When your brand goes viral, untethered

Abstract: What breakfast radio can teach us about the secret of social media…

In the cut-throat world of commercial breakfast radio there’s a golden measure of the impact of a show, the holy grail as it were of how powerful it is; and here’s the twist: it’s a measurement that, itself, can never be measured. But wait – as the saying goes – there’s more: it now holds the key to your, and your company’s image. Concerned? You should be.

Commercial breakfast radio is a rather fickle beast. Keep it well fed, unexercised, and it will purr along contentedly, occupying the room with little attention, a bit like an overweight cat. Ignore it and it will whine in the corner, become disruptive and invite all manner of maladies, until you have to get rid of it. It’ll be somewhat feral. If you really want it to be effective, you have to prod it, nurture it and keep it active, like a work dog.

The best way to keep it active is to keep people talking about it and analysing it; which is why all breakfast shows aim to secure what is known as ‘water-cooler talk’. It’s a somewhat dated term for public endorsement, or ‘word-of-mouth’, and it refers to the concept of people talking about what happened in a breakfast show, whilst later on gathered around the water-cooler at work.

If it’s achieved, it means the energy of a breakfast show has spread and continued way after the show has physically finished on air; and it serves several purposes: to encourage debate, to shape opinion, and to market a brand; and as a marketing tool it is highly effective. It’s also free.

But there’s a catch: The problem with commercial breakfast radio is that the consumer is invariably sitting in a car, only an arm’s length from changing channels, and they’re also easily distracted by what’s happening outside; so what they don’t want is long, rambling speech. Effective breakfast show hosts know this, and structure their speech with carefully chosen words and phrases.

These are the words and phrases that the show wants the consumers to use later on whilst gathered around the water-cooler instead of working. The secret to this is the shrewd and surreptitious ‘branding’ of concepts and ideas, and the use of soundbites – short bursts of content. Ideally you want people to say something like: “Did you hear the Match the Moment competition on Power Fm this morning? Wasn’t it amazing? So funny. So clever. And the guy won 10 000 bucks.”

If the breakfast show hosting this competition had done things correctly, they would have branded the competition, so everyone knew its name; emphasised how much money was being given away; and continually ensured that people knew it was ‘amazing’, ‘funny’ and ‘clever’.

Now look at the above water-cooler comment again. Look at its length and construct. Notice anything vaguely familiar about it? If you don’t it’s possibly because you don’t use Twitter; if you do, it’s because you’re familiar with the idea of expressing an opinion in 140 characters or less.

Twitter is simply the new radio ‘water-cooler talk’, but on steroids. It is the same burst of thought designed to encourage debate, shape opinion and market a thought, but with the purpose of tapping into the rabidly viral nature of the medium.

This should be a concern for the communication directors of organisations, or anyone who is at the mercy of popular opinion; because it means they are no longer the sole determinants of their image. Long rambling press releases no longer cut it, just as waffling breakfast show hosts will fail to secure effective water-cooler talk.

Also, the problem with water-cooler talk is that it’s hard to control, because it relies on those doing the talking to process information they’ve consumed, and accurately portray what was originally communicated. It easily suffers from the ‘broken telephone’ syndrome. Now imagine how the problem is exacerbated when such water-cooler talk really goes viral!

I’ve lost count of the number of press releases I’ve read that have been bursting at the seams with facts but have failed to provide any creative and compelling soundbites – clever and captivating bursts of phrases, together with critical facts, that seize the attention and imagination of the reader and virtually ensure inclusion in a later burst of 140 characters of less.

Instead, the creators of the press releases rely on someone else to pick at the content at will, choose what to extract and how to present it when they share it.

Social media has crowded the media stage where disseminators are fighting for the attention of consumers. More worryingly, many of those playing the role of disseminators are untrained, and driven by their own agendas.

Communication directors and public relations teams therefore have to operate like commercial breakfast show hosts, and think in captivating soundbites. They have to imagine a consumer as both a listener and an amateur media disseminator, sitting an arm’s length from them, ready to switch channels to another media outlet; but who would love to pass on a fascinating nugget of information.

They just need someone smart and insightful enough to give it to them.

Originally published in the July 2012 edition of Leadership magazine.