All I Needed to Know About Social Media I Learned From Punk Rock
I didn’t set out to be a social media marketer; I set out to be a storyteller. My early childhood interests consisted of music (piano and guitar) and drama (the usual children’s theatre gave way to high-school musicals and then a love of Broadway dramas). After several years perfecting those crafts, with their time signatures, story arcs and conventions, they were unceremoniously turned on their collective head the day I discovered punk rock.
Punk, with its in-your-face, no-apologies way about it, paired with its improvisational style and willingness to be unrehearsed and imperfect, was totally different than the structured, classical art forms I already knew. I immediately fell over myself trying to get to know it. The bands, the musicians, the legendary places they’d played, the social circles that gathered around it; though I wouldn’t describe myself as an active participant, per se, I loved the music, and found myself a student of what it had to teach me about life.
That kind of curiosity can do a lot to prepare you for what you might face later on in your career. It should not have surprised anyone when I chose social media marketing as mine. There were many parallels--it was, in comparison to its more structured family members in other areas of marketing, a much wilder West (and, in many ways, it still is). In social media, you have to get comfortable with things like unstructured environments, testing and learning, the occasional nearly empty house, and bootstrapping. The next time you’re looking to turn up the volume with your social strategies, consider the following things that have helped me navigate the complexity and be the truth in advertising:
Three chords and the truth: There are few things that punk rock does as brilliantly as simplicity. From song structure to fan engagement, the music embraces simplicity and strives for one simple objective: participation. Whatever that means to the fan, punk rock makes it easy for people to participate as much or as little as they want to. You can buy an album. Then you can buy a ticket to a show. Come to the show. Get a T-shirt. Stand in the audience and sing along. Toss yourself into the pit and get bounced around. These are all very simple things that allow fans to really participate in the experience of the band’s music and message.
We have all been exhorted by excellent people who know a thing or two about social media marketing to embrace complexity – and, in some cases, they orchestrate it. However, the last thing audiences need is more complexity in their lives. They don’t come to social media for that; they come to it to be mostly entertained and occasionally informed. They definitely don’t want to be 'marketed to,' and I certainly don’t think any of them are seeking to be 'disrupted.' The truth is that simplicity rules. The most brilliant social media marketing campaigns I see today are the very simplest, rich in insight, distilled down to one simple call to action, and creating a participatory environment for engagement to occur. Dump an ice bucket over your head to raise awareness for an awesome charity. Go outside instead of shopping on Black Friday. These actions are simple enough that everyone participate, and more importantly, everyone can relate – which is what turns a campaign (or a tour) into a truly social event.
That bus is gonna feel mighty small sometimes: This could probably be said about a lot of things we do at work, but hear me out: One of the most enduring symbols of the punk-rock ethos is The Van, immortalised in Henry Rollins’ excellent memoir, Get In The Van. The Van is home on the road-- where you live, sleep, eat, and give your band mates and crew a heaping ration of what it’s like to live with you for weeks on end without easy access to showers, green vegetables or money. It can be a little unpleasant sometimes, but it is where everyone is equal.
The Van is a symbol and construct of the creativity and collaboration in order for brands to truly take advantage of the opportunities that social media affords them. It’s where no single person can consider themselves more important than others, and one cannot work in isolation. This space is too important to be left to interns or an isolated 'Social Media Department.' When your audience sees your logo or your brand out there in the wild, they’re going to expect their need to be addressed, no matter what it is, and if you don’t, you’ve lost them and you may never get them back. You’ve got to bring in key stakeholders from all over your organisation in order to be successful here: creative, strategy, guest relations or customer service, PR, brand marketing – they ALL need to be on the bus and contributing resources and talent. When I’ve been able to work with clients and help facilitate getting everyone in The Van, I am truly at my best. The Van is at its best when everyone, including our social media clients, is working together on finding solutions to our strategic and tactical challenges as a united team.
Take risks: Hardly anyone bought the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ first album. And barely anybody showed up at their first show. They amped it up: they started writing better, harder-hitting songs, and played them more often, longer, and louder than everyone else. At some point, word got around that they’d found a creative use for gym socks—a move that landed them on MTV—and the rest, as they say, is history. It wasn’t just one huge risk for four dudes from Central L.A.; it was a lot of risky moves that propelled them forward, and with time and practice they got better at managing these risks.
A very smart former client who is now a good friend of mine used to say, “They don’t call it earned media for nothing—we have to truly earn it.” If we’re going to operate in other people’s social spaces and ask for their attention, it better be worth their time. I’m still practising my risk-taking skills. Just last week, my team supported me when I went to a client with a big, risky social media idea. I told them why I thought this particular thing made sense. We brought data. We brought a creative idea that we thought would create a little tension, maybe push against their status quo a little bit. It inspired a lively debate with a lot of terrific feedback. What if they don’t decide to run with the idea? That’s okay. I don’t see that as failure. It was a huge learning opportunity. I got a chance to see, hear, and understand how they reacted to it, and they’re certainly never going to forget me and my wild, wacky social media idea. When they’re looking for another wild idea, I hope they call, and I hope we get a chance to take a big risk together that will positively impact their business.
Be who you are: When you meet your punk-rock heroes, what you see is what you get. There are no costumes, no artifice, no fancy glittery guitars or giant walls of Marshall amps. And if you’re not being who you are, guess what? Your audience will sense that and stop showing up. They might even call you a poser or accuse you of going corporate-speak on them, and that’s when your credibility with your audience can truly go sideways. So be who you are, always speak the truth, and you cannot go wrong.
Consider this: once, my team went to a client with a social media strategy that we weren’t sure they’d go for. One of the objectives they’d laid out for us was to use social media to show why they were different from their competitors. After a lot of competitive and cultural analysis, we knew that by using the brand’s original strategy and the same content they sounded just like their competitor in the market. Beyond that, we truly believed that the original positioning just wasn’t them; it wasn’t the brand that we felt like we now knew and loved. So we arrived at a shift that had some bigger implications for their brand strategy, and we knew in our hearts that this strategy addressed that disconnect. Not only did they get it, this initial change in their social media strategy has telegraphed into other areas of their marketing and really started to yield success for the brand. `
Which leads me to this last suggestion –if you do anything on this list at all, do this:
Go big or go home: Punk rock changed how a generation saw itself, and changed how I approach lots of things in life, including work. It boils down to one thing: People gather around shared experiences that make them feel something, or want to do something. Punk rock embodied both of those things for me, and it embodied what I still love about social media: the simple act of talking about things we love and sharing our experiences with others. It only takes a simple action grounded in a big idea to get started: Just three chords and the truth. Stick with that and you can’t go wrong.
Siobhan O’Neill is VP, Head of Social at Havas Formula