What You Say Versus What People Hear – A Simple Little Social Media Reminder

It has happened to all of us. We say something and it gets misinterpreted. Some 30 years ago, we began to see this with email communication. And now we see it even more problematic with social media.

The reality is that written and digital communication diminish (sometimes completely lose) the personality behind the sender. There is no inflection of voice and no body language being conveyed to complement the words being expressed. Do not discount the value lost.

Then there is complete stupidity with regards to the use of social media. One example is the Kenneth Cole debacle. During an up-rise in Cairo they tweeted – “Millions are in uproar in #Cairo. Rumor is they heard our new spring collection is now available online at URL -KC”. Another, maybe less known blunder was served by the hands of Walmart. Shortly after an earthquake struck Mexico and Walmart Mexico tweeted “Now we really made other stores shake with our prices.”

These examples are obvious poor attempts at being funny. Sometimes called snarky. Let me put it to you this way with regards to being snarky. If you feel that you do not have to appeal to an entire audience and you want to make some chuckle, feel free to be snarky. If you are a brand that wants to attract all, you need to be sensitive to all. Snarkiness rarely resonates with all. Snarkiness works for some people… people who determine, “I don’t care about the rest of the world. This is who I am.” If you are comfortable saying that, go for it. More power to you. (I have even felt this way at various stages in my life.) But brands do not have this luxury. And the voice of the brand should not as well.

Sometime back, I wrote an article “The Most Important Word for Marketing.” The article emphasized the importance of empathy – having a strong sensitivity for the feelings, thoughts, and/or attitudes of others. So being a strong social media brand communicator and engager is not just a simple matter of being snarky or not.

Earlier in my career, I often invoked the 24 hour rule on some of my email communications. That is, when I had something very important to say or I was addressing a controversial subject, I would write an email, save it, and then read it the next day to make sure the correspondence was of an appropriate tone. Unfortunately, we do not have that luxury in the digitally social world that is now. Timely communication and engagement are mandatory. Another issue is that our digital communication is brief and short on detail and explanation – often limited to 140 characters yet alone 140 words. So there are definite challenges.

While we may not have 24 hours to think it over, I still strongly suggest you take a few minutes, at least, and think before you hit the send button. Also, make your limited words count. Consider the following:

1) What is the intent of your communication? Is that what is actually written?
2) Think about how things will be received and heard as opposed to what you are writing and sending. This is often a fine line, but an imperative line that cannot be ignored.
3) Social media use by brands is not about selling, but rather about building relationships. The reality is that we are building relationships to eventually sell and build loyalty. So as you communicate your brand story, don’t think about what you are selling, think about what people are buying. Once again, a very fine line. What or how are people buying into your brand?
4) Given the evolution of a social world empowered by digital media, your brand really is not your brand. It is the people’s brand. Work to grow comfortable with this change and understand the ramifications.
5) Overall, be more astute to the existing and potential consumers of your brand and maybe just a little less about your company.

I do not think that anything I put forward here is earth shattering. Certainly you can read this and say yes, of course. But I cannot tell you how much I see this common sense fail in execution. Therefore, I feel it is necessary to run through a quick checklist that addresses the issues highlighted here before you hit the send button. It doesn’t take much time, but the quick confirmation will make your overall social media efforts drive stronger relationships and better measured results.

Also, remember what I stated upfront with regards to the shortcomings of digital communication … the lack of personal interaction. Thus, you must work harder to make your digital communication more humanistic, sincere, and real.

Make it Happen!
Social Steve



Filed under brand communication, social media, social media marketing, Social Steve, socialmedia, SocialSteve

9 responses to “What You Say Versus What People Hear – A Simple Little Social Media Reminder

  1. Marshal McLuhan, had said that the media is an extension of the human person, for example that the radio was an extension of our ears. Sometimes this makes me wonder, if McLuhan was still alive what would he consider social media as part of which body part.
    Leaving that aside, I must say that the idea you are posing regarding the misinterpretation of the message being given is not a new one and neither only related to convergent media. During the time Start Hall came up with the Encoding and Decoding Model, social media was not yet existent. It just show us how the problem of decoding the message which is being decoded by the marketer and communication people can be misinterpreted, this though is not exclusively because of the 140character we are using or the lack of vocal interaction, it can be lack of knowledge about the topic at hand, cultural background or just a simple selective exposure.
    I believe the examples both of Walmart and Kenneth Cole, are not misinterpretation of the message but rather a lack of knowledge of the effects of such a message can have on their public. Sensitive issues are not to be joked about, and they facilitated an online social crisis.

    • Tamara – thanks for the great input. The point I am emphasizing is that the “burden” should not be left to interpretation of the reader, but rather the “burden” should be placed on the communicator. The communicator MUST have empathy of the audience they are speaking to.

      Appreciate your input! Great points.


  2. Jim Matorin

    Steve: Of course = validation. I always enjoy reading articles that validate best business practices. I always count to ten as a communicator.

  3. Mark Longbottom

    I like the 24 hour rule or counting to ten but I’m inpatient, what most business people seem to forget to do is to actually talk. Yes add a little more to the interpretation but like you say be real be personable and for many come out from beneath the trees it’s not so scary.

    If you get it wrong put your hands up and admit it too don’t go back into hiding, because those people who shout loud they’ll fill the gaps. Loud isn’t good either, just listen and talk and do things like you would have when talking with Mark Twain or anyone else back then. No magic, myth or mystery jusyt more people.

    • Thanks Mark – be real- yes! But I also think a few seconds of patience makes a big difference.

      Best, Steve

      • Mark Longbottom

        Absolutely Steve, many times being real can cover the patient period. Like using the postal service 30 years ago I would be real there as I am here. Then though to write someone in New York and get an answer and then respond so they could see it would take up to 12 days. Life moves on I was happy then even happier now, although it took me all day to read your article. I feel there is so much more scope for interaction once a lot of people see that the internet is interactive for them.

        I will be patient though, now using a mac book and I have spell check – the world changes again for me. Still i have only owned computers for 10 years….

  4. Bravo Steve. I can count a few times where when, even chiming-in on an educational thread, my words get misconstrued – OR even better, emailing my girlfriend overseas (not to mention the Russian-to-English translation gap) when the other party completely misconstrues the meaning or intent of my digi-comm.

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