Social Media and Brands in the Time of Coronavirus

Photo by Polina Zimmerman at pexels.com

I’ve loved the movie You’ve Got Mail for as long as I can remember. When I was a student at Barnard College in New York City I realized the backdrop of the film may have subconsciously played a part in my attraction to my school’s urban, yet bookish setting. To this day fall in the Upper West Side is still one of my favorite feelings. Recently, though, I’ve been thinking about how the movie influenced me in another foundational way: social media.

Now social media as we know it today – Facebook, TikTok, Twitter, etc. – was years off at the time of You’ve Got Mail, but watching Kathleen Kelly and Joe Fox build a relationship via internet communication made me see the medium as inherently social.

Tim Berners-Lee introduced the World Wide Web when I was only a year old, You’ve Got Mail came out when I was 8, and I got home internet access when I was 12. So, for me the internet has essentially always existed and my perception of it has always been related to socializing. This is what I refer to as phase 1 of social media: the origin. The simple days when you logged on to chat rooms or forums from your desktop.

Then things shifted when I was a teenager. We entered phase 2: social media changes the world. Social networks like Myspace and Facebook became everyday habits. By the time I was at Barnard the first iPhone was debuting and Facebook was introducing an app. The rest, as they say, is history. Or so I thought.

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed our daily lives, perhaps forever, in countless ways we are still trying to grasp. But as a social media professional I’m acutely interested in how this health crisis is affecting the medium I work in. What I’m seeing is the possibility that we are moving into a new phase of our relationship with it.

The Social Media Atmosphere so Far

Phase 2 of social media has been marked by rapid adoption. Everyone from your grandma to your cat now has an account on something. But most brands floundered at first, either uncertain of how to integrate it into their advertising and marketing or because they believed it was a fad.

In his 2009 TED talk, Clay Shirky told brands that social media was here to stay, and to either embrace it or become irrelevant. He explained that social media changed the flow and power dynamics of communication from the traditional model of one to many to the new model of many to many. Brands are treated and communicated with just like all other individuals on social media. That’s a big shock to the way marketing and advertising has historically worked.

“Media is increasingly an environment for convening and supporting groups.” 

Clay Shirky, “How Social Media Can Make History”

The other reality Shirky said brands needed to learn was the two-way and webbed communication capabilities of social media. Brands have always been able to talk to their audiences, but on social media they must be prepared to hear back from their audiences or hear their audiences talking about them amongst themselves. The audience now drives the conversation and, as Shirky explained, it’s necessary for brands to give up communication control to meet audiences where they are.

Coronavirus Content

At possibly no other time has this been more important than during the current pandemic. How a brand communicates in this moment, no matter the medium will be remembered for years to come. To save lives, we’ve all sacrificed aspects of, if not our whole, in-person social world and, unsurprisingly, we’ve turned to one of the only outlets left in our now distanced lives: social media.

A Gallup poll from April, found 74% of American social media users say it has been “very” or “moderately” important in helping them stay connected with others during the pandemic. While there has been plenty of criticism of social media companies in recent years, most Americans now view social media’s role in their lives as positive.

Social media has suddenly become a key resource for emotional and social support. Some brands have witnessed this and listened well, taking Shirky’s advice to heart and meeting their audience where they are in this emotional time.

1. Budweiser

The above video was posted on Facebook and YouTube near the beginning of the health crisis in the U.S. when everything, including professional sports, was being canceled. As a sponsor of many sporting events, the brand recognized fans were focused on coronavirus but also mourning the loss of sports.

With this post Budweiser was able to promote their ongoing philanthropic work with the Red Cross, while giving fans emotional encouragement that they still have heroes to cheer for, as well as making them smile at the clever play on team names. Their audience rewarded them with over 9,000 shares on Facebook and over a million views on YouTube.

2. University of Michigan

One of the biggest social losses from coronavirus has been graduations. Many have been on a mission to celebrate the class of 2020 in innovative ways. University of Michigan honored their graduates with a month-long photo series on Instagram. Each daily post featured a graduate photo with a one-word quote. The series ended with a photo of the university’s iconic rock painted to celebrate the class and a caption containing all the words from the previous posts, symbolizing the unity of these individuals.

Overall, they received an average of 6,746 likes per post – higher than the average for both the previous and following months’ content. The value of this content for the audience, including class of 2020 graduates, is a small opportunity to feel celebratory and nostalgic the way graduation usually makes you feel. In return the university brand is associated with caring about its community and valuing individual experience.

3. ZARA hOME

As we’ve been limited to our homes, we’ve started to invest in them more. Zara Home recognized that while their audience could improve their homes, they were still missing activities these spaces normally host, like brunch with friends. So, they invited their audience to a live breakfast on Instagram with the Campbell-Rey design team. They received over 38,000 likes on this post.

This, of course, is promotional of the products Zara Home sells, but their audience was willing to give them attention in exchange for the value of a fun social event to look forward to. We’d all been steeped in coronavirus conversation by the time this post arrived in late April and Zara Home tapped into the craving of their social media audience for positive content of substance not referencing the virus.

4. facebook

Facebook produces a film series called Community Voices featuring user-generated content to show how their products bring people together. This idea has long been promoted as a central mission of the company, but in a socially distanced world suddenly everyone else was saying it too. In March, they started focusing on the stories of Facebook Groups involved in Covid-19 efforts – RV owners helping healthcare workers quarantine away from their families, female truckers building sisterhood while delivering essential goods, quilters making cloth masks for their communities.

These posts garnered 10’s of thousands of engagements, but it was the comments that stood out. Many users felt compelled to share their related stories, as shown above. Facebook was able to respond to these comments individually and truly foster connection. They had watched users come to their products from the beginning of this crisis to find hope. Users wanted this type of connective, encouraging content during dark times so that’s what Facebook gave them.

Changing the Trajectory

This last point is key to why a new social media phase may be emerging. Phase 2 of social media began with a belief that adopting this communication medium would automatically make the world a better place because everyone had a voice. In recent years this view has been abandoned in a great techlash over privacy, disinformation, addictive qualities, and mental health concerns.

I’ve always shied away from the techlash because I’ve found the solutions offered – abandonment or unrealistic regulation of the technology – to be just an overcorrection to our original naivete. As Shirky told brands over a decade ago, I tell users today: social media is here to stay, like it or not. What we need to focus on is that social media is a human space and thus the good comes with the bad. How do we positively use this communication medium and manage this reality?

“A bad tweet, morally speaking, is often a good tweet, judging strictly by the numbers. We will not wake up tomorrow and find that all the bad tweets are gone. In the short term, at least, all we can do is flatten the curve.”

Andrew Marantz, “The New Yorker”

If social media gives everybody a voice, then everybody also has a responsibility to guide the collective atmosphere of this space. Social media companies listen to us and give us what we want and, ashamedly, sometimes that means catering to our lowest common denominator. But coronavirus may have finally shown us that we can step up and change this trajectory.

In The New York Times, Ben Smith recently wrote, “after four years in which social media has been viewed as an antisocial force, the [coronavirus] crisis is revealing something surprising, and a bit retro: Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and others can actually deliver on their old promise to democratize information and organize communities, and on their newer promise to drain the toxic information swamp.”

These companies did not suddenly change their products overnight nor was there a mass exodus of all the bad actors from these platforms. What changed largely was users who believed social media should be a force for good became louder than their opposites and, upon hearing them, other users and companies supported this value.

An Italian artificial intelligence company tracking the emotional tone of social media in the U.S. and the U.K. during the coronavirus crisis found that sadness dominated in the beginning, then fear took control briefly, but surprisingly neutral and positive feelings quickly started to show the most growth. This emotional rollercoaster has been hard for brands to follow but the ones I highlighted above responded well. All these brands contributed content that had both an emotional value for their audiences and bolstered social media as a positive force.

The Next Phase

Zara Home’s live Instagram breakfast is an example of what’s to come. With Facebook’s April announcement to allow artists and creators to charge for livestream events on its suite of apps, expect social media to become your venue more often now. Social media like Netflix Party is also likely to grow as more users desire to host virtual events.

Zoom has gotten much of the credit for filling the face-to-face void, but social media companies will undoubtedly want more of the action. So, watch for more video call options outside messaging services and possibly more integration of virtual reality. What these possible changes collectively signify is an increased demand for and normalization of social media as the primary positive social space in our lives.

This is the cusp we find ourselves on today. Call it Phase 3: the user’s great awakening. Who knows if it will last. The fact that coronavirus is unlikely to abate for at least another year and has already thrust social media from playing a supporting role in our lives to a central one increases the odds we’ll actually follow through with our role in delivering the positive promise of this medium. If you’re a business or brand this means you may need to think harder in the future about what your brand values are and how to align them with this positive push on social media.

“I just want to say that all this nothing has meant more to me than so many somethings.”

Kathleen reflecting on her emails with Joe in “You’ve Got Mail” 
 

We all have an opportunity right now to collectively build a balanced expectation of social media as a space where, although we must persistently reject the attraction of negativity, the Joe Foxs and Kathleen Kellys of the world can connect through a whole bunch of nothings that turn out to mean more to them than so many somethings.


References

History.com Editors. (2019, October 28). The invention of the internet. History. Retrieved from https://www.history.com/topics/inventions/invention-of-the-internet

Marantz, A. (2020, March 25). What coronavirus has changed about social media, and what it hasn’t changed. The New Yorker. Retrieved from https://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/what-the-coronavirus-crisis-has-changed-about-social-media-and-what-it-hasnt-changed

Quesenberry, K. A. (2019). Social media strategy: Marketing, advertising, and public relations in the consumer revolution (2nd ed.). Lanham, MD: Rowan & Littlefield.

Ritter, M. (2020, May 21). Americans use social media for COVID-19 info, connection. Gallup. Retrieved from https://news.gallup.com/poll/311360/americans-social-media-covid-information-connection.aspx

Shirky, C. (2009, June) How social media can make history. TED-Ed. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/ASZJE15E0SY

Smith, B. (2020, March 15). When Facebook is more trustworthy than the president. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/15/business/media/coronavirus-facebook-twitter-social-media.html

Walsh, B. (2020, April 25). How social media feels about coronavirus. Axios. Retrieved from https://www.axios.com/coronavirus-social-media-artificial-intelligence-1e61aa50-9ffe-423b-92e0-b6447ed4b834.html

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