@me: Should brands speak in the first person?
by Nicole van Wyk. I know that, when I message a brand online, the entity responding on the other end isn’t a talking logo; I’m fully aware that it’s a community manager or brand representative who’s been trained (hopefully) to deal with my social media complaints. But I can’t be the only one who’s been irked by the recent surge of brands online speaking in the first person.
The first time I noticed this was when I read a few tweets posted by Netflix’s community manager. Initially, I thought it was some sort of social media takeover (that cute thing that brands sometimes do where they allow a ‘staff member’ to post ‘whatever they want to’). Yet I’ve noticed a few more brands have followed suit, sparking a debate about whether brands should be getting that personal with us or not. (For the purpose of this article, I’m not taking into consideration brands that don’t offer a monetary service or product, such as online magazines, but more business brands.
I’ve done community management before and, as a brand strategist, have worked on a few social media strategies. Part of my job involves offering brands advice on the types of personae they should use. If you think I’m mentioning that to make my perspective on all this sound more legit then, well, yeah — kind of. But hear me out, please. You may decide at the end of this article whether this is the right strategy for brands or not.
Questions I have about this
1. Who is the “I”?
When a brand speaks as “we”, we imagine the entire company — customer service, PR, brand management etc. When the brand speaks as “I”, who exactly is it? The CEO? The community manager? The intern? Most of us would understand that we’re not talking to the CEO.
We’ve also already seen an increase in people responding to a community manager as “admin” on the page. But when a brand speaks in the first person, and that first person is the ‘admin’, it makes the connection with the brand less personal. Individualising a brand makes it more about a person on the other end than it does about the brand as a whole.
2. Who takes responsibility?
There really isn’t much of a difference between the brand online and the brand offline. So, when something happens offline (or on a platform other than a social media platform) to upset customers, they’re probably going to take to social media to complain to/about “the brand”. Is it still the person on the other end of the screen’s responsibility? Do they say “I’m sorry, let me take care of that for you”?
We all know that there’s only so much a community/social media manager may do to ensure that a client’s complaint has been followed through and resolved. So, just how much power does the “first person” have on social media?
3. How do you follow this through?
Where does speaking in first person end? Can the brand’s first-person persona be followed through on other platforms and through other customer service portals, such as phone conversations, email, press releases, events and advertising?
I can just imagine how awkward it would be if a community manager has to put out a press release after an unfortunate tweet: “We distance ourselves from the tweet posted last week and are dealing with it internally. The person responsible has been dismissed,” while the community manager tweets, “Hey, here’s my formal apology about a tweet I posted the other day.”
Perhaps brands have a specific strategy for that particular scenario, but it would be interesting to see nonetheless.
It’s important for a brand to have a persona, and it’s important for that persona to be relatable to your target market. Making your brand more human is something just about every brand strategist will recommend. However, at the end of the day, most brands are businesses and customers do understand the transactional nature of their relationship with brands. “More human” doesn’t necessarily mean “more individual”.
Social media is an extension of customer service and not every customer will be your best friend — which shouldn’t be the aim of most brands, anyway. When choosing your persona, think about the nature of your business and the way your typical consumer engages with your products or services. More than speaking to them like you’re best friends, it’s important to speak to them with the kind of respect, understanding or compassion they would expect from a brand they are (or could be) loyal to.
People don’t need best friend brands; they need brands that communicate effectively, honestly and on time. Aim for that first and you’ll have customers who love you even if you’re “we”.
Nicole van Wyk is a brand strategist and content lead at Johannesburg-based digital marketing agency, Arc Interactive. She has nine years’ experience in the digital marketing agency, during which she has become increasingly interested in the social contribution brands make and the effect advertising has on society. In her own work, she encourages brands to “exist with purpose” while helping them explore what that means.
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