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Opinion

What the death of Cecil the lion tells us about social media

06 August 2015
What the death of Cecil the lion tells us about social media

The news about the killing of Cecil the lion first reached me on Facebook, and it took a little while for the full import of the story to sink in.

I did wonder why my friend in Mexico had suddenly decided she must denounce hunting animals for sport, but thought little more about it until similar posts appeared in my newsfeed, at which point I decided to check the story out on traditional news media.

The outcry over Cecil’s death proves the power of social media as a massive conduit for channeling popular angst, and it will only continue to grow in reach and influence – particularly in combination with traditional media. What it does not prove is the power of social media to market brands, although I have little doubt it will be taken as such by some.

There is a huge difference between an event like Cecil’s demise and the marketing of brands. For a start, most people just do not care that much about brands, whereas after decades of watching wildlife documentaries they do care about animals. However, if we dig deeper we can identify lessons that will help brands use social media effectively.

Trophy hunting of the sort practiced by Walter Palmer is an asinine pursuit. Unfortunately, however, it is not uncommon. In 2009 the International Union for the Conservation of Nature estimated that tourist hunters killed around 105,000 animals per year in West Africa, including around 600 lions. If this is correct, over 3000 lions have been killed since 2009 – never mind a half million other animals – but their deaths failed to spark the same outrage. Why then did news of Cecil’s death provoke the response it did?

The simple fact that Cecil had a name is likely to have had something to do with it, but the real story here is just that: a real story. This was a compelling story, one that evolved in real-time as new facts came to light. As my colleague Sarah Walker notes in her recent Point of View, stories are powerful devices that engage people emotionally and move them to action. That is why the story of how Cecil was lured from safety, shot with an arrow but not killed until 40 hours later moved so many people to protest his specific death, and not those of the thousands of other animals killed each year.

Today many, many marketers are busy trying to leverage the power of social media to keep their brand salient. They invest in command centers, staffed 24/7 with people ready to tweet or post in response to any potentially relevant consumer comment or news story (and many that are totally irrelevant). This investment makes total sense when it comes to crisis management or better customer service. If you can intervene to solve an individual’s problem before they flame the brand, all well and good, you might even strengthen the relationship with that customer. What makes far less sense to me is trying to ride on the back of social media memes and breaking news stories.

Take the well-publicized example of Fan Bing Bing and Li Chen announcing their relationship on Weibo back in May. The announcement took the form of a simple selfie with the caption “us”. The post immediately garnered millions of shares and likes. It also spawned hundreds of look-alike posts from brands. Some could claim relevance, like the three similar posts from competing condom brands; others struggled to make a connection in the desperate attempt to ride the wave of popular interest. Most simply went unnoticed.

In the majority of cases this sort of micro-marketing ends up having a superficial effect. Far better for the brand to invest that time in creating a compelling story that can be shared out in increments across time. But to do that you have to find the intersection between what the brand stands for and what its consumers will be interested in if brought to their attention. Brands that simply respond to events will fade into the background. Brands that tell a compelling story, one that people will care about, will stand out.

That is the reason the #LikeAGirl ad by Always has been such an enduring success on YouTube. The video is often referred to as a social experiment, but it is told as a story. Following a narrative arc from set-up to revelation, it ends by being uplifting and empowering. Judy John, the lead creative on the campaign, interviewed in co.Create identifies how the idea came into being through research and then states: “The first key decision was choosing an idea that felt insightful, relevant and true. #LikeAGirl had it all and, in a few words, could capture people’s attention and imagination.”

The end result was no one-hit wonder, has the power to engage millions and last beyond the moment and, yes, even to win at Cannes.

That is how you win in social media, by creating compelling stories, not aimlessly responding to the latest news simply because you can make a joke out of it. Of course, you could also just pick a topical story about the death of a lion and write a blog post about it instead. Mea culpa.

Nigel Hollis, executive vice president and chief global analyst, Millward Brown

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