With the pressure on brands to curate a coherent, engaging, and inviting online persona, how do they balance their brand tone of voice with the informality and immediacy of social media?

Since the launch of Six Degrees – one of the very first social networks as we know them now – back in 1997, the world of social media has boomed with Myspace, Facebook and Twitter following in its footsteps to create a landscape in which anyone can find and connect with anyone, regardless of prior connection or geographical situation. Although initial take-up was strong with Six Degrees attracting close to 1million users at its height, Facebook are now gearing up to hit the 1billion user mark later this year, equating to 1/7th of the global population that are engaged with one social network. Staggering figures indeed but is this just a passing phase, a flash in the pan, or is this the permanent future of human social interaction?

Experience tells us that social networks come in waves that steadily build before being eclipsed by a rival social network, reaching their peak and falling out of favour as users switch or leave their accounts dormant. Founded in 2002, Friendster steadily grew for a number of years before being eclipsed by Facebook and subsequently changing course to become a social gaming site with 90% of their traffic coming from Asia. Bebo was much the same story, becoming overshadowed by Myspace who had similar features but implemented them with greater effect and a stronger music connection. In turn, Myspace was overtaken by the Facebook behemoth in April 2008 where its decline began, before it decided to redefine itself as a social entertainment website rather than a social networking one. Due to its relatively short lifespan, it’s difficult to define whether transient allegiance to social networking sites is down to the medium itself, or whether it’s down to the fact that it’s a young industry finding its feet.

With the boom in online social networking sites, it’s tempting to believe that social media is a modern phenomenon set to herald a change in human behaviour indefinitely. When chat rooms were at their peak in the mid to late 1990’s, it was a commonly aired belief that teenagers who used them regularly would become more socially reclusive in the offline world despite their increased social activity in the online one. As we’ve become more accustomed to online socialising though, there seems to be a dislocation developing between people’s lives online and their lives offline. With the increased number of tools at our disposal, we have now managed to become publishers and editors of our own digital image, branding ourselves as we would like to be seen. In the case of Facebook, if tagged photographs are not considered flattering enough they can be easily detagged and removed from our profiles, and pages that we decide to ‘Like’ can tell other people about what brands, publications and public figures we admire. Facebook’s introduction of the Timeline interface has turned people’s profiles into rolling narratives, framed by a cover image and making our friends, likes, locations and interests much more visible. As Facebook’s promotional Timeline page says – “Tell your life story”.

Arguably, this is one of the things that social media is all about: stories. Through various platforms we’ve become accustomed to stories being shared at an alarming rate, which is what has made social networking sites such a potentially valuable asset to brands. ‘Viral’ has become the aspiration of almost every Marketing Director and a brand that can utilise social media in an effective way has the power to influence one of the most credible forms of marketing: word of mouth. However, this isn’t always so easy. Many brands see social media as a box ticking exercise, spreading themselves thinly across a multitude of platforms with little weight, substance or solid reason for being on there. A common misconception is that content needs to be created specifically for the platform, rather than using the platform as a vehicle to share the content or message that has been originated elsewhere. Sharable content can originate in any form, and if the story is strong or the message is interesting, it can transfer across multiple media. What becomes viral on Youtube, gets retweeted on Twitter, liked on Facebook, or repinned on Pinterest, is content that tells a good story.

According to the Headstream Social Brands 100, it’s also about personality, transparency, and honesty. The brands that are at the top of this year’s Social Brands 100 report are ones that manage their brand in a more ‘human’ context. In the report, Headstream point out three underlying principles of what makes a good social media brand: Win-Win Relationships, Active Listening, and Appropriate Social Behaviour. O2 recently discovered the power of being human when they were inundated with thousands of negative tweets during their 24 hours of network failure. Their response: to employ a relaxed and witty writer who produced tongue-in-cheek responses to complaining tweeters, prompting other users to praise O2 for its handling of the situation.

But is being human the answer for brands? If you’re O2 or Innocent Drinks then definitely yes. Their chatty tone of voice allows seamless translation into social media. However, for brands that have a more formal tone of voice off-line, do they run the risk of losing their authenticity and end up feeling slightly schizophrenic?

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