Social Can Matter – But Narratives Shape our World

The Impact of Social Media on Brand Management

By John Ricketts and Darrell Berry

Social media doesn’t matter as much as everyone thinks it does. That’s about as close to a heretical statement as you can make in marketing today. Here is some more heresy: This is especially true when it comes to consumer engagement. What matters is the narrative around your brand and a real understanding of where the conversations that shape the narrative occur.

We learned this as the result of several years of analyzing narratives on the Internet. We do this by looking at a particular topic on the Internet and examining where the conversations on this topic are happening. We then take that information and develop a network graph of all the participants in the conversation — print media, bloggers, Twitter users, etc., and look at how they are connected. This is the topic’s narrative.

Narratives aren’t static. They change over time, sometimes by the minute and sometimes over days or weeks or longer. Our platform creates snapshots of a particular narrative at a given time. Each snap- shot includes different nodes representing blogs, websites, news articles, journalism, Twitter messages, etc. By tracking the narrative through many snapshots, we find that topic’s unique narrative graph. Graphs usually have different dominant nodes. Sometimes traditional media prevails, sometimes it’s two or three bloggers, and sometimes it’s just one or two people but in several different nodes.

There are really two types of narratives: the transient and the timeless. Timeless narratives are usually about topics where there is no objective answer — there is ongoing interest, and the discussion is deep and informed. They will continue over many years and include many different voices, some of which may dominate for awhile only to be replaced by completely different voices later on. These often play out in traditional media, commercial webpages, books, and academic articles, and may include the occasional blog and journalistic piece. Twitter and Facebook are frequently far less relevant to them. These narratives are often not easy to find in their full richness via a browser search.

Only about 5 percent of narratives are timeless, but they are the ones you must pay attention to. They form opinion. They are where the thought leaders are, where ideas evolve, and press and media draw their research. They are where there is authentic and deep engagement.

If brands can find the timeless narratives that relate to them and their values, they can improve their marketing effectiveness by becoming part of them. There may be many narratives that are relevant  a brand, or there may only be a few. There is little value in promoting a brand in a sparse narrative, as the campaign’s effort and budget could become quickly exhausted along the uphill battle to create engagement.

If a brand understands the makeup of a timeless narrative, it’s often surprisingly easy to have an impact on it. This could mean directly contributing to a debate; placing advertising in the right location; sponsoring the right conference or event; or even establishing working relationships with the right authors or bloggers. Every narrative is different, so every strategy is different.

Engagement doesn’t usually require spending a lot of money; it just requires being smart. Being smart means being aware of the entire narrative and all the contributors. Of course, if you do engage, you must continue tracking the narrative to quickly understand whether your engagement is effective.

The most difficult part of all of this is finding the relevant timeless narratives. While our platform can quickly come back with a narrative on nearly any topic, it isn’t necessarily the timeless one. Finding that narrative requires skill and thought to refine the search and get the proper results. For example, while doing work for a transport authority, we found the topic of “roads and freeways” — which the agency was very interested in — produced a very sparse narrative. But using “traffic congestion,” especially in a particular geographic area, revealed a rich, colorful narrative.

At its heart, this process is about understanding the full narrative that’s happening around your brand and engaging where engagement is already taking place. Occasionally, we do find the need to engage via social media, but more often than not, it’s the traditional sources that matter. Social media helps our engine track where engagement is, but as we might expect, social media hasn’t changed the fundamentals of brands themselves and what they stand for. Success still depends on being part of the conversations that matter. And our analysis shows there are often not many conversations that matter. It’s all about finding the timeless narratives and developing an engagement strategy for them.

John Ricketts and Darrell Berry are founders of communications analytics firm Significance Systems.


"Social Can Matter – But Narratives Shape our World?" John Ricketts and Darrell Berry. ANA Magazine. Spring 2014.

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