If there were ever doubts about the importance of agility in the fast-paced world of social media, the last 18 months have surely laid them to rest.

COVID-19 forced marketers to be highly flexible. According to research from Monday.com, almost 98% of marketing teams have changed their strategies in response to the pandemic.

But, easy though it might be to forget, coronavirus isn’t the first global crisis of the digital age –– and it certainly won’t be the last! Going forward, social media marketers will need to be more agile than ever before.

To figure out how that looks, we assembled a panel of four social media experts with a ton of experience in leading fast-moving campaigns and responding to major events, featuring:

  • Our host, Caleb Gardner, is the Co-founder and Managing Partner of 18 Coffees, a strategy and innovation firm for the mission economy. Caleb previously worked in the private sector at Edelman and Bain & Company and was the lead digital strategist for President Obama’s political advocacy group, OFA.
  • Jennifer Beam is Social Media Director for AARP’s national advocacy social media program, including AARP Advocates and Aliados Adelante.
  • NASDAQ’s Head of Social Media Kelsey Murray has also led social strategy and influencer marketing teams at Questex Media, People Magazine, Thrive Global, and Northwestern Mutual.
  • Natalie Labuda, Senior Director of Marketing, Advertising & Social Media at E*TRADE, formerly worked on various brands and campaigns at PepsiCo.

Read on for some highlights from the session!

It feels like we’re bouncing from crisis to crisis right now. A lot of brands have navigated it well, but a lot have fallen on their face. What separates the two?

The key to responding effectively to a crisis and remaining nimble in your approach lies in understanding your audience, says Jennifer Beam.

That’s hugely important to her work at AARP, a non-partisan advocacy association. “It’s not our job to be edgy and rude and provocative on social media,” Jen explains. “And there is that moment where you feel maybe – personally – you would like to be edgy and rude and provocative. You have to make that call.”

To get it right, Jennifer leans heavily on the data, looking at the type of content and responses that have worked well for the brand in the past. And social listening plays a key role, too, helping you understand what’s suitable for your audiences on different channels.

For Natalie Labuda of E*TRADE, effective crisis response boils down to three main elements:

  1. Authenticity: It’s easy for brands to be reactive and jump into every conversation they see, but Natalie recommends a selective approach. “You have to make sure it aligns with your brand values, your mission.”
  2. Timing: Join a conversation too late or too soon, and you risk doing more harm than good. Natalie admits there’s “no right recipe” for this –– it’s more a case of trial and error.
  3. Creative: Authentic messaging and perfect timing count for nothing without the right creative. “If the creative doesn’t resonate with your audience, it’s not going to break through and won’t be as well received.”

Kelsey Murray stresses that your brand must support its content with meaningful action for messaging to be truly authentic.

Authenticity has been a big focus for NASDAQ. She explains: “If we’ve made a statement, we have an action to back it. Otherwise, we don’t say anything, or we decide to have private conversations with the media. So it comes down to putting an action-oriented approach to every statement you make, no matter what it is, across any channel.”

Can you talk about how to use social listening to ensure you join the conversation at the right time?

Kelsey tells us how NASDAQ uses Sprinklr to track conversations around relevant keywords, paying close attention to how media, influencers, and thought leaders –– particularly CEOs –– are responding to key topics.

By closely monitoring sentiment around these conversations and understanding where the biggest opportunities lie for engagement, social media marketers play an essential role in ensuring internal stakeholders are commenting on the right issues. That’s why she describes social teams as “the last line of defense between the company and the public.”

At AARP, social listening doesn’t just help determine which conversations to join and when to join them –– it also helps shape the organization’s response.

A great example of this process in action came during the run-up to the 2020 election when postal voting –– and the postal service in general –– momentarily became a huge, partisan issue.

This controversy wasn’t an easy situation for AARP. For one thing, it’s a non-partisan organization. And for another, there were differing opinions on how to handle the issue from within AARP’s leadership team.

Fortunately, social listening (combined with email, phone, and website data) meant they had a vast swathe of information to help guide their response.

“Our social listening was telling us overwhelmingly that we needed to say something, that we were not seen as standing up for people 50-plus by staying quiet,” Jennifer explains. “[The data] really laid out exactly what we were hearing, so it wasn’t this heated discussion.”

How do you make fast decisions while ensuring you get buy-in and approval from all the internal stakeholders?

It’s every social media professional’s nightmare: you need to react quickly to a rapidly moving event, but first, you need to get sign-off from a bunch of people in different offices, each with busy schedules.

By the time they respond, the messaging is watered down, and the conversation moved on hours ago.

AARP has offices in every state, so Jennifer has to often deal with and adapt to these situations.

Part of her solution has been to empower social media managers to act as press secretaries. “If you’re handling the messaging, if you’re handling the strategy, you should be empowered to decide on whether it’s appropriate or not to weigh in and bring that up to leadership with, ‘Hey, here’s what we’re planning, this is our approach.’”

At the same time, she’s managed to reduce the number of stakeholders required to sign off on social media-related decisions.

Not only has this accelerated decision-making, but it’s also helped improve understanding of social media at the leadership level. “A lot of people think they understand social media because they have a social media account. So to bring yourself to the table is really important, especially in these quick decisions.”

Meanwhile, Natalie raises another issue that’s risked throttling the approval process, not just at E*TRADE, but at the vast majority of organizations: the shift to remote working.

“We quickly had to re-strategize on how we were going to communicate,” she explains. “Are we using email, using texts, or using Slack? Or are we just calling someone to run this idea?”

As well as outlining the most effective comms channels to enable fast decision-making, E*TRADE has adopted a culture of more open dialogue and transparency.

“[Senior leadership] were very open-minded to us just sharing work in progress or ideas. And sometimes we didn’t execute them, but we brought them along much sooner, and that would allow us to get approvals much quicker.”

How have you adjusted to the move to remote?

As Natalie highlighted, the shift to remote work has thrown up myriad challenges for pretty much every organization in the world.

However, the change hit NASDAQ harder than most.

NASDAQ builds a big part of its marketing and company culture around celebrating the moment when a company issues its first stock launch, otherwise known as the initial public offering (IPO).

“That’s typically where we host these massive events and celebrations for these companies,” says Kelsey. “A big part of their IPO day is this in-person, party-type element where they open the bell. There’s confetti; it’s really fun.”

COVID-19 changed all that. NASDAQ’s iconic MarketSite office was closed to its own staff, let alone those from other companies. That meant shifting the whole IPO process to the digital realm –– a challenge further complicated by the fact that huge, household-name brands like Airbnb and Bumble IPO-ed during the pandemic.

Bumble’s IPO day celebrations took place at the company’s headquarters in Austin, Texas, rather than NASDAQ’s Times Square HQ. A small number of Bumble’s team were allowed on site, but everything else had to be done remotely, which presented some substantial logistical headaches.

“We had photos taken. They were transported to multiple teams. We pre-produced a lot of video segments. Content was pre-created weeks and months ahead of time so that when the day came that a company was IPO-ing, we had a whole chunk of content ready to go.”

The transition to remote was so smooth and worked so effectively that NASDAQ has no reason to pivot back to how things used to be. That’s a massive plus because with employees largely favoring the hybrid working model, it’s impossible to say whether staff will ever return to the office full-time.

“We have so many more extra opportunities for these companies to celebrate remotely because there’s no guarantee that all these companies will go back in person one day,” says Kelsey.

How do you find the time to think about long-term storytelling involving multiple cross-functional teams in industries that are so day-to-day in terms of the news cycle?

Kelsey isn’t the only one to see positives from the new systems of working that have emerged during the pandemic.

At AARP, a key element of its social strategy is sharing the stories of its vast cadre of volunteers. This storytelling strategy has been crucial throughout COVID-19, which has had a comparatively worse impact on over-65s –– a big part of AARP’s audience.

Pre-pandemic, Jennifer’s team at AARP could simply gather a group of volunteers and amplify their stories on Facebook Live. Overnight, that became impossible.

But people pivoted “really nicely,” she says. “They got comfortable filming videos of themselves and sharing their stories. I think it’s been a silver lining.”

For Natalie and E*TRADE, storytelling helps build a meaningful connection with the brand’s audience. “Reactive news is great. But if you want people to connect with your brand and become brand-loyal, I do think that storytelling is crucial to your content strategy.”

Prioritization holds the key to ensuring Natalie’s team places sufficient focus on storytelling. “We try to brief every two months, and then we have a reactive post as well. So we have two content streams happening, one catered toward brand storytelling and one that’s more reactive.”

How about operating across different platforms? How do you plan strategy across channels?

There are so many social platforms at our disposal. Running each could conceivably be a full-time job for a whole team of social media marketers. But in reality, brands have finite resources. Simply put, we can’t do everything on every channel.

For Natalie, overcoming this challenge is ultimately a matter of prioritization. “Not everything can be a priority. We all love all our social children, but you can’t just give the same resources to each one.”

Prioritization boils down to figuring out the best content types and formats for each channel, she explains. “When I’m going to LinkedIn, I’m in a completely different mindset than when I’m going on Reddit or Snapchat or Instagram or some of those other platforms. You’ve just got to keep that in mind.”


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You all have stressful jobs. How do you and your teams deal with that?

As anyone in a leadership role will testify, coronavirus has been difficult for newly remote teams –– particularly in terms of integrating new hires who’ve never been to the office or met any of their co-workers.

Kelsey at NASDAQ hired three people during the pandemic, despite never meeting any of them in person. For one, it was their first job out of college, so it was important for Kelsey to find a way to keep things light and fun through digital activities.

Of course, the whole “Zoom happy hour” thing got real old, real fast. So Kelsey had to find some new tactics. “One time, we had an astrologist join our team meeting and read all of our horoscopes. Another time, we had someone caricature draw all of us. So we tried to find new and exciting ways to still feel like we were a team.”

As a full-time teleworker based in New Hampshire leading a team based in Washington, DC, the shift to remote hasn’t had a significant impact on Jennifer at AARP.

Rather than trying several new things, Jennifer says a tactic they were already using –– and, frankly, not enjoying very much –– took on new relevance throughout the pandemic. “My boss started these icebreakers during our staff meetings, and originally, we were not into them. But honestly, during the pandemic, they’ve been very helpful for the whole team.”

For Natalie, one copying strategy is being honest and transparent about the “madness” of the job. She reassures her team that it’s okay to vent now and then. “Sometimes I just tell the team, ‘Take the filter off; this is a filterless day. If something’s driving you nuts, it’s totally okay.’

“I think that sense of acknowledgment goes a long way with employees, just letting them know that you’re in the trenches with them.”

What’s the thing that keeps you up at night?

Throughout the session, our panelists offered a lot of different viewpoints on the challenges of running an agile social media team. But one matter on which they were all united was burnout: Jennifer, Kelsey, and Natalie all cited it as the number one issue that keeps them up at night.

“In social media, we work all the time, and we’re solving problems all day long. Every single member of my team is solving problems on a daily basis. What I really worry about is that they disconnect when they need to,” says Kelsey.

For Jennifer at AARP, the issue of burnout has been exacerbated by the pandemic, forcing her team to engage with and tell stories about some pretty harrowing subject matter. “One of our top issues last year was the nursing home crisis, the number of people dying in nursing homes. It was so painful and horrifying to deal with that on a daily basis.”

Natalie agrees that burnout is a huge concern. But she also worries whether E*TRADE and the broader financial services industry are adapting effectively to a rapidly changing world. “Are we keeping up with the times? Are we evolving as quickly as culture and social media are moving?”

Looking for More?

Learn more about social media best practices and connect with other social media professionals at an upcoming Social Media Strategies Summit.

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