Here’s a short lesson in American history: When Thomas Paine, one of the American revolution’s foremost political activists, published Common Sense in 1776, it quickly went viral. In a nation of only 3 million people, it sold over 150,000 copies in the first few months following its publication, making it proportionally one of the best-selling works of all-time. The colonies rallied around Paine’s words, and the rest is, well… history.
Fast-forward to 2015, where, with a few taps on his gold-plated mobile phone, Donald Trump, another notable American revolutionary, can share his thoughts with a network of millions of people through a variety of social media outlets. This is certainly no indication that Trump’s tweets are any more moving than Paine’s words; instead, it is a testament to just how much times have changed. Our thoughts, opinions, and ideas are now able to propagate at a pace that was unfathomable in 1776. Common Sense is widely regarded as the revolution’s most incendiary piece of literature; Twitter would positively explode if Paine (@TPaine, the revolutionary, not to be confused with @TPain, the rapper) released it today as a series of tweets.
But, then again, maybe it wouldn’t. Perhaps it would get lost in the shuffle, like so many things seem to do in our modern world. Confronted with the daily avalanche of information we are subjected to, it would be difficult for the ideas Paine described in Common Sense to achieve the same level of impact that they did in an era where there just wasn’t as much competing for people’s thought. The contrast between Paine’s principal challenge and ours becomes clear: Paine’s ideas were limited by the speed at which they could be spread, and ours are limited by the depth at which they can be considered before something else wrestles away our audience’s attention.
In the marketing sphere, what we’re constantly struggling to achieve is true consideration of our message. How do we manage the wider, shallower trough of influence that social media has granted us? How do we approximate the impact of Common Sense when our message is competing with so many others, and gazing into screens all day has short-circuited everyone’s attention spans? It turns out that some of the same strategies that worked in 1776 are still applicable today. Here they are:
Due to its treasonous nature, and because he believed Common Sense should be judged on its own merits, Paine did not attach his name to the pamphlet. This resulted in wild speculation over who might be its author. The controversy was bolstered when the second edition included the phrase “Written by an Englishman”, although Paine had nothing to do with it.
The lesson here is that curiosity can be sparked just as much by what is left out as it is by what is present in our work. Generate intrigue with your social media accounts, deliver a satisfactory payoff, and watch your following grow.
Be considerate of your audience
The American colonies of 1776 were a collection of immigrants from many different countries. For many, English was not their first language. Even if it was, oftentimes they were not particularly literate. Consequently, it was popular at the time for newspaper articles and pamphlets to be read aloud to large groups of people. For all of these reasons, prose dense with metaphor and flowery language was not suitable for Paine’s purpose. He instead chose to adopt a very plainspoken, direct writing style that strove for clarity.
Nowadays, social media posts are often a garble of links, hash tags, abbreviations, and lingo that can be hard to decipher for even a savvy user. As a result, potential customers might be wary of clicking links that haven’t been properly introduced, or maybe they’ll misunderstand what it even is you’re trying to say. Don’t leave them guessing. Like Paine, adopt a voice that clearly describes what you want your audience to comprehend.
Understand the technological landscape
Paine understood how the technological landscape of his time would affect his message. The technical limitations of the printing press, and the slow delivery process, meant that Paine’s pamphlets had only one chance to capture the hearts and minds of American colonists (analogs to the modern consumer) without being forced to repeat the production and distribution cycle. This necessitated that Common Sense be dense with meaningful, actionable content.
Today, the effort required to fire off a tweet or three wouldn’t burn off the calories in a stick of celery; The twist is it’s that easy for everyone; ergo, the bar has been lowered. The publish or perish mentality — the idea that businesses must issue a constant stream of social media content to maintain customer awareness — is now so pervasive that it has led to content being produced for content’s sake. Being conscious of the technological landscape of our time, and how it affects the production of our work, helps us to avoid the pitfalls created by such easy access to consumers, and establishes a standard that determines what our messaging to them should contain. The constant that spans the distance between Paine’s then and ours now is that consumers will always value meaningful, relevant information. Give it to them, and go start your own revolution.