Can YOU Fix The Big Brand Personality Problem?


At Copyblogger, Dan Zarrella says it’s the lack of calls to action that are stalling your social media strategy.

Eh. Here at Outspoken Media, I disagree.

I don’t argue that social marketers need to develop better calls to action. They absolutely do. But I don’t think I’d call that the biggest killer to most brands social media strategy. What’s killing you in social media is that you’re about as interesting as watching paint dry.

Actually, you’re less interesting than watching paint dry. Yeah, I said. And now you have to fix it because it basically means your brand sucks.

Your brand + no personality = social media suicide.

Ian Sohn had a great piece Monday about The Personality Paradox that I really enjoyed. In the article, Ian talks about the situation that exists where big brands possess teeny, tiny personalities online. Ian says that where small business owners have the ability to shake every hand and respond faster, larger businesses can’t. They often find themselves with their hands tied, unable to say anything in fear of offending, getting yelled at by legal or having to abide by strict, super-boring protocols.

I don’t care how big your brand is, you need to get over that. You need to act small because that’s what attracts people.

Want to see it in action?

You may have heard that French actor Gerard Depardieu urinated in the aisle of a plane this week. I know, it was totally classy. While the tantrum itself wasn’t that interesting, what was interesting (and impressive) was CityJet’s reaction to what happened. Instead of hiding in their corporate turtle shell or rocking back and forth in a bunker, they responded.

Like humans.

And what was our reaction to their reaction? We love them! We want to go grab a beer with them! We love that they have a sense of humor and that they’re not afraid to poke fun at odd situations. We love that they went there.

You need to get over your fear and “go there”, as well.

The trouble with instructing brands (or, really, anyone) on how to be more personable is that personality tends to be like good looks or a sense of humor – you either have it or you don’t. It’s difficult to teach. However, there are a few ways of thinking you can adopt to help accentuate the personality your momma gave you.

You’ll find four below.

1. Create a Character

Last week Brian Clark let you in on a little secret – people don’t want to know the real you. Don’t cry, it’s nothing personal. It’s just that the real you is a little ripe. You come with baggage and drama and crap not even your mother wants to deal with.

Your customers want the best version of you. The version of you that resembles who they want to be – fitter, taller, smarter, has better sex. It’s your job, as a marketer, to be that person. And that’s why you need to create a character to represent you and your brand in social media.

Now before you go wagging your “authenticity” fingers at me, realize that you’re still being authentic. The character you’re creating is going to be based off yourself. It is your real traits, slightly heightened. You know how people tend to like you a little bit better when you’re drunk?

Same concept.

Create a character that exudes who your customers want to be. Taking on his identify will also give you some distance so that you can have more fun, take some chances, and maybe let loose in the way the “real you” can’t do.

2. Act Small

It’s a lot easier to respond to Twitter replies when you only get a handful. I understand that. But that doesn’t mean you can’t act small when you do reply. Or that you can’t act small with the way you speak to your community, talking to them like you would a friend instead of a number in your system’s database.

I was asked earlier this week if the colloquial, laid back tone that I take in my blogging and in social media ever “gets me in trouble” with people. The answer is no. I’ve found that people like being spoken to like humans. That the conversational tone allows us to do just that – have a conversation. Which is the point of engaging in social media to begin with. If you’re not the type who can let down your guard and just talk to people then my advice would be to hire someone who can because it’s small thinking that breeds social media success. Those without people skills need not apply.

3. Look Small

Most of the unfunny people I know are unfunny because they try too hard. They go for the big elaborate joke instead of using what’s right in front of them. I wouldn’t eat a Skittles candy if you paid me but I liked Skittles brand on Facebook because they’re the masters of small. They don’t do a lot of huge contests to get fans or use elaborate techniques – they’re just silly. And through their silliness, they connect with people. And that’s why it works.

If you’re looking to inject personality into your social media personality, look smaller. It’s the reason that lunch tweets and cat tweets are welcomed by most users. We like the little stuff. That’s what we connect over.

4. Realize You Are Not Curing Cancer (unless you are)

Amber Naslund had a fantastic post recently where she reminded people that social media is serious business, lightly making fun of all the people who attempt social media with the same seriousness they’d use while trying to dismantle a bomb that was strapped to their mother’s chest.

Dude. Lighten up.

Yes, every tweet that you send out represents your company and speaks on behalf of your brand but…we’re still talking about Twitter. We’re talking about people talking to people. It’s not life or death here. We can make jokes. We can point out the obvious funny. We can use smiley faces and exclamation points and sometimes tweet about how delicious our tacos are. These little spice of life moments are what allow humans to connect to other humans. They give you depth. Don’t be afraid of them.

Because social media requires us to act small and carry a friendly stick, we associate it with being easy. But the truth is, most people have a difficult time acting like a person in front of a living, breathing, ready-to-pounce audience.

If you had to give a brand advice on how to loosen the h– how to develop a bigger personality online, what advice would you give them? What do you want to see?

Your Comments

  • Jon DiPietro

    May I suggest a fifth commandment? Stop talking about yourself!

    Brands – especially big brands – are too accustomed to the outbound model of communication where they incessantly harp on how awesome their product is, how much market share they just gained, the new customers they signed on, etc… Me, me, me, blah, blah, blah.

    In addition to all of your great suggestions, stop talking about yourself and talk about stuff your audience/customers will find interesting and engaging.

    And I think suggestion #4 is your best. Stop taking this all so seriously.

  • Seth

    Jon, I think you nailed it right there. It’s about listening and communicating, not broadcasting, no matter if you act “big” or “small”.

  • Dan Zarrella

    Lisa, fun post, but do you have any real, empirical data to back this up or are you just making stuff up and guessing?

    • Lisa Barone

      Do I have any data to back up my opinion that most brands suffer from a major personality problem online? Just my 3-4 years running profitable social media campaigns for clients and my experience advising them before that.

      [Hopefully that didn’t come off as condescending as your comment was to me.]

      • DJ Waldow

        *Very* fun post. What I love most about this post is that you wrote like a human. I could relate to that, being human myself.

        Dan: I have to say, I’ve read many of your comments/tweets over the years and I often sense a defensive tone. I’m not sure why that’s the case. Odd. This comment, as Lisa pointed out, has a very condescending tone. Again, odd. Well, maybe odd is not the right word.

        I think it’s not only fair, but very very very okay for Lisa to disagree with your take in the Copyblogger guest post. And dude, give her a touch of credit. I think if you read her reply to you, you’ll see why.

      • Ryan

        Technically Dan, her 4 years experience IS “empirical” data since it means “information gained by observation”

        Now, if you had said “quantifiable” data – you may have a point.

        Not trying to be mean to Lisa at all. I’m 100% sure her experiences show what she claims, and that IS empirical – but I’m sure we’d all love to see quantifiable #’s that support her claims too. As to where she could acquire them, that’s a good question that I can’t figure out – and probably the reason why there aren’t any #’s here. So it looks like you’re stuck with just her experiences.

    • Jon DiPietro

      Hey Dan, nice snarky reply there, so here’s one for you: Do you have any real, empirical data to back up your (at best) weak and (at worst) misleading conclusions?

      As a rule, I don’t publicly undress people but arrogance combined with ignorance is a dangerous combination. You need to be taken down a couple of pegs.

      First, your self-assigned title of “Social Media Scientist” appears to be bogus. According to your LinkedIn profile, you have no educational or professional background in math, science or engineering. That’s not surprising because all of your “science” consists statistical observations, not designed experiments. That’s not science, it’s analysis. Big difference. Why is that important? Because controlled experiments are critical for isolating the variable you’re trying to observe. Otherwise, there are too many other differentiating factors that may prevent accurate conclusions. Obviously, I don’t know you from Adam so I could be wrong. Feel free to chronicle your scientific background and set me straight.

      Second, your methods are seriously flawed. I’ve read every one of your articles in the past year and have seen the following mistakes repeatedly:

      Mistake #1: Assuming Normal Distribution

      The vast majority of statistics that non-mathematicians use and understand are based on normal distributions. This is what people commonly understand as the “bell curve,” in which the majority of occurrences in a population are centered around a mean, and tail off more or less evenly on either side. Whenever you use a term like “average,” “mean,” or “standard deviation,” they must describe data in a random, normal distribution in order to be accurate. There are mathematical ways to deal with non-normal distributions, but they are rarely applied by the “weekend warriors.” There are two common fatal flaws that happen:

      * The data itself is not random. In fact, data is generally much less random than we think; especially if we’re talking about marketing data because human behavior is rarely truly random. But there are often situations in the physical world (like boundary conditions) that result in non-random distributions also.
      * The sampling is not random or not representative. There are numerous examples of this, including cherry-picking, small sample groups, placebos, etc… Garbage in, garbage out.

      I’ve seen that you’ve begun publishing statistical significance figures with some of your data, but (again) this number is only relevant for normally distributed data. I haven’t seen it, so I don’t know whether it is or not, but I would be surprised if it were.

      Mistake #2: Assuming Causality

      This is probably the most common (just a guess on my part) form of statistical abuse, and it comes in several different flavors:

      * Reverse causality: Most basketball players are tall. Therefore, playing basketball makes you tall.
      Or, if you prefer a marketing example: Most shared posts on Facebook contain word “x.” Therefore, word “x” makes your post more sharable.

      * Spurious relationship: Vodka and water gets you drunk. Scotch and water gets you drunk. Gin and water gets you drunk. Therefore, water causes intoxication, since it is the only common factor (alcohol is the hidden variable).
      Or, if you prefer a marketing example: Most Twitter re-tweets occur around 4PM. Therefore, people create better content in the afternoon.

      * Coincidence: Sales of ice cream increase in direct correlation with increases in drowning deaths. Therefore, ice cream causes drowning (it’s really the hot weather).
      Or, if you prefer a marketing example: The number of Facebook users has increased sharply during the same period iPod sales have exploded. Therefore, Facebook is responsible for the success of the iPod.

      Mistake #3: Gambler’s Fallacy

      The gambler’s fallacy is rooted in a misunderstanding of randomness. We feel that a distinctly non-random pattern increases the likelihood of a particular result. For example, if a roulette wheel lands on black eleven times in a row, we mistakenly believe the changes are greater that the next result will be red. The chances of a truly random outcome are always the same, regardless of previous outcomes.

      I’m just an engineer with a background in quality control systems, so I don’t consider myself an expert in statistical methods. I know enough to be dangerous, which is why I rarely use them to support conclusions. I’ve worked with many statistical experts over the years and one thing I learned is that making decisions based on flawed statistical analyses is more common than most people realize. In fact, I worked on a project in which one of the world’s largest beverage manufacturers (top two) had an entire warehouse full of soda pop turn into exploding grenades due to flawed statistical methods in the bottle manufacturing process. I’d hate to see businesses have social media strategies blowing up due to your flawed methodologies.

      I’ll take Lisa’s expertise and experience over your “data” any day, thanks. But then again, I’m not a scientist and I don’t hold any Guinness world records. What do I know?

      • Matt Ridings - @techguerilla


        Thank you. This fallacy of “I have statistics, therefore I have insight” has to stop. I don’t know which would disappoint me more, Dan *knowing* that what he’s saying is bunk but still saying it because it sells or him *not* knowing that it’s bunk. In either case, it pains me to see an organization that I respect(ed?) like Hubspot be diminished by this nonsense that progressively has been getting worse.


        p.s. – Lisa, great post.


    • Christopher

      For a social media guru, I think you really need to work on your social skills.

    • Amber Evans

      x + u(g-y)/45 = personality.
      I think she covered this in #4.

  • DJ Waldow

    Oh. And by the way …

    The trouble with instructing brands (or, really, anyone) on how to be more personable is that personality tends to be like good looks or a sense of humor – you either have it or you don’t.

    I could not agree more. Faking it only makes worse.

  • Tom Webster



    Also, a fourth: repeated data dredging:

    It’s time for the social media “industry” to catch up on consumer insights, I think. It isn’t “science vs. gut.” It’s science AND gut. One or the other is a false choice, and simplistic to a fault. Tracking clickstream behavior alone will NEVER get there. Lisa is dead on to call attention to the personality of a brand, which slavishly counting retweets will never get at.

  • Chris Miller

    Lisa! Surely you’d have expected for me to come in, authenticity finger-a-wagon. I also walked all the way down to Staryucks to get a 4 shot mocha, because, well, I need coffee to be a more pleasant version of myself. So this is my just-one-sip response. Brace yourself.

    Actually, I agree with you 100%.

    I wouldn’t have a year ago… but I learned the hard way. Thing is, apparently it’s true outside of the internetwebs as well. Your boyfriend might think it’s funny and a little cute that you’re a raging ball of unpleasantness before morning coffee, but when you’re going on a day trip and every coffee shop is closed or on the other side of the road, you have to suck it up and put on your not-severely-addicted-to-caffeine-character. We, as human beings, are equipped to play different roles in different situations.

    In a more real example – take Britney. All that drama and her music is still positive and wonderful.

    Now my finger is all disappointed about the wagon though, what else ya got?

    • Eoin Ó Riain

      May I be provocative here?
      You say: “I wouldn’t eat a Skittles candy if you paid me but I liked Skittles brand on Facebook because they’re the masters of small. They don’t do a lot of huge contests to get fans or use elaborate techniques – they’re just silly. And through their silliness, they connect with people. And that’s why it works.” (Point 3)

      But does it work?

      Leaving aside the fact that I’m not sure what Skittles Candy is, could it be that in your case this Skittles facebook page is a failure?

      I mean what is the page there for? People don’t pay money for the brand, that’s free on facebook. They pay money for the candy which you admit you wouldn’t eat even if they paid you for it! Why do they have a page on facebook? To sell candy or to have people have a gooey pleasant feeling about their brand.

      Or am I missing something here?

      • Lisa Barone

        You’re not missing anything and that’s a worthy point. Skittles isn’t going to win me over as a customer because I don’t enjoy that type of product. But for people who do like sucking on artificial fruit flavor — they’re not able to relate and engage with the brand in a new way, which, over time does have the potential to win people over or at least expose more people to, the Skittles name.

  • Salma Jafri


    How interesting that I should read this while working on a post called “Do you have a larger than life online persona” on how to emphasize your positive characteristics online.

    Also I love the “create a character” advice – make the brand into a living breathing person. I think the hardest part though is to find those people-persons you talk about who can then embody that character. Its kind of like acting, isnt it?

    So here’s my question to you: Do you think its better to have an experienced social media curator take on the brand’s character or do you believe its better to get someone who hasn’t already developed their online persona (a blank canvass as it were) and train them to develop the brand’s voice?

    Thanks in advance.


    • Lisa Barone

      You can look at it a bit like acting or you can look at it a bit like *marketing*. I tend to use the latter. It’s about putting on your best face for the job, which is something we tend to do on a daily basis without even realizing it. Think about it – you probably act different with loved ones than you do with colleagues, strangers, your boss, etc. We naturally adapt our mood and behaviors. It’s not much different.

      In regards to who is best to represent the brand – I think it depends. Best case scenario is that you’re able to find someone on your team who is able to sit down with the right people, decide who the brand is in social media, and then build interactions based upon that. That doesn’t mean you may not want to call in a social media company to help you craft that image or help you create a plan for how to best become it, but, ultimately, we like when there’s someone in house responsible for your success or failure.

  • Shane


    I love this article. It did, however, leave me with a few questions I want to ask. Do you think that “creating a character” depends on the business?

    Here’s why I ask. I have done a few posts now that show real “me” – – and I don’t hold back. Those are absolutely the most popular things I have done…and I get comments from people saying they love that it’s raw and real and wish more people would be this way with their business….

    So, I am conflicted. Will this damage my brand? Or will it help me? So far it’s creating authenticity and trust (from what I can tell).

    Love this article because it was both multidimensional and created thought :)

    • Lisa Barone

      For me, it doesn’t depend on the business. I think where things get confused is when people heard the word “character” they take that to mean that they need to become Micky Mouse or something that isn’t authentic to who they are, and, for me, that’s not what I’m talking about.

      Picking your “character” is really about deciding which of your personality traits you want to include in your social media persona. What’s relevant to the story you’re creating and what’s not. For you, you’ve been writing some AMAZING pieces lately that reflect a certain side of you and experiences that you’ve gone through. It makes complete sense for you to be sharing that. I wouldn’t at all change that. In fact, I’d kick you if you changed it. ;)

      [Worth noting: This is exactly what I’ll be speaking about at BlogWorld LA so stay tuned. ;) ]

      • Shane

        Thanks Lisa!!! This is why I adore you always :) and yeah I think I get it. This is about being authentic but in a way which matches your brand. And that can be different depending on who you are and what you market. But picking one which aligns well is the key here :)

  • yankeerudy

    Shane, from what I’ve read of Lisa’s in the past I can anticipate that she’ll say speak your truth and the hell with the consequences. Sure, you may alienate a potential client or two (like she did) but it’ll be easier on you and you’re authenticity will shine through.

  • Jamella

    Hey Lisa,
    I love your post it’s very refreshing to finally have someone say it out loud and proud…I think its important that big companies need to realize that they don’t have to hide behind their brand… people wants to relate with people not entity…. thanks Lisa and great job!!!

  • Tiffany Dow

    Hey Lisa!

    Funny how I found this. Scott Stratten posted on G+ about someone being rude to you on your blog, so I decided to check your blog out because he deemed you a friend and I find HIM very interesting. Then I saw this post.

    I had no idea where the rudeness was but I’m starting a 30-Day Branding Challenge for my own subscribers soon and I wanted to see what your take on it was so I chose this entry to read.

    Agree 100%. I’m with you on Skittles and the airline all the way – silly, fun “grab a beer with me” companies make me want to spend my money with them and spread the word as a consumer. And I am normally a chocolate person but the reminder of Skittles being fun made me want a rainbow of flavor right this second. Might not work every time, but it did in this one instance.

    I do wish you’d elaborate in another post more on #1 – the character creation. I’m all about the motto “Be you.” I am not sure if I’ll agree about heightening certain aspects but I’d love to hear more on your POV on that.

    Tiff :)

  • Ayan Deato

    Hey Lisa,

    Thanks for putting a smile on my face.
    It’s fun to read the comments and the replies. The exchange of ideas are just so energizing. I definitely agree that brands should be more SOCIAL by showing their PERSONALITY and relating to people online.
    Looking forward to reading your future posts.