Six Communications Takeaways from Social Media Week

Happy Holidays!

We’re guessing many will be enjoying a cup of tea and a pile of new books over the break.

But unless you’re a seasoned yogi, your head chatter around strategy and tactics probably won’t ease just because you’re on holiday. 

Does all this downtime have you thinking about where your business needs to go in 2020?

Well, let me share what I learned at Social Media Week Toronto (#SMWTO), especially when it comes to creative storytelling, a central theme in Spin Sucks 12 Days of Christmas.

Only the Lazy Sell, Sell, Sell

The focus for Social Media Week around the world in 2019 was “Stories: With Great Influence Comes Great Responsibility”.

“We’re living in an on-demand culture where interruption advertising is not only less effective, but it can backfire in a big way,” says Michelle Pinchev, founder of Toronto marketing agency Pinch Social, and lead organizer for #SMWTO. 

When the metrics show push marketing is kryptonite for business growth, but brands keep defaulting to it, all we can do is shake our heads and offer guidance.

Storytelling which builds trust and connection with the consumer is the goal here, where the audience feels heard and served, not strong-armed.

Is it hard and time-consuming? Hell, yes!

Speakers at Social Media Week Toronto put forth ideas very specific to this cultural moment.

They spoke about the kind of storytelling it takes to meet the consumer in the age of #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter, and #LoveIsLove.

Diversity: Go Beyond Lip Service and Figure It Out

Back in November, Gini Dietrich put on her boxing gloves in a post calling out the communications industry for underrepresenting women, POCs, people with disabilities, and the LGBTQ community, both on stage and in the boardroom.

In the spirit of what gets measured gets managed, out of 70 #SMWTO speakers, there was a 50/50 split between people who identify as men and women.

There were just under 20 speakers who offered a non-white POV. And at least one who openly expressed their love of drag.

I’ve been to enough tech and industry conferences where it was all [straight] white male speakers,” says Pinchev.  “We put a lot of thought into ensuring representation from women and visible minorities.”

To her point, speaker Dan Clay (aka “Carrie Dragshaw”) described how, until recently, “all roads led to the same vision of a leader. We were all impersonating the same dude.” 

Clay recalls how he would frequently lower his voice and restrict his hand gestures during client meetings.

After bringing his full gay self to the table at Lippincott consultancy in New York, one by one Clay’s co-workers began shedding their masks.

And guess what? Client relations improved and productivity and creativity at the agency skyrocketed.

Be Vulnerable and Real

It’s “time to get real” was the call from several speakers.

In order to land contracts with brands, influencers felt they had to hide their vulnerability and humanity with insanely crafted highlight reels.

But that’s in the past.

Now brands are inviting more vulnerability because influencers, like Eva Redpath, are demanding it.

“Success requires vulnerability,” states Redpath, who has partnered with Nike among others.

Showing more of the unseen and the trials in her own life (including her emotional journey after the death of her brother) has given others motivation to grow, she says.

“As a culture, this is a conversation we need to keep having,” Redpath concludes. “A motivational quote on Instagram is not enough to build trust and community. We need to show our real tenderness and vulnerability.”

To do this, brands must give influencer partners more freedom and trust to drive their own stories.

Tap Into Moments

Online storytelling is currently all about moments; a skit, a song, a challenge, or even a life-changing diagnosis.

The best moments feature ordinary people, micro-influencers, not mega-celebrities.

No one does it better than Knix, the online undergarment brand whose ads showcase working women of all ages navigating the daily emotional and physical roller coaster of living in a female body.

“We’re tackling normal and previously private topics in a completely open way,” says Michelle Adams, Director of Brand Marketing.

Scanning the comments for inspiration, Knix found their customers said it best.

Their stories of PMS, childbirth, and chemo have become Knix campaigns.

These micro-influencers are part of the wave taking brand communications in a more human-centric direction. 

Going forward, male copywriters will be increasingly out of work in the female underwear space.

Sorry guys, but you must live it for customers to believe it.

Community is King, Content is Noise

I’m sorry to say, content has been demoted.

Community is now king.

Continuing the theme of telling stories which humanize your brand, rather than just creating new content, go back to your community and have more conversations with your existing customers.

Even if it’s 30 people, don’t lose them, re-engage them without selling to them.

New engagement will bump up your posts organically.

And because your competitors’ customers may also be part of your community, do what Marcus Sheridan has been advocating for years, engage those customers in the comments of your competitor’s posts.

Or better yet, review your competitors on your own blog.

“Yes, poke the bear,” says speaker Carlos Gil, author of the new book, The End of Marketing: Humanizing your brand in the age of social media and AI.   

Potential customers are going to Google your competition, so you might as well own the conversation.

Replace AI Fear With Knowledge

Newsflash, AI isn’t coming, it’s here! And it’s not all bad.

That was the overarching message Martin Waxman and Alex Sevigny shared with us in their talk, “Deep Fakes, Data, and Robots, Oh My: The Future of AI and Social.”

That ad you’re running is actually learning who is engaging, what audiences look like, and who is converting.

AI is helping communicators and marketers understand our audiences better, monitor competitor movements, and create personalized campaigns.

The media likes to sensationalize the dark side of AI (the rise of deep fake videos), but Martin and Alex kept bringing us back to how it’s working with us to better serve clients:

  • If you’re building a chatbot for customer service, make sure it does nothing to offend your customers. Pull data from your target group and train it to represent the audience you want to reach.
  • Have a diverse team of developers and data analytsts. Amazon’s hiring algorithm was screening out women because it favors the way men write their resumes. Don’t do that.
  • Build relationships with people who are good at data science. Bring them in-house or have them on speed dial. Why? Eventually, the C-suite will want to know if your campaigns are working. A data scientist will help you capture the value you add and the relationships you are building.
  • It’s important that YOU define the measurable objective for each project, not your data scientist, to ensure you capture the correct KPIs.

Lastly, if you’re confused about AI, or not using its full potential with clients, hire a coach, take a LinkedIn Learning class, but don’t be an ostrich with your head in the sand. The future is now.

What Has Been Your Biggest Lesson This Year?

We all need to keep learning in order to move our skillset beyond the comfort zone of what we know. The Spin Sucks 30-Day Communications Challenge is a great way to do this, and we encourage you to join.

Which professional events did you attend where you learned things you didn’t expect?

What are you looking forward to next year?

Photo credit: Gerd Altmann

Alison Garwood-Jones

Alison Garwood-Jones is a journalist, illustrator, and instructor of Digital Strategy at the University of Toronto's School of Continuing Studies. This past spring she started a print-on-demand design studio at to sell her pen and watercolor illustrations on tech accessories and home decor items.

View all posts by Alison Garwood-Jones