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Social media managers, like most of us, probably weren’t too sad to see 2020 end. They navigated from crisis to crisis, and a lot of them felt burned out by the time August rolled around, let alone December. Unfortunately, 2021 hasn’t exactly been a picnic so far, either.
Almost everything is more difficult during a crisis, but social media management might win the grand prize. Well-meaning brands can get lambasted by frustrated social media users for posting the wrong thing, posting too much, or even not posting at all.
That’s why I sat down (virtually, of course) with Eric Kramer, a Senior Strategist for Khoros Strategic Services, to talk about how brands should (and shouldn’t) take to social media when a crisis occurs. Here’s what I found out.
The short answer is that any crisis can quickly become a huge concern for your brand, especially if you aren't strategic with your messaging. However, a few factors can increase potential risk:
Is it a global crisis? If not, does it impact a significant portion of your target audience?
Is your brand being directly referenced as part of the crisis?
Is the crisis related to a core belief that your brand has recently been vocal about?
Does your brand have a unique opportunity to help those affected by the crisis?
A “yes” answer to one or more of these questions is a strong indication that you need to be careful on social media. The first step here — one you should have taken before the crisis even began — is to have a clear view of your scheduled content (across organic and paid). This will be invaluable when you have to make real-time adjustments to prevent unintentional backlash.
There's quite a bit of debate on this topic. Some people say you should disengage completely, but of course that’s risky, because consumers often criticize brands who stay silent on important issues all the time. I think a good rule of thumb is that if you don't have anything meaningful to contribute to the conversation, you should probably wait until you do.
It’s okay to start out in that “we’re not sure what to say” phase. Go back to the lab and come up with some strong positioning, and (only if it’s relevant) showcase the value you're bringing to your customers and their communities. Just make sure you’re fully aligned internally and can stand behind your messaging with total consistency before anything is published. (Again, this is why it’s so important to have a clear, consistent overhead view of your messaging before the crisis even occurs.)
As we saw recently during the US Capitol crisis on January 6th, the safest move when things are volatile is to pause everything for at least 24 hours. Patience is key. Reevaluate before activating any content — and once you do, always remain flexible and continue to monitor the situation.
Sometimes, but of course it really depends on the crisis. It's typically not the best use of your funds to be running ads like it's "business as usual" while a crisis is unfolding. There's minimal upside in running your planned campaigns during national or global crises. When all a user sees on her feed is crisis coverage and commentary, an ad that simply promotes your brand can come off as tone-deaf or worse. Jeopardizing your relationship with your customers — and worse, potentially associating your brand with the crisis — simply isn’t worth it.
As I said earlier, you’re better off to pause your paid campaigns for a short period of time, maybe just 24 hours. This will give you time to figure out what’s relevant and helpful for customers, and the impact on your campaigns will likely be negligible. If you do keep any campaigns active, make sure you're experimenting with multiple variations of copy and creative to help identify what resonates the most with your audiences. You should also keep a close eye on these campaigns with an optimization protocol to help your team quickly identify what’s working and what’s not.
Since you have a lot more control over who views your paid campaigns compared to who sees your organic content, be particularly mindful of how these specific audiences are impacted. Separate broader, less time-sensitive initiatives from lower-funnel performance marketing campaigns, and prioritize the latter. As long as the crisis is no longer completely dominating all social feeds and your messaging clears internal review, your dark ads are probably safe to resume.
Keep in mind that it's often not always as simple as flipping a switch to turn paid campaigns on and off. Pausing campaigns while they’re in flight can have a negative impact on performance (although a 24-hour pause isn’t likely to have a very significant effect). It can prevent ads from exiting the learning phase and limit results, making it trickier to compare them against benchmarks. If enough significant adjustments need to be made, ads may have to go through both internal approval and the platform review processes again, further delaying the ads from running.
One of the toughest parts of managing social media during a crisis is that crises are so unpredictable. Brands couldn’t have predicted a global pandemic last year.
Some crises, however, are a little easier to foresee. They tend to crop up around elections, inaugurations, and other significant political events. When an election or inauguration is coming up, you can take steps to “future-proof” your messaging by avoiding the more obvious hot button issues.
Start with a thorough audit of your ad copy and creative, making sure that nothing can be considered insensitive or problematic. It’s also important to avoid keywords that may get flagged by the platforms as they try to reduce the spread of misinformation. This varies by platform (Facebook’s rules are different from Twitter’s), but words like "COVID-19" or "politics" can delay the approval process on your ads or block them entirely. This goes for the language on your landing pages as well. Whenever possible, it’s also helpful to enforce hope and optimism in your messaging.
Finally, it’s important to think through the implications of pausing a campaign and create a clear action plan to avoid internal confusion. If the messaging of your ads is time-sensitive, it may not be relevant when you turn them back on, so you may need to prepare to develop new copy and creative.
Nobody wants or expects a crisis, and no brand can navigate them perfectly every time. But with these steps, your social media team can be as prepared as possible for whatever 2021 throws at you.
If your brand needs help with social media strategy during a crisis (or at any time), see what Khoros Strategic Services can do for you.