Major social media platforms are truly a global community. If the Twitter Year in Review and YouTube’s 2016 Rewind video are any indication, this community connects on big issues like social change, elections, and human rights – but also undeniably fun carpool karaoke videos. 2016 has also shown just how powerful brands can be on social media, and that there’s right and wrong ways to create or jump on digital trends.
Twitter’s top hashtag this year was #Rio2016. Even in digital form, humans enjoy coming together for a common cause, and the friendly, global competition is always a time for us to consider how much we have in common with our neighbors around the world. #BlackLivesMatter was also among the top ten hashtags this year, along with #Election2016 and #Brexit. While all of these hashtags certainly had positive and negative tweets, their popularity shows that Twitter isn’t just a time-waster. The third most re-tweeted post this year came from Hilary Clinton’s account during her election concession speech. Social media channels continue to be a place where important discussions happen, and information on major events is distributed.
"To all the little girls watching…never doubt that you are valuable and powerful & deserving of every chance & opportunity in the world."
— Hillary Clinton (@HillaryClinton) November 9, 2016
The top hashtags highlight other topics social users like to connect on, including a big focus on entertainment. Number ten was #GameofThrones, where multitudes of the show’s avid fans theorized and commiserated together (often accompanied with #HoldtheDoor and a crying emoji). #RIP was a trending hashtag several times this year as the world mourned the loss of several beloved celebrities including Prince, David Bowie, and Muhammad Ali. The #Oscars was a popular event on social, and an example of brands falling over themselves to jump on a trending hashtag to boost impressions without putting enough thought into their content. Total Beauty, a fashion site, was one of the worst offenders when they misidentified Whoopi Goldberg as Oprah in a tweet during the red carpet pre-show.
Despite slip ups, brands in 2016 saw the value of reaching out to the social media community and connecting with them where they “live.” Brands are the most dominant “community” on YouTube according to The Verge, and produced most of the platform’s top videos this year. Some of the most viewed videos mirror the Twitter trends – there’s Donald Trump’s interview on John Oliver tonight and a pre-Olympics video by Nike featuring some of soccer’s biggest stars. But the entertainment category wins out on YouTube, with Adele’s carpool karaoke version of “Hello” racking up an amazing 135 million views. The YouTube Rewind video references many of the similarly goofy viral videos that were popular this year.
So, what can brands learn from this? First and foremost, companies need to be very careful about using trending hashtags. Plenty of brands could have a good tie in to #Rio2016, but few if any would have an even remotely appropriate reason to use the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag. Social media is often a place for silliness, but serious conversations are happening on these platforms that most brands should shy away from.
Second, “virality” isn’t a strategy. Some of this year’s trends make sense, and some don’t. There’s not one type of content that rules on YouTube. Although none of his videos were the top ten most viewed, PewDiePie was the highest paid YouTuber this year, bringing in $15 million from his video gameplay channel. His content wasn’t always the most viral, but it brings in money. Brands shooting to be a viral sensation will likely be disappointed.
Lastly, social media users love cat videos, but they also highly value authenticity. We’re facing what might be called a “post-truth” world, and the digital community wants to be engaged with in an authentic, personalized manner more than ever. Every trend isn’t right for every brand, but there are ways companies can join the conversations in a realistic an appropriate manner. It takes a bit of research and understanding that social media is a powerful tool, but the rewards can be much longer lasting than those from a one-time viral video.