The internet trolls ruined social media, but here's how brands and charities can reclaim it

Advertising used to be simple. Brands placed ads in print and on billboards, or maybe they’d buy airtime to run television commercials.

The internet made everything more complicated. Brands had to create new types of advertising, and the popularity of social media meant many firms felt the need to be involved and create profiles in order to engage with customers.

But recent events have called this assumption into question. Internet trolls and online bullying have been problems for years, and with the spread of fake news, plus the rise of bots masquerading as real accounts, social media has started to feel like a hostile, less trustworthy space.

Then there are the recent scandals, such as Cambridge Analytica harvesting Facebook users’ data, undermining trust in the safety of personal information.

As a result, some brands are stepping away from social media altogether. Pub chain Wetherspoons recently made headlines by announcing that it was shutting down its social media channels, and others have been urged to follow suit.

So with such a backlash underway, does social media have any value?

“Without doubt,” says Vinay Nair, chief executive of consultancy Lightful.

“There are lots of organisations using social media really well. We’re seeing a resurgence by great causes, whether it’s raising awareness of male suicide rates and other taboo subjects, or big mainstream movements like #MeToo, or the recent abortion referendum in Ireland. Understanding how social media can be used as a ‘new power’ is really powerful.”

Helping the people who are helping others
Nair founded Lightful in 2014 with Carlos Miranda and Johnny Murnane, to work with charities and social enterprises. Prior to this, Nair had spent a decade spent working in the City with JP Morgan, but stepped away in 2009 to explore the social sector, and see how finance, technology, and business could produce more impact.

“I was traipsing up and down the country, meeting amazing social enterprises with brilliant stories to tell. Myself, Carlos, and Johnny were reflecting on how we were all working in the social sector, meeting these great organisations, but they’re just being drowned in the noise, and they didn’t have the time, resources, and money to amplify their voice.”

The startup began as an agency working with medium-sized charities. Lightful then productised its software to create a digital platform that helps organisations to plan projects, content, and campaigns for social media.

“We realised that there was a real opportunity here to help organisations have a digital hub where they can strengthen their online community, and raise more funds. Lightful’s core mission is to strengthen relationships between good people and great causes.”

Having worked with hundreds of organisations, and seen digital campaigns generate millions of impressions, Nair is a firm believer that social media can still be an effective tool – one that is becoming essential.

“We’ve see it in action; we see these organisations that are giving amazing experiences to their supporters, and connecting them to the impact of their work, using social media as marketing. Whereas door-to-door fundraising, or leaflets that fall on people’s doormats, those forms of fundraising are under pressure and feel quite analogue; we’re used to more digital engagement in the rest of our interactions.”

Leading the fightback
Over time, Lightful grew concerned about the negative connotations being attached to social media, as well as trolls and “haters”. The company launched a Twitter campaign in February called #ReclaimSocial to promote the medium, and prompt users to call out movements and people who were a positive influence.

The hashtag has generated more than 19m impressions since launch.

“It was so wonderful seeing all this engagement. Injecting that bit of positivity was really great,” adds Nair.

For brands also wishing to reclaim social media, Nair explains what they can start doing differently. One key element is to build their digital presence with a sense of authenticity.

“The moment you start doing it because you’re trying to compete with Innocent or Paddy Power, you’re on a hiding to nothing. You need to be authentic in how you engage on social. Getting user-generated content is one of the best things you can do,” he adds.

Brands should also avoid blunt calls to action – “buy our product” or “donate to us” – and instead engage with the community. Nair suggests a more inclusive call to action might be sharing a petition for people to sign.

“It isn’t about going viral, it’s about substantive engagement and support. If you can then close the loop and raise money, and give feedback on where the money goes, that creates a positive feedback loop, which I think is key.”

As well as being authentic, brands must listen, and tell stories. First, by listening to what’s being said on social media, brands can insert themselves into the conversation appropriately – whether that’s with a playful message, or something more meaningful.

“The second bit is around storytelling – you don’t want to just broadcast the same message repeatedly, you want to take people on a journey with social media.”

Engagement is also crucial: brands can boost their authenticity by responding to what people are actually saying, which also strengthens connections with their community.

Armed with these tips, now’s the time to go and #reclaim social media.