© Mathias Maul

It’s Cluetrain all over again: My 2018 Digital Branding and Social Media Course

This semester, I have the honor of teaching 15 third-year students at brand academy, a private university for applied science in Hamburg. This article is an ongoing effort in documenting the course, partitioned into eight six-hour sessions and one full-day exam session.

Session 1: Back to the 2000s

A group of students, 23-ish years old, all of them raised in a world where the internet is an everyday utility and not the revolution that turned the world inside-out: they’ve been breathing digital air since they were kids. I was dumbfounded when preparing the course. How could I condense such a vast topic into just 2.160 minutes? Moreover, most of my students hail from China; one from Chile — the set of shared experiences dwindled, and so did my good spirits. I began to feel that teaching them digital branding and social media would become a humbling experience – for me.

So I took a deep dive and started from scratch, because what else could I do? Social media is an old hat, after all. Back in the day, “being online” was equal to being social. BBS networks and even Usenet, as unbelievable as it may sound today, were a place for conversation between human beings, for unbounded creativity, for growth. Only when mainstream economy got the upper hand, conversations started to get drained of their humaneness.

I felt that to understand today’s social media landscape, the students had to understand how we got to where we are, and we jump-started the seminar with discussing the Cluetrain Manifesto, published at a time when all but one person in the room had just left their nappies behind.

Key Takeaways

For seasoned communication pros, it’s evident that companies cannot communicate with the market, simply because a company cannot communicate (but its people can) and there is no such thing as “the market” (but people whom you are talking to). If “my” students want to become seasoned pros through education and experience, they should take these two principles to heart:

  1. Social media is a set of abstraction layers over human communication, and
  2. digital branding emerges from conversations that occur on these layers.

That is, basically, it, and the remainder of the seminar willshould evolve from these principles.

Key Student Question

“You know that big robot in Odaiba, right?” a student asked me. As chance would have it, I had passed by it on the train just a week before the seminar, but I had no idea what it was, or what was so special about it. He told me about its unveiling and the massive viral effect. “This was such a big topic! Everyone was talking about it!! So I have one question: Do you think the marketing agency had planned this?”

○ ○ ○

After the seminar, I sat down at a nearby restaurant to collect my thoughts and send an e-mail summary to the students. While I was composing the e-mail, I created a WeChat group, and the students invited each other … within two minutes. — E-Mail? Yesteryear’s medium. Yesteryear? Ah, whatever. Let’s look into the future. Next session: November 2nd.

Session 2: Targets

In this session, it became pretty clear pretty fast that marketing, especially branding, is mostly guessing. Of course, a myriad of marketing theories provide countless hypotheses for any given context. The problem, for marketers and clients alike, is that all of them are true … some of the time. So if we’re honest – and we should be –, then all that we can do is try different approaches and see what sticks.

For my students, this came as a surprise, which shouldn’t have surprised me as much as it did. They pay a smallmedium fortune for their education, and then their lecturers tell them … oh, you know, just wing it?

It’s not just about improvising, I told them: It’s about guessing wisely and wildly. You need to take into account what worked in the past and be able to start from scratch when you feel the need. Even if project A is 99% similar to project B, this one percent can make all the difference if you exploit its potential.

To illustrate, we worked on a current MAULCO. project1: How to find and define the target audience; how to identify media channels to reach them; how to craft messages; how to tell vanity metrics from real metrics; how to distinguish overt from opaque stakeholder goals.2

Imagine, I asked the students, that we are all surrounded by noise clouds — advertisements, media feeds, colleague chatter, dozens of communication partners in our professional and personal lives. Imagine then, that every single person of your “target group” is surrounded by his/her personal noise cloud. What is this cloud like? Most importantly, what is noise, and what is signal, i. e. what kinds of messages get through the cloud? As soon as you’ve got replies to these questions, the rest becomes much, much easier.

Key Takeaways

  1. Our job in digital branding is to find gentle ways into people’s noise clouds and be a signal that they recognize and act upon.
  2. Knock, don’t invade.
  3. Marketing is guessing.3

Key Student Question

“What do you like more, China or Japan?” — I replied quickly and honestly, and am still surprised that many of the Chinese students shared my sentiments.

Session 3: Curling Through the Noise Clouds

If there’s one sport I can watch for more than five minutes, it’s curling.


Still with me?

No, really. I love watching these funny people with their funny brooms shouting at a funny stone in an often decidedly un-funny way. The stone is the (more or less on-brand) message you’re distributing via some medium. The target area – all too often already occupied by other stones – is the recipient’s noise cloud you’d like to sneak your message into. And the guys with the brooms? It’s you, and the rest of the audience that try to influence the stone’s path.

This simple image seemed to help some of the students go click and really understand their role in the game. You cannot influence the basic laws – the stone is still a stone –, and you can barely influence its path once it’s been set in motion. Also, as soon as the stone has reached, or missed, its target, it’s the other team’s (or, more likely, teams’) turn. Just one blip in the ocean.

Speaking of the ocean — at the beginning of class I spilled some handsful of pinboard tacks on the ground. Combined with the magnets I found on the floor, they turned into a handy teaching tool to show what happens when you throw just one message into the ocean – not much. You need many messages, in a large timespan, to attract your swarm. Only after you’ve attracted a following, they will allow you to be their guide.

Key Takeaways

  1. Customer Journey Mapping: It’s not about understanding people (you can’t) but about guiding swarms (you might be able to, if you’re lucky).
  2. Being able to read the room is a required skill in social media because, hey, it’s social media.
  3. The more emotionally loaded your message, the harder it is to touch your target’s sweet spot – but if you do, you’ve got triple-20. Make your message more shallow, and it’s easier to hit someone somewhere, but don’t expect a big reward.

Key Student Question

“Why are you sitting outside wearing a t-shirt while we are shivering in spite of our padded jackets?” — This was a nice prompt to talk about preconceptions, which segued into personae and the whole shebang.

Session 4: Google’s Just Another Reader

In this session, we tackled seemingly complex topics such as search engine optimization and search engine marketing. The principles, as everyone who has read this far might suspect, are simple: Be human, friendly and open-minded; connect with your audience (= people!); publish interesting stuff to support them in reaching their goals.

The time-tested analogy of Twitter et al. being (quite big, quite loud, and sometimes hopelessly deranged) parties seemed to help the students understand that just “posting messages” is not enough. Imagine yourself shoving your way through a mass of distracted people inebriated by information overload, social awkwardness and fear, doing nothing more than talking about the next big thing that your client’s company has just released. There’s no fucking way this will work, and millions of Euros, Yens and Dollars are being burnt daily just to turn up the shouting volume.

So, first get clear about your goals. Then, find the right people to talk to. Listen to them. Then, listen to them even more. Ask questions. To repeat myself, it’s called social media for a reason, so be social! After having listened for some time, you can, slowly, start to talk about yourself.

If you like going to parties or trade fairs where you don’t know anyone, and truly enjoy getting to know new people, then working with social media will come to you naturally. If not, be prepared to have a much, much longer learning curve until you’ll become comfortably successful.

Key Takeaways

Content marketing is, in principle, nothing more than this:

  1. Write and publish stuff that is interesting and helpful for your audience (= people!),
  2. help your audience (people!) to find and read and use your stuff,
  3. measure, adapt, repeat from step 1.

This is escpecially true when content marketing is as a brand building measure. For a more poetic exegesis of these principles, read Prince Starsalot: A Content Marketing Fairy Tale.

Key Student Question

“Do you want to be my tutor for my bachelor’s thesis?” — I barely managed to avoid a knee-jerk and very neophiliac suuure thing! reaction. Still weighing responsibilities vs. rewards. (Update: Accepted 3.)

Session 5: Planning

Real-life day today: During a video chat with one of MAULCO.’s clients, the students quickly found out that terminology isn’t shared by default. Our rt. hon. client’s reply to “What target group do you want to market to?” was so much different from what some students had expected that we needed to backtrack. Questions like What did you ask?Which response did you expect?Why were you surprised? etc. helped the group to reorient themselves. Turned out that among ourselves (plus client), we had four definions of “target group.”

We segued into the bigger picture of how to structure projects, and I explained that regardless of planning methodology (agile and such), you really cannot plan for the future: The best you can do is plan for flexibility. Quoting Douglas Adams,

anything that happens, happens. Anything that, in happening, causes something else to happen, causes something else to happen. Anything that, in happening, causes itself to happen again, happens again. It doesn’t necessarily do it in chronological order, though.4

Key Takeaway

Watch your language. Whenever you plan projects with your client, make extra extra sure that what you say is what you mean and vice versa. I’ve seen quite some projects go haywire because both sides had agreed to do X and achieve goal Y, when in reality the client wanted to do X̢́̕ to achieve Y̷͟͠ while the agency, wanting to arrive at Y̸̵͜, did X̢̛ͣ́̇̅.

Key Student Question

“Why do different people have different meanings for the same words?” — This was to deep a question to answer in one sitting, apart from the obvious “well, duh, because!” reply. Working on it.

Session 6: Control

A quick intro with purple chocolate Santa Clauses (it was St. Nicholas’ Day) and their soda-laced history led to the students teaching me something I hadn’t thought, though feared, possible: There seem to be quite some scripted reality shows in China that take product placement really, really seriously. We watched part of an episode5 and learned a bit more about how the different cultures react to advertisements.

Inspired by the recent tumblr fiasco and ContentID farce, we talked about control of content on the Internet. Obviously, social media channels are not under the brand’s control for the most part, and one could even argue that as soon as a brand owns a channel, it’s not a social media channel anymore.

The own website, therefore, is the only haven that remains. Except, of course, when it is not:

  • Company websites can be dependent on rules and regulations imposed by, e. g., the government, and
  • while a company website offers a quite high level of control over your own content, it is on par with other channels with respect to control of discoverability. Channels that help you spread the word about your company website are (by definition) under someone else’s control, and if Google or Baidu or whoever decide they don’t like your website, it’s mostly gone.

So in the end, it was Cluetrain all over again. Be trustworthy and meet users’ expectations: When creating a website, plan content with concrete goals in mind. Watch out that social media posts align with the landing pages in a meaningful way. And never try to control the user, because this will always backfire in the end. The various Moments of Truth models and my model of the Zero Moment of Trust (cf. this presentation, among others) can act as guidelines for structuring content on a website and align it with brand or campaign goals.

Key Takeaway

For me, this session’s most enlightening moment was when I realized that for my students – who are (a) about half my age and (b) have been socialized in a very different part of our world – a website is just one of many possible sites where a brand can manifest. To them, it’s not the hub: it’s just a possible focal point that can change its location and impact at any time. I argued that, with the sword of Damocles6 of losing control hanging over any non-owned channel,

Key Student Question

“Why … why … are the cows purple?” Assignment: Read Seth Godin’s seminal Purple Cow.

Session 7: Writing

Even with – or because of? – the “let’s pivot to video!” brouhaha, good ol’ text is, by any definition, the most effective medium to convey information and opinion. But once you’re looking beyond The Ten Best Reasons to Raise a Raccoon and similar clickbait, writing feels ooh so hard. In today’s session, we talked about how to structure thoughts first, text second, working inside out. Students learned, as much as possible given the short amount of time available, how to structure their thoughts into patterns. Once patterns start emerging, they can be fleshed out into sentences, paragraphs, sections, and texts.

Apart from reading and, of course, writing stuff, three basic writing tips were particularly useful for the students:

  • Keep your topic in a place so that it’s always visible while you write. If all else fails, write it down on a sticky note and paste it on your computer screen. Whenever you get lost, have a look at the topic: Are you still on track?
  • Be comfortable with shitty first drafts.
  • From time to time, hallucinate the ideal reader of your piece facing you from the other side of your computer screen. What does he look like? Does she frown when you’re writing this particular sentence? Watch the reactions, and use them as a guideline for your gut.

Key Takeaways

Writing is hard. We all knew that before, of course, and it never helped to just know it.7 Sit down and write. And read. And write again. And, oh, think. And even if you’re not into fiction, consider following Chuck Wendig’s every word.

Key Student Question

“How do I know when a text is done?” — You don’t. It never is. As a general rule, 80% is more good enough, even when taking into account that there’s no absolute scale of done-ness. You might want to refer to this article about precision and perfectionism for hopefully helpful details.

Session 8: Recap and Exam Prep

Today was seminar recap day. To quote Scarfolk Council, for more information please reread.

This session concluded this semester’s Digital Branding and Social Media seminar. Looking forward to the next. :)

  1. My thanks go to two MAULCO. clients for allowing me to let the students go wild with their projects. ↩︎

  2. E. g., the overt goal of your client’s Marketing Manager is to roll out a campaign that sells more product while the opaque goal might be to get as many “likes” as possible in order to get a promotion to Senior Marketing manager because the CEO doesn’t know the difference between vanity metrics and real metrics. ↩︎

  3. Wise and wild, if possible. ↩︎

  4. Douglas Adams, Mostly Harmless. Also cf. the Index ↩︎

  5. ↩︎

  6. Note to self: Ask the students whether there is a Chinese equivalent for this metaphor. ↩︎

  7. cf. Santos/Gendler on the G. I. Joe Fallacy ↩︎