On social, brands need to make you cry

Written by Paul Phillips, Associate Strategy Director & Social Media Lead at Edelman Hong Kong

Not all ‘likes’ are the same. Populism shows us ‘emotion’ is far more potent.

The roots of social media go back much further than those of traditional media. Peer to peer communication has its origins 100,000 years ago, when humans first started communicating with each other.

Online social media seeks to replicate these fundamental human interactions in a more sophisticated way. It tries to mirror our own friendship and contact groups, prioritizing the messages and stories of those we’re more like to engage with.

What’s in a like?

The act of ‘engaging’ (i.e. liking or sharing etc.) is about acknowledging we too conform to the thinking in this content. It fulfills our human need to belong and we’re rewarded with a dopamine hit when we do this and when others engage.

What drives these interactions with content on Facebook and Instagram is the newsfeed algorithm. It does this by giving us content we want, what we’re more likely to engage with.

Most of the time it's rigged to give us more of what we like, more of the same. For example, check out this widget WSJ created showing what your Facebook newsfeed will look like depending on your stance on certain U.S. issues.

Filter bubble worries

This sea of ‘red’ for conservative or ‘blue’ for liberal has becoming increasingly worrying, particularly as social media’s relevance is continuing to increase whilst traditional media loses relevance. In the U.S. election, social media conversation was far more accurate at predicting results than traditional media polling.

If the algorithm is rigged to give us more of what we like, more of the same, is social making us more narrow-minded? Are we in a filter bubble?

Emotions drive conversation, not issues

In the offline world, it’s more complicated. We don’t always agree with our peers, and it’s emotionally charged disagreement that often attracts us to the conversation and defines where we stand within the group.

The rise of populism shows that at its heart social media mirrors these offline social interactions. When we look at the graph below from the U.S. election it’s emotions that drove conversation not the issues. The U.S. election shows us that emotional content is far more than powerful than a ‘like’.


For marketers, this means focusing on what’s getting ‘likes’ is missing the larger picture. Brands need to mirror more accurately what is it to be ‘social’.

Marketers need to lead with emotional content.

Content needs to pull on the purpose behind the brand and what it sells. This will generate conversation that’s positive and negative, and define your customers and advocates.

A good start is a branded piece of content that considers the 100,000-year-old history of social interactions, not a repurposed TVC.

SKII’s ‘marriage market takeover is a good example. It tackles controversial social stigma on women in China who don’t marry ‘young’. It inspires courage and is closely linked to SKII’s purpose, to redefine a ‘woman’s destiny'.

It’s not just consumer lifestyle brands. From the financial services sector, ANZ’s #HoldTight tackles stigma in LGBTI communities - this aligns closely with the diversity values which define the bank.

There’s nothing wrong with seeing red or blue, cats or dogs, coffee or tea, but it’s the content that really moves users to engage that will define brands.