Don’t be too useful: the key to social media success for brands?

Basically an excuse to use Flickr Spell again (See L is for Long Lost Pals, below)

Bankervision blogger, James Gardner got me thinking a recent post Why Banks Won’t Do Social Media, by putting forward the notion that in order to engage with people in social media you should eschew the useful and focus on “the banal”.

He even went so far as to say that “not useful” might be the right kind of approach for banks (the kinds of brands he thinks about most, seeing as he works for one).

Seeing as how “be useful” more or less underpins the way I think about brands on the web, I was intrigued to say the least.

He conducted an for-fun experiment where he tried to put people off following him on Facebook by being as boring as possible (noting that he was breathing, now blinking, uploading photos of train platform gravel). What happened was that people engaged with him more than ever: 

Here is what I’ve found out so far: the less useful the content is, the more people engage with it. You’d not believe the string of emails I’ve been getting.

Now, although this is not an especially scientific experiment, it suggests to me you can build engagement with social media on things that are unimportant and irrelevant. But when you say things which, theoretically, would be interesting and useful, paradoxically, no one cares. Social media is a channel optimised for the insignificant.

Of course his “boring” updates might actually look like someone being ever so enigmatic and interesting and so attract attention. And the experiment overall isn’t proving an awful lot at all when it comes to brands. 

James continues by thinking about what has worked for banking brands so far in social media:  

…if you look at the successful social media experiments, such as VanCity’s ChangeEverything, they aren’t even about banking very much. VanCity has been clever enough to work out that they have to take a sideways approach.

Well, yes – sideways certainly, but not banal… Social media is optimised to being social, not boring. Sometimes the social value is in the details, in the things that others may think is not useful but to the people sharing it are very important, either because the information or activity is highly important to them or because the social trinket in question is actually doing another job. 

Going back to James’s experiment for a moment, the banal serves a purpose in a social network like Facebook. When my friend says “My heart is beating” I may find that amusing (such wit!) or I may just register it as a phatic expression (he’s there, he’s OK, he’s making contact). 

And beyond that, banks and other financial services comapnies will only get so far with their customers and prospective customers if the only conversation they are interested in listening to or taking part in is about their products. 

James is right, Vancity’s experiment is successful because they have come from the leftfield, that’s to say not charging down the centrefield waving a flag in the bank colours with their top saver rate on it. 

When you think about your customers in networks, sometimes a direct connection between your sale and them is not what’s appropriate or required. 

Perhaps, we should think in terms of “be useful, but don’t try to hard” or “don’t underestimate and overlook the usefulness of small things”.