Business casual: the art of spontaneous social media

Today's social media platforms are all about casual authenticity. But, while this approach can build community, businesses should tread carefully.
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There's been a vibe shift among brands on social media. Verified brands are commenting on viral TikToks like they're chatting with besties. Food bloggers are forgoing curated feeds for lo-fi food photo dumps. Small business CEOs are jumping on trending sounds

Call it the rise of spontaneous social media. Businesses seem to be relinquishing some control – moving resources from carefully produced marketing strategies to one that appears more hands-off, casual and authentic. For instance, look at budget airline Ryanair making fun of customer complaints, the Duolingo owl's ‘crush’ on singer Dua Lipa or fast-food chain Chipotle offering discounts on BeReal. 

At this point, it seems like a near necessity for any business that wants to build a brand online to cultivate an offbeat personality – and, when done right, it can open brands up to a whole new market. But, when done wrong, it can suck up a lot of a company's resources just to fizzle out – or go viral for the wrong reasons.

It's time for brands to BeReal

The shift is primarily due to the tone of the platforms where the next generation of customers are hanging out. TikTok and BeReal became popular because of their casual aesthetic and focus on authenticity. Brands know that to be successful, they'd have to match that tone and that means diverging from the overly curated aesthetic that was traditionally preferred on Instagram. 

But businesses also realized that people want to connect with people, not brands. ‘Community is everything,’ says Kendall Dickieson, a social media consultant. ‘[But] having an audience of 100,000 followers doesn't mean you have a community.’

In other words, a rigid online presence can't convert a community into sales. ‘[Brands] can't consistently be pushing just their products to their consumers if they expect to convert,’ says Kendall. ‘Your social [platforms] should never be like [shopping on] a website.’

It's something that TikTok has found, too – one analysis found that leaning into the creativity of the platform, rather simply than talking about services, is more effective for brands: ‘By fully adapting to user behaviors, these brands have become deeply [ingrained] in TikTok in a way that drives stronger engagement than they see on other platforms.’

This style provides brands with a way of breaking that fourth wall of professionalism with customers that hasn't worked elsewhere. Retrospec, an outdoor goods brand, claims that its TikTok is a secret account that its CEO doesn't know about. It's created an ongoing inside joke with followers that rarely mentions the brand name or its products – but it's gained the brand thousands of views and followers. Other companies use TikTok to show the real culture behind a more curated portfolio of work showcased on Instagram.

It's not for everyone

However, hold up before you hand the reins of your TikTok account to a Gen Z employee and tell them to let loose – there are a few things to keep in mind when considering a more spontaneous strategy. Hailey Brooke Weiss, founder of digital firm Power Move Marketing, says that brands should start by considering whether it really makes sense for them.

‘Do you want your gyno to be funny?’ she says. ‘Maybe, as long as it doesn't impact their work, but it may turn some people off.’

Once you've done a bit of reflection, she says it's also crucial to consider whether this approach will help you connect better with customers (and provide value that they wouldn't get otherwise) and whether a more casual tone could risk alienating your current customers. 

While it may seem off the cuff, strategic planning and a thoughtful approach – even in real time – is crucial with out-of-the-box content. A wrong move on these platforms can do serious damage to a brand's reputation. Sharing a more personal point of view is important; coming across as rude or insensitive is a huge error. Having a sense of humor is important; an overly scripted approach won't seem authentic. Planning is important, but being behind on trends will make you look out of date. It's up to each brand to determine how casual it wants to be – and consider whether it's comfortable with some of the trade-offs. 

The future or passing fad?

That said, social media platform popularity and posting styles come and go. In the past decade, we've seen brands move from hopping on and off Facebook to the obsession with posting Twitter updates to aspirational Instagram curating to the flash in the pan that was Clubhouse. There's a good chance that this new casual style could quickly become yesterday's trend.

However, it doesn't mean that trying would be in vain. ‘Never before have customers been able to feel so connected to a brand,’ says Hailey. ‘You could build lifelong customers who are brand loyal even if it fizzles out.’

A version of this article was published in the Courier Weekly newsletter. For more useful stories, tips, tricks and simply good advice, sign up here.

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