How to not be embarrassing on social media

embarrassed laughing woman

Millennials. Those tricky, tricky millennials. What are they thinking? What do they want? Are they leaving Facebook? Are they still using emojis? If your company is using social media, chances are you’re interested in having better relations with the digital natives that are slowly taking over the world, one tweet at a time. And though I hate to break it to you, it’s not that hard to make a faux pas and become the laughing stock of the internet. The good news is that I, a culturally fluent, bona fide youth, am here to give you the map to avoiding that fate. These are the top do’s and don’t’s of commercial social media.

Don’t try too hard

Millennials are pretty smart. Yes, our overabundance of screen time has probably fried quite a few of our brain cells, but we have a keen nose for when we’re being pandered to. This is a pitfall that snared Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign when she sought to woo young voters by doing the nae nae or asking students to describe their loan debt feelings in three emojis or less.

Hillary Clinton two hand waving

A daring attempt at a double nae nae?

These gestures definitely got attention, but not in a good way. For the portion of millennials who already regarded Clinton as an outsider and a non-ally, these attempts at speaking the youth language only highlighted the size of the rift. After all, many millennials are already chafing under a societal tendency to patronize us by reducing the entirety of our culture to just the silly things we do on the internet, like using emojis. To have a politician with power over the many real issues in our lives address us on that level as if it was all we could relate to struck many as condescending and frustrating.

Have a brand and stick to it

This isn’t to say that memes, slang, and pop culture can never be used to good effect in corporate social media campaigns. The issue is to know your brand, and have a social media voice that is appropriate and consistent.

There are four types of commercial social media presence in terms of internet-savvy content. You can be old-fashioned, genuinely fluent, successfully ironic, or embarrassing. It is important to be self-aware of which of these your company can pull off. There is no way to generalize the answer to this; it depends on a whole network of factors.

For example, as explained above, Hillary Clinton’s Twitter efforts fall into the “embarrassing” category. Embarrassing content reduces credibility, alienates younger audiences and does nothing for older audiences, making it a loss all around. Hillary Clinton’s campaign was the sort of entity that would never be able to use youth-speak convincingly or naturally, and that already lacked widespread trust among young people. If these two factors apply to you (and if you have to ask if you can use youth-speak convincingly, you probably can’t), it’s best to keep your social media presence straight-laced and old-school. Just tweet and post like a normal, professional adult. If you’re a big oil company, an expensive student loans provider, or a napkin manufacturer, your safest bet for jiving with the kids is to not do it. You’ll be either stonily ignored or ridiculed and trusted even less.

The other end of the spectrum is the genuinely fluent social media presence. This style calls for a social media manager who is, well, genuinely fluent. When it comes to social media, there’s really no substitute for hiring someone who spends a lot of their free time immersed in the internet. It’s like any other language: just knowing the words isn’t the same as mastering the nuance and the cultural context.


Achieving the coveted genuinely fluent social media voice also depends somewhat on what you’re selling. If young people aren’t obviously the main market for your product or service, a meme-happy, slang-heavy social media feed is going to be a little odd no matter how well it’s executed. However, if you have talented employees and millennials don’t actively dislike you, there is a fourth possibility open to you: irony. And this is where true corporate social media legends are made. To illustrate, I take you to the reigning champions: Denny’s.

A few years ago, Denny’s was a generic, mostly forgotten diner super-chain. Most people had probably stopped in a Denny’s at least once on a road trip or late-night snack run, but for the most part, it was afloat in irrelevance. Nobody was loyal to Denny’s. Nobody made a point of going there.

Then Denny’s got a Twitter and a Tumblr and handed the passwords over to some absurdist, nihilist weirdos. The accounts are apparently managed by a professional ad agency, and while the chain’s 370,000-strong Twitter following and massive Tumblr fanbase might not know that detail, they have no illusions that Denny’s is really “one of them.” But this is exactly what makes the phenomenon so popular. Denny’s has struck a special chord of cognitive dissonance, a unique and powerful comedy. Everything about it is bizarre and surreal. But bizarre and surreal is the language of the internet and its devotees. And thus, against all odds, trust is born.

Again, self-knowledge is vital here. Young people don’t want their presidential candidates to be ironic. And not everybody can be Denny’s. But the larger point here is that hiring a good social media manager can take you far even if your brand isn’t naturally “cool.” The trick is harnessing irony.

Engage with individuals

People love being touched by fame. And something about public social media accounts has an aura of celebrity, whether your company is multinational or indie and local. So never underestimate the opportunity of an individual engaging with you on social media.

If someone comments on a Facebook post, respond. If someone mentions you in a tweet, retweet it. Chances are they’ll be surprised and happy, no matter how little they cared about you before. Interacting goes a long way to humanizing a brand and building good will. It shows that your social media is run by actual humans, not some kind of robot, which leads to the sense that your whole company is, in fact, run by humans. Maybe that should be obvious, but it’s easy for the business world to feel monolithic. Your replies don’t have to sound like perfect, polished corporate form letters, either. Stay courteous, of course, but let your social media managers sound like real people. It will be appreciated.

Think of all the ways it could go wrong

The upcoming movie Ghost in the Shell, an anime (Japanese cartoon) adaptation starring Scarlett Johansson, had a Twitter snafu recently. The movie, while eagerly anticipated by some, is also facing widespread criticism for casting the white Johansson as the Japanese protagonist instead of hiring a Japanese actress. The promotional Twitter for the film tried to start the hashtag #IAmMajor, referring to the protagonist, and let the public tweet pictures with their own text substituted in. The idea was to raise a buzz of innocuous personal statements, like “I Am Strong” or perhaps “I Am Excited to Buy a Ticket to Ghost in the Shell.” What they got, however, was a lot of clever sass about whitewashing.

Don’t get me wrong— people don’t have to interact with your content exactly as intended for it to be effective. The internet will run with any joke it can get its hands on, but sometimes that’s okay. You may want as many eyes on your brand as possible. Just be sure you’ve thought it through. If you need another example of victims of poor forethought, check out the tragic rise and fall of Microsoft’s AI Twitter bot, which Twitter quickly programmed into a racist, fascist PR disaster. Before posting anything, ask “what is the worst place someone could take this?” and be prepared for it to be taken there. If the worst case scenario is too bad, steer clear altogether.

The internet is a beautiful, confused wilderness. Its culture shifts and mutates every day, and it has no surefire paths to any goal. However, those of us who spend a lot (way too much) of our time there know certain common-sense guidelines to get along smoothly. If you follow these rules of thumb, you can’t go too wrong, and if you do well enough, it could be a real game changer. May the retweets be ever in your favor.

Social media marketing is a minefield of faux pas, not least when you’re managing pages in multiple languages. VeraContent takes out the guesswork for its multilingual social media clients by publishing consistently high-quality content adapted to the language and culture of the audience. 

Tova Seltzer
A lifelong writer, poet, and seeker of just the right words, Tova is excited to be spending time abroad immersed in Spanish, although she misses the breakfast scene back in Washington, D.C.
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