First off, the title of this post is misleading. There is no formula, everything is social and it's not about the content at all.
But with that out of the way, there IS a different philosophy to creating social content and the key to uncovering it lies with a theory posited by Isaiah Berlin*, a philosopher in an essay called "The Hedgehog and the Fox" where he refers to a poem by the ancient Greek Archilochus, who describes the two characters as follows:
"The fox knows many little things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing."
Foxes are multidisciplinary, adaptable, self-critical, tolerant of complexity, cautious and empirical, while Hedgehogs are specialized, stalwart, stubborn, order-seeking, confident and ideological. While Hedgehogs look for evidence to support their beliefs and are highly susceptible to confirmation bias, Foxes tend to appear to the outside world as uncertain and a bit scattered.
Bear with me here. This matters.
Quite often, people seek out things like formulas and best practices and all sorts of ways to ensure the best outcomes. Books and posts and articles and infographics are gobbled up whole in order to satisfy an eager marketers desire to implement a 'highly impactful' content strategy. These types are Hedgehogs. They will see a popular 700x700 inspirational quote being passed around Facebook like wildfire and think, "A-ha! That's the key! We need to create more square inspirational quotes!" This results in something like this:
Not saying that these sorts of techniques are without merit. Hell, it's been shared 225x and liked 1,274x. I, myself, have deployed a few of these bad boys and achieved great results. But when analyzing any data behind the content I've produced, there just isn't enough evidence to support that a formula alone makes for good, sharable, interesting content. And formulas grow tired and have declining returns.
Hedgehogs use formulas and pump out content that satisfies formulas and when the returns on that content decline, they look around and find new formulas to mimic. This is not only unsustainable, but it's insulting to the people who are following your content. These messages speak to the choir (who will sing on key), but will rarely incite others to join in.
Foxes, on the other hand, approach content very differently. They may pick up ideas from what's hip and happening and learn from other successes, but they spend WAY more time figuring out what it is that their customers really care about and work on delivering THAT. This takes all of the multi-disciplinary, adaptable, self-critical, tolerance for complexity and empirical talent they have. They can't "plan" a calendar months in advance. That would be ludicrous and a waste of time. Their content morphs and bends with too many variables, the biggest of which is the needs of the audience itself.
I wrote about these Foxy creatures at length in my last post on content. It's not hard to find them, either. Just look at the YouTubers that are killing it with subscribers. Two of them stayed at my house last weekend and when Carlos asked them about their 'secret sauce', they looked at him puzzled. In their minds, there was no such thing as a 'secret sauce'. They just run around with a camera and whatever they think is funny, they record and post. When I told them there were some basic principles, they pushed back and said, "If you start using rules, you stop using your instincts."
IF YOU START USING RULES, YOU STOP USING YOUR INSTINCTS.
That is a phrase very much worth repeating. Whether it's Roman and Dennis of SerialPranksters or the incredibly funny Jenna Marbles or my personal fave Hanna Hart, there is no way you can decipher a formula for success. The only things they have in common is that they are naturally funny, have great instincts for what others will find funny and just keep producing. Sometimes they produce huge hits and sometimes they produce misses, but they are consistent and adaptive. (and uniquely themselves)
I've tried to explain to clients over the years that the best gauge of what will be well-received is something that they, themselves, would find entertaining or useful. But Hedgehogs have a very tough time shifting to this perspective.
"I would find my PRODUCT entertaining and useful. It's the BEST!" they answer.
This is where the self-critical aspect comes into play. Most Foxes will say that they are really bad salespeople, but in actuality, they are great salespeople...especially in a cynical world. They don't think of themselves or their product as "the most amazing whatever". They never stop wanting to improve and, as a result, end up growing rabid fan-bases because of their humble approach and customer empathy. Many beloved brands I've studied carry the self-critical gene: Zappos, Threadless (their motto was actually, "We are never good enough"), Etsy, and Southwest Airlines...just to name a few. They are more focused on their customer's happiness than their own any day and it shows with loyalty and sales.
But back to content. There is no secret because 'secrets' and 'formulas' and 'best-practices' belong in the realm of Hedgehogs. But if you are a stubborn Hedgehog, and you admit it, there ARE a few ways to become more Foxy:
- put down the content calendar and just hang out with your customers (AND your competitors' customers) more. Not with a clipboard taking notes or with the desire to convince anyone to try your product. JUST CHILL and absorb.
- stop thinking of your audience as content consumers. They do not live for your 'sharables'. They aren't sitting with index fingers hovering over the like button, eagerly awaiting your next witty post. They have lives and you are a small, teensy part of their daily thoughts. If they don't think of anything else other than you, you have a bigger problem on your hands.
- go to a movie, read a book, subscribe to blogs, skim through magazines -- outside of your industry and outside of your comfort area. Embrace diversity and different points of view. Have conversations with people you would never dream of having conversations with.
- think really hard about what you are truly passionate about. What makes you laugh, cry, sing...what inspires you. What are you drawn to? Think about this honestly outside of the context of your business. Do more of that. Learn how to trust your instincts again and when they lead you astray...
- don't fret. Some things will work and some things won't. But keep going and learning from those mistakes. Take criticism with a grain of salt and start to learn what is constructive and what is not. Being experimental and open doesn't mean you have to bend with every whim either. You'll learn over time and hone that instinct beautifully.
The 'secret' to great social content is about a new approach to thinking. One that is service-oriented and empathetic. A question I always pose to people I work with on content is, "Is this going to make people feel better? Smarter? More in control of their lives? Help them look good to their friends? Help them make more friends? Give them tools to grow? Save them a headache? Time?" If the answer is no, you are really just adding noise. If a tv, paper or magazine constantly put out content that did nothing but serve their own interests, they wouldn't last long. Every brand has to think like a newsroom now (while every newsroom has to think like a brand, really).
So the secret? Think like a fox, stop following advice and tap into those instincts.
* credit where credit is due: I read about Berlin in Nate Silver's awesome book The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail-but Some Don't - where the theory inspired this entire post. And I can't help but point out that I did not gain inspiration for a post by reading a social media book, but a book about statistics, predicting outcomes, sports and politics.