The Not-So-Cool Companies of Social Media

There was a minor uproar on social media a few days ago. Engadget Editor Nicole Lee received what can best be described as an…unusual E-mail from a T-shirt company trying to drum up attention for its Kickstarter and business.

If you can’t click on that link, 3 FIT Theory sent Nicole an E-mail with the subject line of “fuck you Nicole” and sadly their E-mail account was not hacked. The sender, someone named Matt, then freely admits that the subject line was “a terrible and blatant attempt to grab your attention” and that they’re not proud of it. Then it segues into a pitch offering Nicole T-shirts to review.

Shockingly enough this was not received particularly well. Especially since Nicole mentioned that other colleagues received similar E-mails.

Five years ago I’d have been shocked at this. Now it’s almost routine. The only thing missing in the cycle I’m about to ramble about is the apology if anyone was offended. It’s been long enough that 3 FIT is either too oblivious or shameless to realize what they did.

Internet culture can be a cynical, deadpan place. It’s a place that often emphasizes dark comedy, irreverent memes and a certain sense of indifference. That’s a very broad brush way to describe Internet culture, but companies have been trying to cash in on it in the 2010s with results that run the gauntlet from range from amusing to bizarre to horrifying.

This is becoming an increasingly common “strategy” for companies trying to act woke and edgy on social media. Do something outrageous or controversial, then immediately follow up with some sort of self-aware reference to act self-deprecating in an attempt to be witty and to absolve yourself of any potential backlash because you’re in on it. It’s a transparently cynical approach that almost always does more harm than good.

We saw the logical extreme of this nonchalant edginess only recently with THQ Nordic when the game publisher flippantly announced they were doing an AMA and “didn’t know why.” The AMA in question was on a notoriously vile imageboard that was at one point delisted from Google¬†and had its domain seized for the worst of possible reasons that I’m not even going to mention here.

You can probably predict the results that happened within two hours: Like clockwork THQ Nordic pissed off the Internet, backpedaled, apologized, and insisted they would “do better” next time. While this particular instance was a shocking failure when it comes to basic fundamentals of market research I can visualize the process through the eyes of a marketer who may not be tech-savvy: It’s a place that’s part of “the discourse” on the Internet, regardless of context or fallout, and we have to join the discourse or be left behind!

YouTuber HBomberGuy recently published an insightful video essay going into the concept of “woke” brands in more detail. We’re in an unusual age that boils down to two things.

First, we’re in an unusual era where people have constant, 24/7 direct access to brands on social media. Part of what makes our current era so unusual when it comes to business marketing is that in the past there would be relatively clear lines drawn when it came to interaction between brands and customers. Now companies can be reached at almost any time in a manner similar how to how you’re able to reach an actual friend at any time provided they have access to their phone.

We’re also in a political environment that has essentially been attempting to humanize companies. In 2010 a notorious Supreme Court case effectively declared that corporations were entitled to free speech in the form of political spending. Mitt Romney once infamously said that corporations are persons too. Despite the backlash he received for that companies seem to have taken up the baton and are trying to humanize themselves as a marketing tactic.

It’s why so many social media brands are trying to be quirky, or cute, or do anything to stand out in an era of saturation where every company is on social media, every company has a newsletter and every company needs to keep the attention span of customers in an age of endless content everywhere. It’s why you see bizarre tweets like this one from Sunny D complete with sympathetic and quirky responses from other brands.

So here’s my advice for trying to act edgy and woke on social media: Don’t.

This applies especially to smaller companies that I always see trying to share memes, trying to jump on Twitter hashtags and trying to call your brand lit. This penchant for acting plugged in, connected and woke online isn’t about developing your company’s online voice anymore. Not when everyone else is doing it. It’s trying to jump a bandwagon and what we usually see is the “How do you do, fellow kids?” meme.

Speaking as someone with prolific experience in not being cool, and this applies especially to smaller brands and startups: There’s no sense in trying to be cool. Coolness is illusory and transparent, especially on the Internet where trends change at the top of a hat. You’re better off following the age-old adage of just being yourself. Especially as a small business where you have the chance to naturally feel human in a way that larger companies don’t. You don’t need to act like a cool kid for people to know they should buy or support local.