We're (Quietly) in the Fourth Revolution of Social Voice

How far we've come, and where we're headed next

When it comes to social voice, we're a long way from Shaquille O'Neal standing on a Phoenix, Arizona, street corner, handing out tickets to games or tweeting to fans that the first person to find and touch him gets a pair. 

The Big Aristotle did this back in 2008, letting Shaq's huge personality shine through on the "new" microblogging platform, Twitter. This was Social Voice 1.0, when celebrities like Shaq and Ashton Kutcher joined the platform, became must-follows, and dramatically expanded their personal following.

Naturally, brands wanted in, and community managers were born. Ever since brands arrived to the party with strategies for one-upping each other, we've cycled through four eras of the evolving social voice. Nathan Allebach, aka the voice of Steak-umm on Twitter, gave us a detailed chronicle of Brand Twitter and the formulaic rise to virality. But when brands become self aware, where do the social media managers venture next?

To predict that, we have to look back. 

After Shaq came the darkness. Literally. In the third quarter of Super Bowl XLVII in 2013, well, we all know the story. The lights went out at the Superdome. Oreo—courtesy of a 15-person social team consisting of copywriters, artists and a strategist—came through with one perfect tweet:

Tens of thousands of impressions, 15,000 retweets and 20,000 Facebook likes later, Oreo won Super Bowl marketing yada yada yada. The reason we all ate it up was because it's what all social media managers wanted to do at that point—flawless real-time commentary—but couldn't because we were bogged down with creative approvals, leaving no space for on-the-fly content.

This was Social Voice 2.0—brands reacting quickly, smartly and amusingly to real-world events, breaking through the ever-louder social noise to capture a small section of the zeitgeist. Entire real-time marketing departments were built and eventually crumbled during this era. 

Fast-forward a bit and you get Social Voice 3.0, where brand accounts became self-actualizing. 

The result? Wendy's and Mr. Peanut cheekily negging each other, their personas shining through on social. These brand voices were cute for a bit, but they quickly grew tiresome. When Sunny D tweeted "I can't do this anymore" in reference to last year's Super Bowl, and everyone from MoonPie and UberEats to Pop-Tarts and Nutella chimed in, this Twitter user summed it up and gave us this hot take: 

So, moving on: Today, we're into Social Voice 4.0. It's a mix-up of what's come before to create stronger brand identities that fuel even longer-term connections with fans. 

And the fans are into it. Take Hulu's popular first season hit, PEN15. The socials personify the characters, and the recipe works because fans get what they want—a peek behind the curtain.

Breaking the fourth wall is the access we expect now. We all want to be in on the joke. This new era is first-person, self-aware, and yes, #relatable, but with a pinch of wryness that winks and says: We're all on the same page here. Social isn't for selling, and brands aren't fooling us with that anymore. But if they can tap into the wider audience's desire for a little social fun, then they're almost always going to make a connection. 

Where are we going from here?

Back to the beginning, actually, which is all about access. It won't be Shaq posting by himself—social media's too evolved for that to work, or even be safe—but it's a way for fans and consumers to see exclusive content. It's about having the type of access to people that we've never had before in an authentic way. 

Access and authenticity are the recipe for success. When it comes to media and entertainment brands, the ones that continue to provide that value—great stories and great creators—are the ones that are winning. Social voice is the conduit to pull people into the "world" of the brand. 

We're going to see this more and more as social platforms develop and refine tools to connect fans with who and what they care about most. Even Instagram's new chat sticker now allows the first 30 people to respond to enter a group DM for exclusive access to a director or star. That's one-to-one or one-to-few access that can create buzz and create loyalty in a safe, controlled setting. 

The revolution might be televised. It might not be. Either way, keep scrolling and ... please RT.

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Sean Lynam
Sean Lynam is director of marketing at Glow, managing strategic executions, including campaigns for HBO, Spotify, YouTube, AMC+, and TBS.

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