The Social Design of Commercial Tweets and Posts

Writing commercial messages might not seem to fall within the purview of social interaction design. But as I dove into the challenge, it became clear that writing tweets and Facebook messages involves social design.

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Some time ago I met with a potential client to do some work on crafting promotional tweets and Facebook status updates with the purpose of sharing commercial offers across social networks. This might not seem to fall within the purview of social interaction design — the job being more of a marketing copy writing contract. But as I dove into the challenge, it soon became clear that even writing tweets and Facebook messages involves a type of social design.

  • The design language or form is language itself;
  • The medium is communication;
  • The system is social networking and distributed messaging;
  • The content is branding, sales, and marketing;
  • And the interaction is the social and conversational call to action.

Advertising: from image to talk

The old (mass) medium form of advertising is the image. It is versioned for multiple broadcast media and addressed generically to appeal to the greatest number of market segment customers as possible. Messaging will often make lifestyle references, appeals to value and utility, price and quality, aspirational imagery, celebrity endorsement, and so on. Decades of fine-tuning supported by market research and results tracking have provided marketing with a virtually scientific sense of purpose. As simplistic as many advertisements and campaigns may seem, marketing writers operate with a great deal of confidence and awareness about what they are doing.

What then of the conversational style of messaging and promotion now so important in the age of social media? Branding, marketing, and sales function differently in this medium. They eschew the image for talk. Their appeal is more personal and is often targeted. Message distribution occurs not through media buys and placement but through the distribution facilitated by customers themselves. Success is attributed to virality — but in fact communication is far more nuanced and subtle than viral transmission. The call to action is not just an appeal individual action, but is an appeal to social action (sharing, liking, forwarding, recommending, tweeting).

The matter of crafting promotional word-of-mouth messaging for effectiveness across social media is completely unlike that of broadcast messaging. For it relies on the engagement of end users, and depends on their willingness to repeat the message or share the action in their own words (even if it’s just a matter of quoting, or retweeting), to their own peers.

Here, then, is a brief overview of the social interaction design considerations of writing promotional copy.

Social media messaging is relational

The crux of broadcast advertising and marketing is the impression. Messaging seeks, through its claims, its use of image and references, and its aesthetic or style, to make an impression. Audiences are expected to tell a commercial from fact, and so the entire form of communication is bracketed: it’s understood by all that a commercial is fiction. The aim, then, is to make an impression upon audiences such that consumers identify with the message, enough so to form their own mental associations and ultimately recall or even act upon the message broadcast.

This may just involve brand awareness, but more often seeks action: a purchase. The challenge in broadcast messaging is thus the production of messages that make their appeal most effectively to the greatest number of consumers in such a manner that their response to the messaging extends company sales and awareness. The “relationship” is between the brand and the consumer.

Social media messaging is different. The medium is personal, and so messaging arrives within the context of a social tools (twitter, Google, Facebook, etc) used regularly for personal purposes. The messaging is direct, insofar as it appears as a statement received by the user in a medium used for direct communication (again, twitter, Facebook, etc). Image and brand personality references are crafted with words, and so brands may avail themselves of imagery and motion story-telling (tv ads) far less than they are used to. Creative is invested completely in the two axes of social tools: language and speech. And distribution is not controlled, but is rather given over to the audience to execute according to the the message’s appeal.

Social media messaging is appealing

This matter of the appeal is a critical distinction between mass and social media. The appeal of mass media messaging is anchored on the impression made. The appeal of social media is anchored on the user’s acceptance of the message. More specifically, the distinction is between a broadcast message invested with meaning, and a social message whose meaning is invested by the user. Power shifts from the brand to the consumer. Expression (branding) is replaced by Interpretation or Reception. The broadcast message may seek to make an impression; the social message seeks the user’s engagement. From a communication perspective, the operation of commercial promotions is reversed: brands do not supply the meaning, users do. Only then may they be expected to pass it along. Only when they accept, like, and see themselves in the messaging do they make it their own and share it.

The construction of social messaging requires a shift from objectively-framed communication to subjectively addressed communication. Broadcast messaging creates a fictionally objective claim (seeking to make an impression, an image). Social media messaging seeks to address the end user and relate directly by means of a pseudo form of speech: speech by proxy, if you will.

Addressing the (message) envelope

This means that the writer may employ objective claims, as in writing headlines and news-like statements. Or may “speak” more personally, making use of I, You, We, They, and Us. Those are linguistic elements rarely deployed in broadcast media. Most community managers and social media managers do this without thinking about it. We talk without reflecting on the constructed-ness of our speech. But that’s not to say that there’s no order or design involved in speech. All speech employs the order and construction of language, in both its form and content.

Speech is addressed, to somebody, to everybody, to a group, or even to oneself. The use of “I” is unnecessary on twitter and in Facebook updates, because the medium implies it. But “I” can still be of use, to change both tone and appeal. The linguistic effect of using “I” or “I” references (me, my) changes effect. For example: “Support relief efforts in Haiti” vs “I would really like help in supporting Haiti relief efforts.”

Similarly, use of “you” directly appeals to the reader/user. As in, “I would really like your help in supporting relief efforts.” Use of group references, such as to include by suggestion, makes use of the addressing of speech also. As in, “We should really get together to support Haiti relief efforts.”

These kinds of addressing functions of speech are used with risk in broadcast media, but are less risky in social media. The use of addressing (I, we, you, they, us, etc) in broadcast makes an implication that many in the audience may reject. There’s no personal relation in broadcast, and thus the appeal is risky. But in social, it extends an offer of relation and when appropriate (to the brand or claim it makes), can succeed precisely because it is relational — it’s personal, where broadcast can’t be.

Message content and linguistic expressions

If addressing involves the envelope of communication through social tools, then content is where references and claims are made. The message comprises of a statement or expression within which a claim is made. Here, the medium offers a greater range of differentiation than broadcast. First of all, a brand or company may craft many more messages, providing many more claims, than in broadcast. Claims can thus be made to appeal to the interests of a greater number of consumers/users. Claims based on price, utility, value, timeliness, and much more. Claims directed at personal interests, social values (causes), cultural affinities, news, and so on.

These content claims can be presented or expressed in social media messaging by means of objective statements or personally and socially addressed expressions. Here we encounter some basic linguistic types of expression. We have:

  • statements of fact;
  • requests;
  • questions;
  • answers;
  • invitations;
  • offers;
  • announcements;
  • recommendations;
  • and more…

Message content and the claims of content

Any of the claims you wish to make, as the informational content of your message, may be expressed differently by use of the above types of linguistic expression. Consider:

  • “We (the organization) would like your support of our Haiti relief efforts,” (appeal for help and appeal to include self in organizational efforts)
  • “Our relief efforts are getting underway. Help us now!” (announcement plus direct appeal)
  • “Relief efforts make a difference with the help of twitter” (factual statement, no direct appeal)
  • “Join in our relief efforts today” (invitation)

In addition to the addressing and informational, or content claims, of social messaging, there is the call to action. All internet advertising and marketing works by call to action. But in social, the call to action is social — it hopes for personal response, yes, but seeks social engagement. The social call to action is unique in that it asks the user to personally repeat or distribute the message to his or her peers. The commitment hoped for is greater; net effectiveness is supposed to be higher. Because the message is distributed by means of the highest authority there is: one’s own relationships with friends and peers. Personal relationships, not media, are the backbone of this kind of marketing.

Completing the message: call to (social) action

The call to action is often a link. It may be accompanied by information that provides reference and context, or not. But the call to action may be the expectation of retweeting. Or, in the case of Facebook, of liking. Brands often want users to complete the call to action based on the content of their message. But the user completes the call to action only if his or her interpretation of the message resonates and agrees with his or her interests in it. Again, the power is reversed, from expression and image-based messaging to interpreted communication. Actions are taken by users when they feel like it. When they feel like acknowledging a message; when they feel like being seen to acknowledge it; and when they wish to include others in it.

Here, then, commercial messaging wants to be as least commercial as possible. Many call this “authenticity” and “transparency,” but lets not fool ourselves. It’s commercial, and everybody knows it. So use either great creative, compelling narration, use news, or values, or discounts and package them communicatively.

Take, for example, the discount or offer. Social media are rife with discounts and offers, and companies such as Groupon, Yelp, and Foursquare (to name but a few) are heavily invested in the value proposition of social shopping and social commerce. The challenge here is to make the act of shopping a communicative act. It normally isn’t. In some cases, the challenge is in fact to make the act of window shopping a communicative act — as when companies hope that users looking for products socialize their efforts and solicit participation from friends or peers.

Transformation of this act into a social and communicative exercise demands use of the medium’s communicative possibilities, in short, the messaging variants we have described above. If I purchase flowers online, and am given a message after the purchase to share it with friends, the more effective use of messaging would focus on giving, reaching out, sending greetings, bringing a smile to somebody’s day — not the more conventional but commonplace “Save 30% on flowers today.” That doesn’t communicate beyond the value proposition, which is unlikely to be of interest to most of my friends at any given time. More likely to communicate personally would be a personal expression to which the purchase of flowers is simply a reference: “I just made somebody smile. Guess who? (link)” And so on.

Summary

In summary, the creative work of commercial social media messaging extends beyond the craft of broadcast advertising and marketing. The medium used is a form of mediated speech, and its success depends not on its image appeal but on its personal reception by users. Action is solicited on the basis of claims that engage a user’s interests and which are communicable. A number of forms of linguistic expression are available as means of “designing” the message envelope and contents. And the informational, or value propositions contained in the message may be highly differentiated for the purpose of targeting and reaching different types of audiences and their peers.

There is order, structure, and design in all things. In the facilitation of social interaction, and communication, too. Especially when it’s commercial.

Adrian Chan

Adrian Chan is a social media expert and social interaction theorist at Gravity7. You can follow him on twitter at /gravity7

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