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The Future of Social Content Is in The Past

James Dowd,

The old adage goes: “Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

But, sometimes, those who don’t learn from history are doomed to not even be able to repeat it, because they’re ignorant about what’s even possible. 

Those who do learn from their mistakes are the innovators. They take from the past – from previous models of success and growth – and apply frameworks, structures, and processes in new, successful ways.

And, if you’re looking to the future, you’re likely seeing the past creep in, informing a new history, and it’s happening right now in the content marketing space. It’s about the ways in which brands are leveraging a dying, or nearly dead, system to grow their audiences through content. It’s a new form of branded social media content, inspired by the decades-old method of producing TV shows – before streaming changed everything.

Branded Social – Making Content With a Brand In It

As we evolve beyond typical ads (print, TV, radio) — thanks to short attention spans, banner blindness, and shamelessly bad advertising and marketing — branded content gives marketers more room to explore & play while ultimately driving audiences to the brand. Whether we’re making social content, videos, or podcasts, branded content opens up our industry to make more, connect more, educate more, entertain more, and, ultimately, sell more.

But, while brands chase an audience through social content, many make the mistake of thinking they are singular, meaning they’re like a TV show — one they believe everyone wants to watch despite there being little variation from day to day, week to week, post to post.

They believe they’ve done their part by making and sharing the “show” (or reel, or post, or TikTok, or YouTube video). Now it’s time for the audience to quietly sit down and watch.

They make that singular, one-dimensional “TV show” for every single person with eyeballs and ears – a show where no joke offends and no reference goes over a head. And now they repeat it, over and over. It’s one big product placement in the same format, with the same character gags, same sets, and same stories, over and over and over. And then they wonder why no one is watching.

But, this is where brands think small. They are, in fact, not a TV show – they’re the entire TV network!

The History of TV Brands & Programming

Television network brands, such as CBS or NBC, obviously aim to create popular and engaging TV shows that attract large audiences. The greater the audience, the greater advertisers will spend to be seen by those audiences. 

But, behind the business is the creation. The process of selecting and producing TV shows is complex, involving a mix of creative decision-making and data analysis. It’s not just about having a good idea for a show, but about understanding the needs and wants of the target audience and making sure the programming produced will continuously appeal to them. (Sound familiar, marketers?)

Each network has a core brand, or positioning, based on a core audience. CBS, for example, generally targets older folks, while FOX targets younger audiences. Or they focus on who wants what, like TBS being comedy and TNT being drama and sports. Their brand purpose and audience desire dictate the type of content they produce. FOX wouldn’t produce NCIS and CBS wouldn’t produce Family Guy. 

Once they release content, TV networks rely on ratings to help determine which shows will be successful and which will be canceled. The higher the ratings, the more likely it is that a show will be renewed for another season. Winners stay, losers go. 
Most importantly, broadcast networks don’t depend on one single show to bring in all their viewers. They launch a range of content in different styles and themes — even breaking outside their target audience at different times — and then test and iterate until they find a winning formula. They then use this formula to produce more content and let the audience decide what’s right for them; not always assuming what people like and want.

But, even more importantly, they make content before all that that no one sees! They continually try and fail. They buy and make pilots they never use. They don’t ask for the ROI of trying; they just keep creating. They’ve built a machine around content creation that learns from and speaks to the world. And, sometimes, what comes out is better. If it wasn’t, we wouldn’t keep watching, and advertisers wouldn’t keep spending.

The Future of Brand Social Content is the Past

When it comes to a brand’s social content, the process is similar. Brands need to understand their target audience(s) and create content that will appeal to them. They also need to be willing to test and iterate until they find a formula that works. This means creating a range of content in different styles and themes and being willing to make changes based on feedback from their audience – no longer just being a singular TV show.

Brands should be like TV networks – fluid machines of content creation, constantly buying, making, testing, launching, canceling, and starting over. 

In this model, failure is forward momentum; bad content informs good content.

Every podcast, YouTube upload, or reel can be a different pilot episode to actually put in front of audiences because you don’t truly know what people want until they get a taste. That means less idea & review churn and more making efforts to connect with new ideas. It also means less organic content that is just a blunt, shameless sell of their product – not actually engaging content.

Canadian chocolate company Mid-Day Squares is one brand that has successfully used this approach. They emulate a TV network, providing a full range of social content themes that constantly evolve with trends and consumer demand, while still keeping their core audience engaged and hungry for more. By focusing on their core brand, and audience response, and then developing further content that appeals to them, Mid-Day Squares has been able to create a lineup of “shows” that consistently perform well – even if that show is merely a single, deeply-authentic IG reel about entrepreneurship that speaks to inspiring and fellow entrepreneurs like themselves, followed by a hilarious video of the founders pretending their new album is dropping. Because they are authentic and fun across programming, people tune in.

Another, conveniently, from the Great White North is from TSN – Canada’s version of ESPN. Facing cord-cutting Millennials and Gen’Z’ers ruining everything, TSN launched BarDown, a hockey-based sub-brand to test content for new audiences. Launched by a TV network, they took on a network mentality by letting creators create – everything from listicles and  YouTube quizzes to 24-hour video game streams – and then they tested & learned by seeing what audiences took to. These creators were TSN staffers born & bred in the world of branded content creation, so they created content, and then views, likes, follows, and comments proved their ability to connect and elevate the brand. If you were a TSN exec, it would be easy to see why some of their cheap, fast, goofy content was wrong for the brand. But, the response proved them wrong. Fans flocked to BarDown and its content. Now, TSN is the Empire and BarDown is the scrappy Rebels, meaning two audiences – older vs younger – each getting “their” content from “their” network, yet it’s actually all one big brand. Brilliant.

So, let’s ditch the “if we make it, they will come” mentality regarding branded content. Instead, let’s take a cue from broadcast networks and create a range of “shows” that speak to our audiences. Let’s trust creators, bring more to life with less all-too-soon critique, then test and iterate with audiences, canceling what’s bad and exploring what’s good, until we find the right formula…for now. Let’s be daring and innovative – never afraid to make something bad.

By doing this, we can create a dynamic lineup of “shows” that cater to our audience’s changing demands while keeping them ever-intrigued – loyal viewers, always coming back for more.

That’s the future of your brand’s social content – the past.