which messages resonate. Your audience is willing to network and build relationships in social media formats.  According to another Pew Research study, this one from 2015, 57% of teens have made new friends online.  (Boys are more likely to do so – 61%; girls, 52%.) 

The Future of Food

I’m working on a new book and podcast about the future of food. My early research into the topic showed that Instagram was where the best conversations about food were happening.  No only do people like posting pictures of food — no doubt triggering some ancient section of the brain that likes to look at things to eat — but they also write informatively about the food supply chain, eating organic, growing your own food, and how restaurants can cut down on food waste. It’s pretty impressive what a picture can communicate, and even more impressive when the captions go into detail. On Instagram you have a lot more room to add text that people might actually read, more so than on Twitter, and in a less scattered way than you will find on Facebook. The hashtags work well to help readers find you. Selecting the right hashtags is an art.  Social media agencies like Hootsuite and SproutSocial write guides about it.

What media should you put online and where? The answer to that question will depend upon what you want your audience to do after having a look or a listen at your media. In other words, what is your call to action?  If you are selling a product that has a quick buying decision, even an impulse buy, then social media  — where the quick decisions are made and hot takes happen — is the place to be. Your online media can be short and infused with taglines and hooks, designed to quickly take your buyer to an order page. On the other hand (or click), if you need time to convince your potential client or customer to spend more money or enter into a longer relationship, then you have a different kind of convincing to do. Social media is not likely to work.

This is where thought leadership comes in. Displaying thought leadership gives you a chance to display your domain expertise. In working with clients on thought leadership, I’ve found there are two successful ingredients to this approach. First, you have to have some thoughts. It sounds like I’m kidding, but what I mean is that you literally have to have something to say that people will find valuable. If you can’t go deep, show off some research or bring some experience to your game. Second, you need to select an appropriate long-form channel for your thought leadership.  It might surprise you to know that longer blog articles are more effective than shorter takes. A data analysis of articles on Medium revealed that seven minutes is the sweet spot – that’s how long you want your article to take to read. (About 1600 words.). As the author of that research writes, “This doesn’t mean we should all start forcing our posts to be 7 minutes! There is enormous variance. Great posts perform well regardless of length, and bad posts certainly don’t get better when you stretch them out.”

Articles or Podcasts?

With proper anchor text and keywords, posting a substantial blog to your own site is a bad idea. We produce podcasts at Red Cup, and often write about podcasting on our blog, with anchor text and keywords. If you plan to post your blog elsewhere, perhaps a a guest post, do the research. Discover the sites with the most traffic and the right audience. Over the past few years Red Cup has built a database of high-traffic blogs accepting guest posts. The topics range from high-level conversations about education and literacy, to fashion and tech, to marketing and medical apps. We use this list, and our submission process, to build links back to our clients’ websites.

Podcasts also establish your credibility.  Most podcasts are vehicles for entertaining conversations. If you can talk convincingly about your favorite topic or ask a few smart questions about it, you can do a podcast. The technical bar for podcasts can be amazingly low. (I write as somebody with decades of experience in production.) At Red Cup we push that bar up and deliver podcasts that meet exacting technical standards and have high production values.  You’d be amazed, however, to listen to popular podcasts that seem like they were done around somebody’s coffee table or in a conference room, which they probably were.  Remember that one of the most popular podcasts on the planet, Marc Maron’s WTF, is recorded in his home studio/garage.  Podcasts like NPR’s RadioLab bring a beautiful complexity to each show, building many-layered stories from studio interviews, location recording, sound effects, and music. There is a lot of range possible with podcast production.

Sending Traffic to Your Site

At the end of the day, wherever your favorite media or channel may be, you need to get people back to your website. First, that’s where you can most reliably measure results. Social media gives you friends and fans (who may unfriend or unfan you). But site visits, time spend on a page, number of pages visited, and visitor actions like signing up for an appointment, a spot on your mailing list, or downloading an ebook or white paper, are all the most reliable indicators of how effective your marketing efforts really are. You website is also your home base, offering your visitors lots of other ways to get to know you.  (If you host your podcast on a service SoundCloud, PodBean, Libsyn, or Blubry you will also get helpful statistics that will inform your programming decisions.)

Get specific about your audience.  The internet is vast and is not kind to generalists. Zeroing in on a specific audience will bring you the best results. You’ll be sending the right message to the right people. Often, as I mentioned at the start of this piece, I like to use social media as a research tool, measuring the popularity of specific posts to help steer my programming decisions. You can continually dip back into that social media data, using Sprout Social, Buffer, or a host of other analytic tools, and always be fine-tuning your message.

Getting super-specific can be painful, but you’ll quickly see that writing stuff or recording podcasts that is not of interest to your audience is a losing proposition. Just check the bounce rate on your site. (A bounce rate is the percentage of people who spend less than 20 seconds looking at your website. You want a low bounce rate  — 20 or 30% — because that is a reflection of the relevance of your media. If people show up and leave right away you are either attracting the wrong people or — sorry to say — you are boring.)

Saving the best for last.  I’ve tried to save the best for last in this article — and here it is.  A social narrative plays out over time. Buzzwords, snappy phrases and hashtags will work wonderfully on social media and over the short term. Most of us are in this for the long game. That means that we’ve got to create media that will last and will be read more than once. We need websites that receive repeat visits by people who want to drill deeper. We need visitors who want to get to know us better. The only way they will do that is with a sort of online storytelling that plays out over time, with chapters that make you want to read the next chapter. If I’ve accomplished that today, you’ll want to read on about how to format a podcast or publish a successful ebook.