Social media looks easy for the same reason writing looks easy, because we all do it.
But anyone who does either professionally knows it's not even close to easy. Good social
media marketers put a lot of thought and effort into creating engaging posts for brands,
and when nobody engages, it's a failure, and failures hurt -- personally, professionally,
For branded social media to work, a surprising number of things must come together, feed
off each other, and perform as intended. And it's surprisingly easy to screw up. I've seen
people with decades of experience in advertising and marketing try their hand at social
media and bungle it.
Sometimes failures can be attributed to obvious things, like generally bad writing,
punctuation, grammar, etc., but sometimes the failure points are less obvious to the
uninitiated, and this article is devoted to those, which tend to fall in one of seven areas.
1. Incorrect Topic (Bad Targeting)
I don't know which of these reasons is the most common cause of failure, but I can tell you
this, if a social post is otherwise great (strong creative, sharp writing, elegant delivery)
and it still fails, bad targeting is most likely the reason why. The wrong people saw it, or
the right people didn't see it.
If it's organic, this often happens when you try to migrate your followers to a new subject
that you want to talk about (the best way to avoid failures like this is to do some early
paid posts to attract followers to this topic). If it's paid, it means you simply misfired,
or you're a victim of ad fraud (though there are some less common reasons).
But in either case, if whoever sees a branded post isn't interested in the topic, there is
nothing on earth you can do to make them interested in it. Not in a scrolling realm where
you have a very short time window to convince an audience to click.
2. Incorrect Timing
This is another common reason why otherwise good posts fail. The audience wasn't on the
channel at the right time. Granted, the importance of day of the week has decreased a bit in
recent years, but time of the day still matters, as engagement during the first couple of
hours still very much matters to whether a post takes off.
A phenomenon that falls under bad timing is overposting (a common problem during events and
tradeshows). Every time you post, you decrease the reach for your other posts somewhat. The
exact amount that you do this varies somewhat by platform, but none are immune.
Think about overposting this way. If you post on a channel once per day, it will reach 5x
people (don't worry about what "x" is). If you post twice per day, the reach of each post
will decrease to 4x (totaling 8x reached altogether). If you post three times, the reach of
each post will decrease again to 3x (totaling 9x altogether), so the overall number of
people is barely more with three posts per day than with two. These are imprecise dummy
numbers, of course, but they do illustrate the problem.
3. Incompleteness Before The Break
This is a surprisingly common problem on social media, even from brands that should know
better. Many times a post, or what we see from a post, simply isn't a complete thought. A
common example is when a post shows a picture of your CEO speaking at a tradeshow, but it
doesn't really discuss what they said, or provide a link to the tradeshow, or a link to a
press release summarizing what was covered, or even a catchy quote from the speech. It's
just a photo and a mention that the CEO was there.
Who cares about this? No reason to click whatsoever. This is pure ego on display, and it
turns anyone who doesn't work for you or who isn't friends with the CEO off. And it happens
Another version of this problem is when the post copy is so long that what audiences see is
an incomplete thought. Sure, if the audience clicks the "see more" prompt to see the rest of
the copy, maybe it becomes a complete thought, but expecting an audience to do this is a big
ask from a brand.
Long anecdotes and haikus of wisdom from people may be proliferating on channels like
LinkedIn, but audiences are more willing follow a person down the "see more" rabbit hole than
they are a brand. Because long posts from people look like storytelling, while long posts from
brands look like homework, and nobody likes homework, so set the hook before the break.
4. Stimuli Overload
A common problem in branded social media is that a post will try to convey too much info at
once, or do too many things at once in the visual field (like having multiple links in the copy),
even if the post otherwise seems professional and attractive.
I think this is happening because a lot of social managers seem to think their followers will
stop and read every post from the brand in its entirety (at least everything before the break).
But this is wrong. When people are scrolling, and they see your logo, sure, they'll tune in for
a split-second. But if they can't find something that interests them in the post to "lock onto"
during that split second, they'll scroll by without finishing it.
And a crowded, cluttered post makes it harder, not easier, to hook the audience, for three
reasons. First, a cluttered visual field is intimidating, because it increases the perceived
cognitive load of assimilating it. In other words, it has the same effect on the audience that
a long post does -- it looks like homework.
Second, a cluttered visual field can make the audience hesitate by leaving them uncertain about
what to visually lock onto (i.e., the paralysis of too many choices), thus decreasing the
chances that they'll lock onto anything at all before they've scrolled by.
And third, even if they do lock onto something, a cluttered visual field ups the odds they'll
lock onto something unimportant (i.e., like an emoji) and not the thing intended to set the
hook, and so they scroll by because they missed the part that might have interested them.
I'm a firm believer that the most effective branded posts have a single main point to convey.
And three is the absolute most (if it's a list). And if it is a three bullet-point list, simply
do it that way. Don't present any imagery that distracts from the list, because all your audience
can possibly do during the scroll window is read the list.
Throw in additional visual stimuli and you'll overload them, and they scroll by before the hook
is set. In fact they might even look away because overload is often aesthetically and cognitively
The exception here is a large infographic that has to be zoomed in order to be read clearly.
Such posts can do very well on social, but in this case, the work of setting the hook must be
done by the post text, the infographic's title (which is presumably large enough to read) and
its color scheme (which is hopefully not unattractive). Don't expect the audience to click the
visual to read it on spec, they must be hooked by then.
And please note, it's becoming somewhat common on LinkedIn for brands to ramble in the post
copy. Don't confuse this with best practice when it comes to persuading an otherwise
disinterested audience to click. Instead, you may be seeing brands talking to themselves,
sharing content and talking points with their own employees.
5. Corporate Excess
This is one of the primary reasons why paid posts fail. These posts require more and higher
levels of stakeholder approval than organic posts, and this results in posts that are
navel-gazing, cluttered with random stakeholder contributions, don't otherwise breathe, and
read like corporate speak.
People rarely click on corporate speak, and share it less. Especially if there's a "promoted"
tag right in plain sight, that's doubly uncool. Nobody wants to share content that makes them
look like a corporate tool. Professional is okay, corporate isn't.
6. Keyword & Hashtag Clutter
This is a related problem to the last two I just mentioned. Just like I think the best branded
social media posts only have a single takehome message, I also think they have only a single
keyword or hashtag, or two at the most (three will seem cluttered & manipulative). And on a
related thought, if you think a hashtag is distracting, it probably is, so consider dropping it.
Hashtags don't matter nearly as much as they used to. The algos are smarter now.
This can mean bland or it can mean ugly. And this problem can apply to the post copy or the
visual. We'll start with the latter.
Even though post copy is presented to be read first, the visual is often what people first see.
If it's bland, stocky, or overly familiar (a growing problem in certain industries), it won't
stand out enough to get people's attention (a failure). And if a visual is unattractive or
problematic in some way (like a poorly-lit photo), people may look away (also a failure).
If the visual is at least compelling enough to draw the audience's gaze, the post's visual text
and copy have a fighting chance of convincing people to click. And if you've done a great job
with the visual, the post copy might not even matter (i.e., they might actually click without
On a related thought, if a post has an original visual (not a textless stock image), that visual
will do most of the persuasion work. So keep the post copy simple, because the more complex the
copy, the more likely you are to screw it up.
And if the post is text-only, or if the image is just a textless stock image, it'll be the post
copy that largely does the convincing, so think it through carefully, and respect the fact that
there's a visual architecture to writing that makes it attractive. Keep it short and sweet. Not
too much punctuation. Minimal repetition.
One Other Thing
You may or may not have noticed that I haven't mentioned bad writing (i.e., writing that is clear
and grammatically correct but painful to read). There are two reasons why I haven't brought it up.
One, social copy is short, and the effects of bad writing tend to be cumulative (i.e., bad writing
often needs more rope to hang itself).
And two, bad writing is rarely the sole cause of a post's failure. In my experience, if a brand
lets a bad writer write the social copy, there are usually other problems getting in the way of a
post's success as well.