You are the hashtag
Published in Mar-Apr 2019
This Valentine’s Day, Careem Pakistan’s Twitter handle responded to a random, pissed-off tweet by an Indian called Sachin Shere.
Mr Shere, who seems to be a pretty nationalistic dude, has a habit of tagging large Twitter accounts, presumably to spread his message further than the 86 followers he has. Yet, it seems that among all the Pakistani accounts that he tags, Careem were the only ones that managed to correctly capitalise the situation and gain significant social media traction (their response tweet received a disproportionately higher engagement than Careem’s other tweets). On the surface, this seems like a straightforward the-right-thing-at-the-right-time situation. However, capturing opportunities like these on social media is a tricky challenge not many brands are able to pull off.
Trends: understanding the power and their danger
If you are a social media marketer in Pakistan, I assume you have been using the word ‘trends’ as part of your pitch jargon for the last couple of years. However, I hope that as of 2019, you are aware of the change in social media network power dynamics. Whereas trends were once the ‘value-addition’ part of your social strategy, now they seem to be garnering more love from both algorithms and people than your carefully planned ‘regular’ content campaigns. In a constantly-connected world, we are all huddled around the water cooler that is social media, talking about whatever is the newest, most interesting thing we have discovered. Trending topics are stickier than regular social media interactions but more volatile as well. On one end of the spectrum, you have the positive outcome. Capture a trending topic right and you have stellar engagement and brownie points from audiences who will appreciate you as a brand with a true personality, and if you are lucky, that holy grail of social media – virality. On the flipside, there is the risk of botching a trending integration. You may end up with something completely tone-deaf and alienate your audiences. Your brand will look desperate, equity will erode and you may even go viral for all the wrong reasons.
The need for speed
Let’s get something straight; trends are not hashtags. They are not a particular image, line of copy or a meme. They are part of a conversation, a topic, a part of the zeitgeist. The tweet above shows how Careem masterfully captured an opportunity to latch on to the heated Pakistan and India conversation without relying on hashtags or visuals. Trends are by definition fleeting. You can’t predict them and you can’t stop them from dying. They come and go at great speed. The opportunity lies in your ability to capture them in that small window of time. This requires, first and foremost, a conscious decision by brands and agencies to align their strategy – as in should or should we not capture trends? Trends are not child’s play and need to be approached with both conviction and caution. Trends should not be on anyone’s backburner. There is nothing more pathetic than a branded post on a trending topic ‘just because’. These kinds of afterthoughts are poorly-timed, contextually hollow, way too ‘safe’ to gain traction and plain bad for brand image and agency performance. If you want to capture trends, go big or go home. There is no space for in-betweeners.
Preparing the groundwork
From the agency side, once you have cemented the intent, the next step is to align the right resources to identify these trends. It is a game of quick responses, so the quicker you identify a relevant trend, the better your chances to capture it in the right way. There are a few ways to do this and what has worked wonders for us is to hire in-house trend-spotters who know how to keep track on what is becoming hot in real time; a person who can tell, at any given time, what is happening in the world of entertainment, politics, pop culture or any other topic. It may be something as random as an egg competing with Kylie Jenner’s Instagram or the wife of the Malaysian Prime Minister holding hands with Imran Khan. You can rely on the internet to pick up this stuff – there are countless trending topic lists, but the problem is that by the time a trend reaches these lists it is already at its peak and you have little time left to adapt it meaningfully to your brand. Having the right people in this role means you do not have to rely on second-hand data. Next, ensure your trend-spotters are able to disseminate to the rest of the agency creative team the information regarding a trend very quickly. We use a dedicated slack channel (a cloud-based set of proprietary team collaboration tools) to do this. The conversation usually goes like this. The trend-spotter alerts the content team about something that is picking up traction – along with the nuances and pitfalls. The content team adapts the trend to their assigned brands, angling it to create maximum effect. The chosen angle is relayed back to the trend-spotter in case there is a red flag somewhere that can be identified.
Given that most trends have a life of about two to three days, our content and design teams are geared to get the minimum viable product out in record time. Here we recognise that first is much more impactful than best, so we take off our perfectionist hats and work to create the best that can be done given the time crunch. This is a tough decision for the agency because it feels like a cop out. On the flip side, it’s a great opportunity for agencies to push for radical efficiency in social content creation.
This is about creating pathways for trending-related content within the agency and with the client. Assuming that both the agency and brand teams agree that trends are powerful, time-sensitive and worth pursuing, there needs to be a preset express lane to funnel this content quickly and process it before the trend loses steam. On the agency side, this means prioritising over-planned assignments. Notice again that Careem’s February 14 tweet could have been topical around Valentine’s Day (which must have been part of the plan) but the trending topic was so powerful that it outmanoeuvred the planned content. What has worked with us are the protocols we have created to deal with these urgent tasks. Clients are briefed about this when we sign them on and although these opportunities are stressful because of their ability to derail ‘regular’ project planning, they are exciting to work on and help keep everyone on their toes.
Expectation-Management and approvals hotlines
Given that most trends have a life of about two to three days, our content and design teams are geared to get the minimum viable product out in record time. Here we recognise that first is much more impactful than best, so we take off our perfectionist hats and work to create the best that can be done given the time crunch. This is a tough decision for the agency because it feels like a cop out. On the flip side, it’s a great opportunity for agencies to push for radical efficiency in social content creation. At the other end of the conversation, client expectations need to be managed so that this less-than-stellar visual or copy is approved quickly. While some clients trust the agencies to manage their tone of voice independently, most brands in Pakistan micromanage each post and give approvals accordingly. With trending topics, such pre-approvals are out of the question. Thus, an approval hotline highway has to be created between client and agency. Clients should be aware that the stuff coming in for approval may not be as perfect as their regular stuff but rapid approvals will help capture the momentum of the trend. This communication system works on a 24-hour basis and nothing is sacred. While we hate to admit it, most of our hotlines rely on WhatsApp. The big bad world of trending topics requires that agencies and brands work on new blueprints in terms of workflow and communication networks. Only with this grid in place and working seamlessly can we begin to chase after something bigger. I have to admit, the feeling of gaining traffic on a trend that is picking up momentum is an exhilarating experience. But the Holy Grail of viral marketing is to make a trend, rather than just exploit it. Few agencies or brands can claim to have been able to pull this off globally and those that have are largely one-hit-wonders. That’s the dream.
You know what they say: work hard until your name becomes a hashtag.
Umair Kazi is Partner, Ishtehari. email@example.com
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