Commentary

Must We All Be 'Always On'?

Always On. Think about these two words divorced from the context of social media. Sounds exhausting, right? To be "always on" as a person is a fate I wouldn't wish on anyone, either to be or to endure. Picture yourself at a cocktail party, trapped in a corner with a close-talker you barely know. First, he's hurtling himself into every possible contour of conversation, next he's showing you unsolicited sepia-toned pictures that he keeps in his wallet – one an inspirational quote overlaid upon a picture of a canyon, another a stack of waffles because it just happens to be National Waffle Day. 

We've all had endurance contests dealing with people like this, and yet this exact behavior somehow became the gold standard for brands to mimic on social properties. How did we get here?  

I'm not sure, actually. It's been interesting to watch the pendulum of branded content swing rather dramatically over the past three years. Then, we dedicated substantial swathes of our budgets to immersive, tent-pole-style messaging via video series, events and large-scale programs. Now, it's exceedingly rare for a brand to see the equity of such a move, when they can have that "always on" thing for a perceived fraction of the cost. 

I get it. We live in an age where messages are fragmented, disjointed, fleeting and pervasive. Having an evolved presence across channels is the cost of entry. The smart move would be to hedge your bets and invest in a hundred smaller messages rather than a handful of substantial ones, right? Well, that depends. What good are those hundreds of smaller messages if they don't add up to anything? 

It’s become a dangerous arms race of having something, anything, to shout out to the world every single day, and it’s come at the risk of deluging our audience with non-essential messaging. Some day very soon, they'll likely just tune us out. I know I have. 

Of course, it's all well and good to talk about recalibrating the intrusive fire hose of social content, but what might this look like in practice? Here are just a few considerations that could help guide us to a more thoughtful, "sometimes on" approach. 

Look from Within: Let's reconsider pegging strategies to dubious "holidays" and focus more on the story of the brand itself. Yes, there are serendipitous matches that merit this collision of brand and wacky holiday, but this should be the exception and not the rule. You could argue that seasonal pegs reflect specific mindsets and therefore predisposition an audience to be more receptive to your messaging, but I'd point out that just because someone deemed it National Accordion Month (which the Internet tells me is this month) I'm no more primed to see a post about polka music or gondola rides than I would be in the fall. Instead, what is it about your actual brand, or the values it's adjacent to, that merits sharing with your audience? 

Learn from Watching TV: Our capacity for following complex stories has evolved considerably, thanks in large part to the new Golden Age of TV shows developed with the binge-watcher and easter-egg hunter in mind. Even the sitcom has come a long way: Think of the differences between "All in The Family" compared to the labyrinthine, multi-perspective, asynchronous experience of season four of "Arrested Development." The takeaway? We should give our audience more credit. They not only can handle complex storytelling, but they now demand it. The once-fixed medium of television has adapted to accommodate innovative ways to tell and consume episodic stories; couldn't we apply these practices to the social space? 

Think of the potential impact we could have on our audience if we were to occasionally trade in the photo-with-text-overlay combo for the challenge of unspooling a brand narrative across multiple messages, delivered in various channels over a series of days or even weeks. Given the volume of brand messages that never gets seen by our audiences, the challenge on our end would be balancing the episodic nature of these posts with the ability to be meaningful as a free-standing unit. But again, look no further than television (and again, even "Arrested Development") for solace that it can be elegantly done. The great thing is that platforms are making subtle changes to encourage this approach, from Twitter's new "view more videos" option for brands to string together pieces of content to Snapchat's recent unveiling of its Stories feature.  

Embrace Standing Out: As brands, we strive to fit seamlessly within the news feeds and experiences of social channels, believing that when audiences come across our messages as a grace note during their swiping (or scrolling) we're successfully strengthening our relationship with them, bit by bit. I don't disagree with this, but might we also benefit by trying to stand out from time to time? To disrupt versus simply existing in the background? 

Here's where the tent pole approach can help: By focusing our efforts on and adjusting our budgets for fewer, higher-quality pieces of content and putting media dollars in place for distribution, we have a greater chance of standing out above the scrum of daily messaging and deliver something of value to our audience. And isn't that what it's all about?  

Regardless how you feel, the good news is that this whole digital thing is still in its infancy. We're around it every day so it feels fully mature, but it's not. We once were in the land of tent poles; then we overreacted to the land of "always on" absolutism regardless of brand or category. 

It's on us to course-correct again and find a happy medium. Otherwise, we're just a close-talker imposing our presence on an audience that would much rather be refreshing their cocktails than being stuck in the corner with us. 

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1 comment about "Must We All Be 'Always On'?".
  1. James Hering from The Richards Group , June 19, 2014 at 9:36 a.m.
    Really like the point of view in this article for one simple reason - it's more human.