Cargo-cult brands in social media marketing

During WWI, islanders living in undeveloped communities in the Pacific were plunged into the middle of a conflict between advanced, industrialised nations they had never previously encountered. They saw troops arriving on their islands and, as the newcomers established their military bases, supplies were brought by air and sea.

When the war was over and the troops left, the supplies stopped, so the islanders, believing the goods were gifts from the gods, tried to emulate what they saw as the rituals the soldiers had used to win the god’s favours. They dressed in mock military uniforms, made fake rifles, marched around, built replicas of air-base control towers and airplanes, waved landing signals, all in the futile hope that this would encourage the gods to start sending supplies again.

These “cargo cults” have mostly faded away (although one still exists that worships Prince Philip as a living god) but we see a lot of the same thinking in the way some brands approach social media.

People read social media case studies, or blog posts in the digital marketing press, or they just look at what other brands are doing, and assume that if they just blindly copy what others are doing they will enjoy the same success. Some examples of this kind of thinking are:

  • “I read an article that says 3pm is the best time to post tweets for maximum engagement”
  • “All of our blog posts should be listicles, it works really well for [BRAND THAT IS TOTALLY DIFFERENT TO OURS]”
  • “We need lots of infographics and visual content – I read that’s what people share the most”

Of course, all of these ideas completely ignore context. 3pm might well be the best time to post tweets for the brand that wrote the case study, but that’s likely to be very specific to that brand’s audience and market. There’s absolutely no reason to think that the same thing will work for your brand, you need to experiment and find out what works best for your own audience.

Equally, because a specific type of content has performed well for one company, you simply cannot assume that you’ll benefit from doing the same thing.

The problem is that social and digital media is complex – much more complex than a lot of marketers are used to dealing with. To get it right, you need to invest time and resources into research and experimentation, and you need to have the stomach for a lot of trial and error, which in turn means having to get your head around tricky stuff like analytics. When you’re looking at a bunch of platforms, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, blogs and whatever else, there’s a lot of different stuff to learn, and you need to work out how it all fits together.

It’s no surprise that a lot of businesses take the easy way out. Instead of treating case studies as sources of inspiration, they misinterpret them as best-practice bibles to be copied precisely in order to ensure digital success. Obviously, this path leads to failure for a lot of businesses. Like the Pacific island cargo cults, they’re left scratching their heads and wondering why, when they did all the right things, they didn’t get the results they expected.

The truth is that in social media you simply can’t rely on anybody else to show you how it’s done. You can take inspiration from what others have achieved and certainly try out their ideas, but the only way to make it work for your business is to keep experimenting and learning until you figure out the best approach for your own unique situation.

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