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What Brands Should Be Learning From Chewbacca Mom

By now, everyone’s seen it — or at least heard of it. Texas mom Candace Payne shopped for a Chewbacca mask at Kohl’s, and streamed herself on Facebook Live trying it on. Her giddy, joyful reaction struck a chord even with people who had no idea who she was, and the video has been viewed about 150 million times — making it the most viewed video in Facebook history.

Payne, not previously an internet celebrity or influencer of note, has in the days since received thousands of dollars in merchandise and gift cards from Kohl’s, got to visit Facebook headquarters, and has even done an appearance on James Corden’s “Late Late Show,” driving Corden and director J.J. Abrams to work.

The sudden internet popularity of Payne, by all accounts just your “average mom,” and the marketing manna from heaven reaped by Kohl’s , should result in hundreds of copycat would-be digital influencers uploading their own Live videos of their shopping experiences and manufacturing their own giddiness over their product of choice in hopes of attracting brand attention. It will lead to a dozen social media and digital guru pundits writing posts about how Chewbacca Mom’s video was Facebook Live’s  moment of “arrival, a signal like SXSW 2007 was for Twitter that the platform is about to reach critical mass and mass adoption. (Prepare for the wave of guru posts proclaiming that brands not already on Facebook Live are already behind.)

It will also likely drive brands from all over to try to replicate the video’s success, showing off just how happy their products make the average user, and desperately trying to achieve the kind of “viral” success that marketers dream about.

If that happens, then everyone involved would have totally missed the point, and will get it wrong.

It wasn’t the Chewbacca mask that made this video successful. It wasn’t even about Payne’s obvious glee at the toy. What made this video work and strike such a chord with so many people boils down to two things:

  1. It was spontaneous and genuine. There was nothing promotional, nothing slick, nothing planned about it. It was obviously just capturing a moment in time, a real one at that — one marketers hadn’t assembled or contrived.
  2. It connected with people on an emotional level. It wasn’t about product, or the personality/notoriety of the spokesperson. It was just a human being feeling a relatable emotion.

People gravitate to stories they can relate to, feel emotion with, see themselves in. This is why, when it’s done well, storytelling works as a branding concept. When a brand is smart enough — and confident enough — to portray itself not as the hero of a story but as the sidekick to the true hero (the viewer or reader), the viewer relates and can feel along. When we can see or feel along with the story, we not only pay attention; we remember.

And Candace Payne’s unadulterated joy was something people could feel along with — after all, as the Washington Post pointed out, laughter is contagious. Even if they didn’t share her Star Wars “geekdom,” let’s face it: we’re all geeks about something (my personal geek-outs are baseball, The Prisoner, and all things Walt Disney World). We could all relate to being that happy about something small that just made our day because it tapped our giddy place.

That’s why “Chewbacca Mom” struck a chord and went “viral” — because it worked on that emotional level.  Brand marketers shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that it was about a particular product, or about having an “average” person show off the product, or even that its success was about the breakthrough power of Facebook Live. The moment wasn’t scripted, which means it’s pretty much by nature not replicable. Trying to contrive or revisit it wouldn’t have nearly the effect.

Instead of looking at what was done or what the subject of the content was, or trying to find their own “every day hero” to be the next viral sensation, brands should be looking at why Chewbacca Mom worked — be looking for ways to draw viewers and readers emotionally to them, and be thinking about how to make their digital content more genuine and less contrived. That is the lesson we should all be learning from Chewbacca Mom.


Twitter Gets The Message

Bloomberg telegraphed it a couple of weeks ago, and today Twitter made it official: the platform is no longer counting @names, links, photos, GIFs, and videos against its 140-character limit. (And hooray! — we can now dispense with putting a period in front of an @name response so that everyone can see it — one of the dumber conventions of any social media platform.)

This frees up the platform for better and more effective use of interactive and visual content — welcome news to most Twitter users but especially to brands and commercial users of the service, which often find themselves wanting for more space to provide context around some of the content they share. This move will probably also relax branding managers who cringed at the idea of using common Twitter abbreviations in a branded post (say it together with me: “that’s off brand”).

Something Jack Dorsey said in his interview with the New York Times struck home with me as really wise.

When people try to cram their thoughts into a 140-character tweet, “then you’re just thinking a lot about Twitter instead of what you’re saying. We shouldn’t make you think about Twitter,” Mr. Dorsey said.

There’s a lesson in there for everyone in social and digital, from individual users to brands. We spend too much time thinking about the platform — whether Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, or anything else — and not enough time thinking about what we’re saying. For too many brands, the platform supersedes the story or narrative. Too often brand digital managers worry about their “Facebook plan” or their “Instagram strategy,” without thinking about what their broader narrative is or how consistent a story they’re telling across all their platforms.

Dorsey has it 100% right — we shouldn’t be thinking about the platform as users, and as content producers we should be thinking of what we’re saying first, then turn to how we use each platform’s strengths or unique features to best say it.

Today’s announcement will make it a bit easier for brand digital managers to do this. The question is just whether brands will take Dorsey’s comments to heart, or will see these changes only in terms of the number of characters they have available to them on Twitter.





Monday Afternoon Quarterback: May 23, 2016

It’s a busy world out there. If you haven’t had time to catch up on all the digital doings of the past month, here’s a quick Monday Afternoon Quarterback review of some of the past week or so’s more notable stories.

Snapchat Is Considering An Algorithm (Digiday, 5/18)

Snapchat is reported to be considering an algorithmic approach to presenting content, joining pretty much all the major social channels in adopting algorithms. This means it’s time to drop the fiction of unpaid organic reach in social media. Like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram before it, Snapchat would be placing a filter between brands and the audiences we’re trying to reach. Users might cheer this or feel it’s a good way to keep these channels “safe” for the conversations they want to have with their friends… but it’s another example of why digital marketing is getting tougher for brands. This stands to benefit “influencers” on Snapchat (similar to how influencers on other platforms have had their importance to brands increase on other algorithmic platforms) — though there are signs that brands are getting tired of ceding their customer reach to “influencers,” and that discontent with the current model, if not total revolt, is brewing.

85% Of Facebook Viewing Is Done Without Sound (Digiday, 5/17)

How many brands are cognizant of this pattern, and tailor their Facebook video content appropriately? When such an overwhelming percentage of videos on Facebook are viewed without sound, brands would do well to account for that reality as they create their videos. More interesting to me is that, by accommodating and encouraging silent video, Facebook appears to be using this as a wedge to drive more video creation specifically for its own platform. Most YouTube views don’t happen silently; sound is a bigger part of the YouTube experience. Emphasizing silent video makes brands develop video content more specifically intended for Facebook rather than other platforms. It’s subtle, but I don’t doubt that it’s intentional.

YouTube Rolling Out In-App Messaging (TheNextWeb, 5/11)

YouTube is testing a messaging service that would live natively within the mobile YouTube app and allow users to share embedded videos within the chat window. Not only does this make sharing videos easier on mobile, which is increasingly how people access the Internet and platforms like YouTube, but it brings sharing YouTube videos into a form factor (chat/IM) that increasing numbers of users are most familiar with. Smart move by YouTube.

43% Of Social Media Users Don’t Know Where The Stories They Read Originally Appeared (Digiday, 5/13)

New research indicates that up to 43% of social media users do not know where the content they read on social platforms originated. This is something of a horror movie for publishers, who are under increasing pressure to publish and promote their stories directly on Facebook and other platforms — but in the hopes of driving some of those 1.5 billion users to the publishers’ platforms.

If almost half of the users don’t even realize the origin of the stories they’re reading, it confirms every publisher’s worst fear: that Facebook and other social platforms have basically usurped their audiences, and publishers have increasingly become mere content providers to the social platforms. As the article points out, brands that stand to suffer the least are the ones already well established with strong branding on platforms, as users will seek out their content.

Google’s Building Its Own VR Headset (Marketingland, 5/19)

Google had previously announced its Daydream ecosystem, which will be open to any manufacturer to develop to. But as it turns out, they’re also developing their own headset and controller. If anyone doubted how serious Google is about virtual reality, let those misconceptions be hereby dispelled.

Kohl’s Smartly Taps Into Chewbacca Mom (Digiday, 5/23)

A lot of brands wouldn’t know how to effectively take advantage of a tangential connection to a viral video. Kohl’s does, however. They showed up Saturday to the Chewbacca Mom’s house with a few gifts in tow.  

Representatives from Kohl’s met up with Payne at her house on Saturday, where they gave her a bunch of free Star Wars toys, more Chewbacca masks and $2,500 worth of Kohl’s gift cards.”

Kohl’s uploaded the video of their gift to Facebook, where it got more than 30 million views.

Kohl’s could have tried to use the publicity to promote their products, or by trying to shift the spotlight from Candace Payne to themselves. They would have failed miserably, but they could have. Instead, they recognized something I’ve said in presentations: brands are not the stars of any good show; rather we are the sidekicks. Kohl’s saw that Candace was the star of this show, and just did their best to be part of her joy and ongoing story.  In doing so, they generated positive feeling and good will from an online community that is enamored of Candace Payne, not of Kohl’s. By being part of her story instead of pushing their own, Kohl’s kept the tide of good feelings going and made themselves part of it. Yeah, it sounds pretty basic… but we all know a lot of brands would have fumbled this.

The X-Men Learn The Dangers Of Intruding On The Experience Users Want (Digiday, 5/23)

Seems like a no-brainer, right? Snapchat has millions of users within the target demographic of the new X-Mean movie, Snapchat wants brands to more actively explore reaching audiences on its platform, and Snapchat has debuted a lens takeover just in time for the movie promotion. What could possibly go wrong?

Plenty, as it turns out. You might have been able to predict this, but Snapchat users didn’t really want their experience interfered with by branding and corporate content. They’re reacting badly. (Sure, not everybody hates it — I am sure there are some users who are all over the lens takeover — but it’s still pronounced enough a negative reaction to draw media attention.)

I don’t fault Twentieth Century Fox here — they took advantage of a tool offered to them. I kind of wonder instead if Snapchat’s in such a hurry to monetize that they’re forgetting about their core audience’s desires, and have built features that allow brands to push ourselves on the user more than trying to become part of their desired experience. It’s a lesson brands should remember on any platform: users aren’t there to interact with you, they are there to connect with their friends. Any activation we develop that makes us part of their experience had better be unobtrusive, and should make the brand secondary to the user’s desired experience on the platform.

Video Ad Spending Is Rising Fast (eMarketer, 5/23)

Some brands still haven’t upped their budgets for video content creation. Some brands also may be looking at doing daily Friendster updates too. But seriously folks, even if the industry hasn’t quite figured out good metrics yet (I do not count 3 seconds as a “view,” no matter what Facebook says — and just rendering a video on a screen shouldn’t count either, Snapchat!), you need to be focusing more resources and budget on developing video content.


(image via eMarketer)

Is Twitter Dropping Character Counts For Photos And Links (Finally)?

Bloomberg is reporting that Twitter is FINALLY about to drop media and links from its character count. This would/will free up another 20-25 characters for many brand tweets — good news for content marketers and brands, because it gives us additional flexibility in explaining context or providing details on what we’re sharing. It also means we’ll see a lot less of those annoying abbrvtns ppl used 2 use.

Facebook’s Trending Issue

By now, everyone’s seen the story: anonymous sources told Gizmodo that Facebook’s news curators suppress “conservative” stories or perspectives; Facebook denied the charges, but then released its 28 pages of editorial guidelines for Trending Topics which revealed that human editors perhaps impact the Trending feature more than people generally realized; Mark Zuckerberg ended up calling a summit for conservative media figures at Facebook headquarters to try and quell the concerns.

My thoughts on this story range from the cynical to contemplative.

First, regarding the accusations of bias, it’s important to recall that accusations and complaint of “liberal media bias” are a mainstay of conservative political narrative. Media bias against their perspectives is one of its core beliefs, and is often part of the way conservative media figures sell themselves to their audience — as the trustworthy alternative to ‘liberal media.’ Given Facebook’s increasing role as a source of news for its hundreds of millions of US users, it’s not totally surprising to see the trope surface regarding Facebook as well. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s not happening, but the accusation is very much consistent with how conservatives tend to view, and talk about, other media platforms. 

I have wondered, as I’ve watched the story play out, if the whole thing isn’t a smart — if cynical — effort to manipulate the Trending section in favor of conservative stories. There’s a sports analogy that kept occurring to me: Like a coach in the NBA, NHL, the World Cup, or MLB who complains about the refereeing in a playoff game after the game ends, those complaints aren’t always about the calls gone wrong or the game that’s already played and over. Instead, the complaint is as much about getting in the heads of the refs and trying to influence calls in the next game. It’s a psychological tactic favored by coaches in many sports, and it will be interesting to see if Trending stories become notably more conservative in the next few weeks or months. If so, it would represent a master stroke in media manipulation. 

To me, the bigger problem for Facebook isn’t necessarily any bias it exhibits or builds in — after all, if political bias was illegal for media companies, both Fox News and MSNBC would be out of business. Rather, the issue is that we’ve all been led to believe, if somewhat naively, that algorithms drive the content in Trending Topics. Facebook hasn’t ever really hidden the fact that human curators play a role, but their role has been at best misunderstood by the public and at worst obscured by the platform. And the output delivered by the combination of algorithm and curator has been portrayed as objective and absent of agenda.

There’s enough mystery as is about Facebook’s News Feed algorithm; brands struggle to grasp the impact and the workings of the many changes the algorithm undergoes every year. If the Trending feature’s algorithm is revealed to be overtly subjective and more affected by human biases than they’ve let on, then businesses (and consumers) may well legitimately further question the output of News Feed, which might lead advertisers to scale back, and lead consumers to trust less the nature of what they’re seeing.

In other words, I think Facebook’s big problem is not a lack of subjectivity in its output, but the fact that for so long they and other tech companies have represented that its software is objective. The reality is that any algorithm reflects its creators’ biases, but that’s not what we’ve been allowed to believe.

If Facebook — and, while we’re at, the other major social networks and sites that now serve as information sources and gatekeepers — are now playing the same role that journalism and publishers have traditionally played, exercising judgment about what readers should see or how news should be presented, then Facebook must be willing to engage in the same candid discussions about transparency and fairness, maybe even about journalistic ethics, that publishers and journalists have had for decades. The issue is less about bias, and more about acknowledging that what you see on Facebook isn’t as objective as

If Facebook doesn’t respond in that spirit, it may not just be conservatives who feel betrayed.



When Celebrities Pass, Should Your Brand Pay Tribute?

I wrote yesterday about whether it’s ever acceptable for a brand to try and convey human emotion in its digital content, especially in the event of a beloved celebrity’s death. I was, and remain, curious about the seeming contradiction between our often-stated desire to have brands behave in a more “human” fashion online, but our frequent displeasure when a brand tries to convey shared grief, mourning, or loss.

But even if you’re one of those who accepts the premise that it’s not always inappropriate for a brand to express emotion or share in communal mourning, you have to acknowledge that most brands don’t do it with the sensitivity or respect or sense that is required to make such an expression work. Too often, brand efforts come off as crass commercialism, an effort to sell you something on the back of another human being’s death. Most marketing still seems to be too ham-handed to seem genuine at these times; instead, brand tributes most often feel contrived, unnatural, selfish, and shameless.  Which leads us back to the question of whether your brand should publish a tribute to any celebrity who has left us too soon.

Is It Ever Not Crass For a Brand To Mark A Celebrity’s Death?

To start, let’s acknowledge that there are virtually no circumstances under which there be any harm to your brand or its reputation if you don’t post a tribute. I can’t think of a single case where a brand would be damaged by not posting an acknowledgement of a celebrity’s death. As author and internet expert Peter Shankman has said on many occasions, “no company ever went broke because they decided to shut up on social media for 24 hours.” It’s a very hard case to make that your brand will suffer and people will be angry with you because you didn’t do a tribute post.

Consideration of this would eliminate 99% of the tweets brands plan on intend regarding a beloved entertainer’s death. If you’re a brand marketer, unless you work for Bad Idea Jeans it’s almost a lock that you should fight whatever urge or pressure you or your team are experiencing to “do something.” 99 times out of 100, the answer to the question “Should we post a tribute to this person?” is a resounding “No.”

And yet, there are those rare times when a brand gets it right and strikes a responsive chord with the audience. (Look no further than Chevrolet’s tribute to Prince last week for a prime example.) How can your brand strike the right tone, if your boss feels that you simply must do something?

I think there are three mitigating factors to determine whether a brand might be able to get away with acknowledging a celebrity’s death or posting a tribute.

First, did your brand have a demonstrable tie to the celebrity? Did they ever appear in a commercial for you, or serve as a spokesman or paid endorser for a long period of time? Had they ever famously mentioned your product in a work of theirs, or their affinity for your product in interviews? If not, don’t post a tribute. Absent that kind of tie, your tribute is almost certainly going to strike the audience as opportunistic and tone-deaf.

But if the celebrity in question has that well-known tie to a brand, that brand might be able to get away with a tribute. I’m thinking that when Michael Jordan passes away, Nike should probably be able to do a tribute without arousing too much ire; the connection between Nike and Michael Jordan is well documented and known to most of his fans. Other examples that come to mind include Priceline when William Shatner dies, or — before his current legal issues and troubling history became public — Coke or Jello when Bill Cosby passes away. Maybe Pepsi with Michael J. Fox, T-Mobile with Catherine Zeta-Jones, or H&M with David Beckham.

But those relationships and such ties are rare, even when a celebrity has done commercials for your brand. Just because there was once a sponsorial relationship doesn’t mean you can automatically get away with a remembrance; you have to look at how close the association remains in the public mind. Only if the association remains strong should you consider posting a tribute.

Second: Does the tribute you’re planning include your logo, your brand, or one of your products? If so, take it out or don’t do it at all. You’re just going to offend people. When you include your product or logo in a memorial, it ceases to be a tribute to a celebrity’s work and turns instead into a crass effort to capitalize on the attention being paid that celebrity to promote your brand. Don’t do it. (This is why so many were upset with Crocs’ effort with David Bowie, for example, and why I think the Cheerios post rubbed so many people the wrong way.)

The celebrity’s death is not about you or your brand; incorporating your logo, products, or tagline into your post merely represents an effort to make it so. To effectively pay tribute to a beloved entertainer or public figure, your tribute has to remain focused on that figure. You wouldn’t show up at a funeral trying to sell something, and you shouldn’t show up online trying to connect a recently deceased celebrity to something you’re trying to sell. (Think: an Aladdin Sane lightning bolt across a pair of shoes David Bowie never wore.)

The main reason I think Chevrolet’s ad worked was because they were so understated and genuine about it, and weren’t overly marketing with what they did. There was no obvious logo in their tribute, no current product, no tagline, no push for you to draw a deeper connection than what was already there. Where other brands’ efforts came off as exploitative, Chevrolet’s stood out as heartfelt, and struck a chord with shocked and saddened fans.

I’ll say again: in most cases brand tributes are a bad idea. But as we’ve seen, these two factors can, rarely, make your brand’s memorial an acceptable part of the larger conversation.

There is a third factor that I think comes into play on ever rarer occasions, but is very real and can justify a brand tribute: hometown heroism. In my next post tomorrow, I’ll write about the unique circumstance of when a public figure is so closely affiliated with a particular state or city — and so beloved by the local community in question — that brands based in the same city might be moved to expressions of shared mourning or loss.




Are Bots The Anti-Social Media?

Facebook’s news at F8 that it is placing its chips on chat bots got me to thinking. I’ve been in the “social media” game for more than a decade now, long enough to remember the initial excitement surrounding social media — and long enough to have watched it evolve. And all the fuss about bots has me thinking that we’ve kind of come full circle in social or digital.

Back in the mid-2000s, as companies began to embrace blogging, the word on blogs was that they were a way to cut through the artifice and glitz of marketing and PR to get a more authentic communication with brands and their representatives. “Authenticity” became the hot buzzword, and corporate pioneers like Robert Scoble (then with Microsoft), Bob Lutz (GM), the hundreds of developers and engineers that we encouraged at IBM, and others began winning acclaim and attention for shedding the trappings of PR and being “real” with audiences. The more candid or “inside baseball” the discussions were, the more people seemed to like the blog.

When Facebook and Twitter emerged as business tools just before the end of the decade, the push for authentic and direct conversation with brands became even more intense. Brands rushed to show personality and be “real” and to provide personalized customer service via these platforms. Collectively, we seemed to herald in a new era of personal connection between brand and consumer, enabled by digital platforms that put brand and customer on an equal playing field and where artifice would be sniffed out by a public tired of seeing it from brands.

Fast forward to the middle of this decade. Facebook (via Messenger and WhatsApp), Kik, Snapchat and others are in a bot arms race, and bots appear to be the It Thing of 2016. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella is proclaiming that “bots are the new apps.” And we’re all talking about the possibilities enabled by AI bots that can automate the interaction between consumer and brand.

ABC News Chat Bots.jpg

Wait, what? In a space where “authenticity” used to be the price of entry, now we’re excited that the future of the space might well be defined by artificial interaction? How did that happen? Is this some cruel joke played by conniving marketers doing their best Simon Bar Sinister  impression and laughing maniacally at the trick we’ve played on the audience?

No. The answer is just one word long: Scale.

We made a good faith effort in the corporate world, we really did. We tried to enable as much individual interaction as possible. But just as individual users of social platforms often found themselves unable to keep up with large networks online, companies found that it was too hard to scale to have conversations with everyone who wanted to interact with them. We didn’t have the bandwidth or the staffing to keep up. And so comes the rise of the AI bots, automating the process for us.

The funny thing is, the audience doesn’t seem to mind. Users don’t seem to care anymore whether it’s a real person behind the interaction or a bot perpetuating the illusion of a personality.  As long as our information gathering or purchase process is as seamless and easy as promised, we’re okay with artificiality. We’ve exchanged authenticity for simplicity.

And so here we are, back where we started: with interactions between brand and consumer missing a human element. That’s not necessarily a wholly bad thing, by the way; as I’ve said, scaling to meet the volume of interactions many brands face is a huge resource challenge. Bots seem like a decent solution to that problem, and they do provide significant opportunity for brands. I for one welcome our new bot overlords. But seriously, I am excited about the possibilities.

It’s just funny how social/digital has now come full circle. We’ve gone from one-to-many mass communication, detoured briefly into one-to-one interaction (admittedly in front of a mass audience), and now appear to be ready to move to one-to-bot interaction. Plus ca change, and all that.

Look at the bright side. Not many bots are going to care about their personal brands.