Avoiding Culture Shock

Posted by Kate Jurras on Mon, Mar 5, 2012

ryan evans resized 600This post is part of our UX and design blog series. Throughout the month of March we'll be featuring posts from some of Boston's most expert thought leaders, answering these questions: "How do you see the field of UX/design changing in the new technology landscape? What’s most important to know now?” This post is by Ryan Evans, Director of Experience Design at Corey McPherson Nash. Ryan acts as an advocate for users and their goals. His clients include Visible Measures, Phillips Exeter Academy, Museum of Science Boston, Harvard Business School, and Biogen Idec.

Recently my wife took me out to a celebratory birthday dinner in Boston's Chinatown with about a dozen friends. We took over fifty photos to remember the gathering and wanted to share them online with the people who were there and with those who couldn't make it.

Ryan Evans Pinterest resized 600Now I was at a decision point - "Where do I post my photos online?" I've got accounts on Facebook, Flickr, Google+, Instagram, Pinterest, Path and several other social networks. Which one do I choose? Or do I choose all of them?

Pinterest didn't feel right. Everyone knows Pinterest is the place to find and pin great examples of cooking, design and wedding planning. (Pinterest article here!) Birthday snapshots just don't feel right "pinned". Instagram similarly seemed like a bad fit. All of my friends on Instagram like to post clever photos with artsy filters (and it's not just my friends). Again, birthday snapshots didn't feel right.

I ended up posting my photos on Facebook. My friends were there just like most of the other channels I subscribe to. But more importantly, the culture of content and engagement on Facebook is amenable to a photo album of birthday party snapshots.

Why is this? Every social media channel has a governing culture whether we are aware of it or not. Sometimes the culture is explicitly stated by the makers of the channel. Sometimes it is implicit, an unwritten code the grows organically out of users' postings. We all know that LinkedIn is all about business, that Path is for close friends and family and that Google+ seems to be trending towards longer blog-like posts and a podium for thought leaders.

So, what does this mean for us as marketers? It means that we need to clearly understand each social media channel's culture before we begin to develop a social media strategy. Before we write a single post or take a single photo we need to understand not only where our target audience is hanging out, but what types of content and engagement they are promoting through the channel.

There are three important aspects of social media culture that you need to understand:

  • Who is there? - A topic familiar to most marketers: Is our audience using and engaging through the channel we are targeting?
  • What are they posting? - Users gravitate to different channels for different types of content. Instagram leans towards the artsy side and self-generated content. Pinterest is synonymous with lifestyle and design. LinkedIn and Google+ are the place to go for big ideas.
  • How are they engaging? - Users engage in different ways on different channels, developing conversations with each other and with brands that are unique to the platform. Instagram's culture and platform invites user submissions, sometimes categorized via hashtags. Pinterest makes it easy to share and reshare content through pinning. And Google+ is more about longer, almost blog-like written pieces.

Social media strategy will be most effective when we take advantage of the user-driven culture and are sensitive to the ways that users engage. This doesn't mean that you shouldn't buck against the culture. Your brand or strategy may very well stand out if you engage with users in a way that is outside the expected. This can often be a good way to grab users' attention, but may not be a long-term strategy for sustained success.

One last lesson: Recently several big brands including Gamestop, Nordstrom and J.C. Penny have shuttered their storefronts on Facebook, some only a few months after launch. The storefronts were, in most cases, full featured and provided access to the retailers' full catalog, but users refused to buy through these channels, in part because of a culture mismatch. Facebook wasn't where they went to shop online. We all need to know social media's cultural landscape before we jump in with both feet with eyes set on success.