Getting your brand story heard in a social media world

This article was originally written for and published in IABC’s CW Bulletin, September 2011.

Brand communicators today have a unique opportunity: We can get our messages into the marketplace at a cost and speed that would not have been possible a few short years ago.

However, we are also not alone anymore. Today everyone is in advertising and in PR. Social media has allowed everyone to have their own megaphone.

Not that this is a surprise to any of us. Nor is it all bad news. Today, I wouldn’t dream of choosing a hotel without reading other travelers’ experiences on Trip Advisor or selecting a restaurant in an unfamiliar city without the help of reviews on Yelp. And I can’t remember the last time I shopped for anything without at least checking what other people had to say in reviews on Amazon.

Today’s brand communicators face the challenge of not just how to get their brand’s story out through social media, but also how to get it heard and retold.

So how do you find and tell your brand’s story so that it will be heard even in the crowded, noisy world of social media? Here are 10 tips to follow:

1. Before you tell, listen.
A brand is the story of every employee, every customer and every person who cares deeply about what you do. Organizations are filled with and surrounded by passionate people. They’ll tell you everything you need to know about your organization, including its strengths, weaknesses, competition and what makes it different. So make the conversation two-way. Listen to what your customers, fans and employees are already saying about your brand. Ask for their advice. Play the role of catalyst, curator and cultivator—collect as many stories as you can. Then simplify and amplify them.

Chipotle Mexican Grill is one organization that does a good job of soliciting, collecting and sharing stories from its fans. The company’s website highlights letters and videos from fans. Many of these show fans eating at the restaurant or wearing their Chipotle T-shirts at locations across the globe. The organization also maintains a vibrant Facebook page.

2. The Internet loves stories.
We relate to each other through our stories. We cheer heroes, and we jeer villains. We face trials and overcome adversity. We journey into unknown worlds and learn more about ourselves as we proceed. These are classic themes that are part of the universal human experience. The more you can apply storytelling principles to communicating your brand story, the better the chance that your stories will be remembered and retold.

3. Tell the truest story of who you are.
Ernest Hemingway said the best way to start anything is to write the truest sentence you know. This was great advice before we all had the attention spans of three-year-olds. Social media is ready-made for a short-attention-span world—so that first true sentence may be all you get. Go right to the core of what you believe and what makes you different.

4. The original story is often the best.
Every organization has a reason for existing. It was created to solve a problem, or fill a need—the vision of a few enterprising people who had a mission and a belief. Over time the organization grew as more like-minded people joined the journey. That’s a story everyone can relate to. So when you get lost, go back to where you began.

5. You have to give to get.
Social media is a gift economy. You have to give value for others to give value back to you. Use the audience and credibility you’ve established to tell the stories of others—whether they are customers, fans, employees, or just those who share the same interests and values as your brand—and they’ll be more likely to tell yours.

6. Show you care.
Look for organizations, missions and causes that you believe in and that align with the mission of your brand. It’s not enough to sell your products and services. People want to know you’re committed to more than just being “world’s leading provider” of something. People want to feel like your brand is worthy of their personal investment.

7. If you mess up, own up.
Companies make mistakes, just like people. Think of how a trusted friend handled a mistake they made. They apologize, try their best to make it right, learn from it and move forward to rebuild your trust in them. The Internet doesn’t forget, but over time, people can.

8. It’s all about authenticity.
The Internet is just like any other communication medium, only faster and more democratic. While it has an unprecedented ability to churn up total nonsense and waste your time, the Internet also does a pretty good job of rooting out inauthenticity. The Internet hates phonies. In fact, people are more likely to ignore or forgive your flaws when you’re upfront about them. So you might as well just be true about who you are.

9. Personify your brand voice.
Define the personality of the brand as though it were the personality of a person. What are your brand’s traits? Is your brand funny? Serious? Smart? Is your brand formal or casual? What is your brand passionate about? Invest the time in articulating how your brand sees the world. When you define this personality as though you’re developing a character in a play, it makes it that much easier for each person who crafts brand messages to write their lines.

10. Speak as a chorus rather than a crowd.

You should never expect or want every person in an organization to tell one story about your brand. A brand story is no one story alone. What you want is for employees, customers, or anyone who is passionate about your brand to tell their own story about your brand. Give them a place to do it and then celebrate them.


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