My wish for the new year? That brands stop sucking at social

Freelance creative strategist Zac Martin explains why your attempt to ‘culture jack’ Talk Like A Pirate Day isn’t going to grow your brand.

Most brands suck at social.

I’ve been freelancing for six months, and the single most common conversation I’ve had with clients is about how poorly social media is working for them.

It’s usually because they create too much. Someone sold them once on the legend of the content beast and its constant need to be fed. Brands convinced themselves it was a volume game, likely the legacy of maximising organic reach by posting often.

So you end up with heaps of crappy product shots. Or stock photography we’ve seen before. Or attempts to relate to the fellow youths with memes.

None of which builds brands. Most of which is communication for the sake of it.

Despite real pieces of content from real brands often reaching fewer than a hundred people, no alarm bells ring. They should be.

These are some red flags that may mean it’s time to revisit how you invest in social:

  • You measure success (or worse, invest) on page growth/likes/followers
  • You measure success on engagement
  • Your strategy is built on organic reach
  • Content is promoted indiscriminately
  • Content is created and the audience is identified when it’s published
  • You spend more on content creation than content distribution
  • You’re creating more than one piece of content a week
  • Your content consists of stock/sourced/stolen photography
  • You’re not aware of metrics like Relevance Score or Estimated Ad Recall Lift

Brands have been sold these strategies by parties with a limited understanding of how advertising actually works. Building communities and creating engagement are myths. They exist largely on unproven hypotheses and dated approaches.

Or worse, they come from parties with vested interests. Content production is profitable (when done right) and therefore an attractive recommendation for the vendor. It’s also visible and looks busy making justification to stakeholders. “We created more than 200 pieces of content this year!”

Brands have forgotten to invest in reach. More often than not a shift in budget from content creation to content distribution is low hanging fruit to improve effectiveness. But here the margins are minimal (and continue their race to the bottom).

The answer is good old-fashioned advertising.

Okay, maybe not that old fashioned.

We must return to a model where the majority of our investment is in media. Focus on reaching consumers first, then create ads that build saliency and distinctiveness. As everyone’s favourite marketing academic Byron Sharp says: “Advertising is strongest when it’s refreshing memory structures.”

Your attempt to ‘culture jack’ Talk Like A Pirate Day isn’t growing your brand. In fact the only thing it’s doing is creating opportunity costs. Or maybe something you can share around the office with your next performance review in mind.

We need to come full circle, leaning more heavily on the principles of old school advertising. But now with the benefits of modern technology:


Thinking more than demographics and interests. Even beyond retargeting off your website or email database. Instead using third party shopper data to reach buyers of your competitor. Or serving messages only to those who watched your video content. Utilising the ability to nudge people down a marketing funnel over time.


Using new opportunities to cut through. Stop making a quantity of shitty things, so you can invest in impactful formats like video. Or building interactive canvases into content programs targeting only those who have been exposed to your ads previously, allowing them to explore.


Being smarter and more robust in how we determine success. Running studies to understand lifts on brand and ad metrics for exposed versus unexposed audiences. Or integrating with retailers to measure purchase intent, or actual shopper data to understand the effect of spend. Suddenly engagement rate feels a bit yawn, right?

The most important word in “social media” is media. Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and LinkedIn are, fundamentally, media channels. And we must treat them as such.

Brands must create fewer things better – ads that are motivating with purpose. You do not need to create a dozen assets reaching a few when one stretches just as far. Most brands in this market aren’t at risk of oversaturating their consumers so variety isn’t necessary. Create just one thing a month. Or be bold – one a quarter.

This resource efficiency allows you to create better content. Make something to stop people in their tracks (or rather, their feed). Killer content also increases your media effectiveness – channels like Facebook reward brands who are relevant (lookup Relevance Score if you haven’t already).

Focus most of your time, effort and budget on distributing your hero pieces wide. And build a media-based content program underneath. Artefacts like content pillars and even calendars become redundant – instead align target audiences and messages with your marketing plan.

In many ways it’s a return to the basics. Create good advertising that changes behaviour and put it in front of potential buyers. It’s not quite as sexy, but it works.

There’s been plenty of predictions for what next year will bring or what it will the ‘year of’. My only hope is that 2018 is the year brands get a bit less shit at social.

Zac Martin is a freelance creative strategist. A version of this post first appeared on Pigs Don’t Fly.



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