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Can EU social networks burst out of the Brussels bubble?

[Transcript of my presentation in Milano on 27 November 2014 at the European Economic and Social Committee’s conference co-organized with the European Broadcasting Union. Text slightly updated compared to the actual presentation. See audio recording as podcast and video below the article.]


In my presentation on ‘Can EU social networks burst out of the Brussels bubble?’, I’ll talk mostly about the content and the kind of information that is produced in Brussels by different actors, by different organizations.


I think that having audiences engaged or interested in EU matters mostly depends on the content we share and the way we package it. This aspect is being discussed a lot, and very often certain key principles or basic principles are not respected. Such a situation hinders the opportunity that people would really care about what’s happening in Brussels – we here all know how important the decision- and the policy-making in Brussels is, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that people would actually care about that.


So my answer is ‘Yes’, it is possible to step out of the Brussels’ bubble if certain principles and approaches are being respected.


We often communicate about three major things: firstly, we talk about our own institutions – whether it’s a EU government, if you may, or an institution in the private sector.


Secondly, we talk about politicians and personalities, which is great but it doesn’t necessarily mean that people will really care about that personality.


And thirdly, we talk about directives and regulations and generally the law-making that happens in Brussels.


That sort of information – which needs to be available but it doesn’t mean it is shared by the audience – cannot really trigger any significant interest.


What gets shared on social media?


Social media audiences have very high expectations. The threshold is so high because people are indeed judging the content very critically, and if they don’t like it or if it doesn’t trigger some sort of reaction from them, they are not going to share it.


I would distinguish between general content whether it’s print, online, public on websites, and content aimed specifically for social networks. The latter one needs to be different because it is given a different sort of interest by the audience you want to reach.


Going further, I will present a couple of examples of what gets shared actually on social media, and I do rely on Luke Baker who used to be Reuters’ Brussels Bureau Chief. He was very active on social media while in Brussels (and still is in his new post). He talked about things that triggered a lot of social media point interest – I picked a couple of photos to share today.


Here is one which was shared when President Obama visited Brussels. The picture on the top says: How the American President arrives and the lower said: How the Dutch Prime Minister arrives.


Prime Minister arrival Luke Tweet


This, of course, had nothing to do with the institutions and not much to do with the Dutch Prime Minister himself either. It’s simply about a topic which was actual and which related to the US President. They don’t talk about, if you may, European Affairs – they just offer a very different perspective.


Luke EU trio funny caption


Second photo is again about personality: Is the EU High Representative wearing a pro-Ukraine tie? Mogherini looks ready for Hollywood, Tusk looks ready to  polish his English.


So the great thing about this picture is that we are talking about three major European politicians but the captions are what make it look good – it is not a selfie by Hollywood stars, but still it gained some traction.


Going further – again, this is a well-known video montage containing a partly erotic theme, which was financed from EU funds. This little video has gathered 9 million views. So the people share it and they talk about Europe, about how Europe finances culture and about how they are disseminating all this, but from a very, very different angle and in a different packaging.


Ikea Twitter Angela David Luke BakerAnother story: “looks like Dave and Angie went to Ikea together”, as they are sitting on a couch. This even had another follow-up tweet by someone who tweeted a caption of the different pieces of IKEA furniture that you can see in the background.


So this is light information, not about procedures, not about regulations, but it still talks about politicians or personalities in a special way.



This next photo shows how having coffee in the European Council is; we can see the variety of European leaders who call it macchiato, espresso, lungo, etc. The cartoon emphasizes how Europe increased in diversity over the last decades.


Luke Tweet coffee


The last example, which is something I actually did with my brother-in-law: you have a topic, and you have six perspectives on this topic, six perspectives of how differently people see the same issue. It is about EU Officials.


What EU officials do


The point here is “what my mom thinks I do”, “what my friends think I do”, “what society thinks I do”, “what my boss thinks I do”, “what my wife thinks I do” and “what I really do”.


This is a very light content, not about anything really serious, but it does give a certain impression, and people shared it several hundred times; the image gained a lot of popularity, so at some point you could use Google Images, type “EU Officials”, and that was the first hit.


So we do talk about politicians, we do talk about Europe in an indirect manner – but we talk about it. These photos actually got shared a lot, and the question is ‘why’? What is common in these pictures?


What’s common in these shares?


I will now mention a couple of key principles – this is a short presentation of some thought-provoking ideas from the American book ‘Made to Stick’. The author shows which ideas actually stick, that is, memorable. Which ideas are actually memorable. They used an acronym “SUCCESs” – and each letter stands for a principle: so the message should be simple, unexpected, credible, concrete, emotional, story.


It’s very hard to meet these principles when we talk about European issues. But those who deal with EU communication try to use as many of these principles as possible. I will refer to one of them which I think very often is the key challenge when we talk about the EU: being concrete. It’s hard to link an EU policy or newly adopted regulation to the very concrete change, result or relevant benefit for European citizens.


If you manage to do that in one way or another, then the communication, the content is more likely to be accepted and remembered.


And the other book I’d like to recommend is called ‘Contagious – Why things catch on?’
I don’t think it’s an outstanding book, but it’s a pretty good book: it analyzes especially the New York Times most emailed articles, and it looks at what people emailed the most, what kind of story they shared the most.


That’s why the interesting thing to look at is: which piece of EU communication gained the most traction and visibility.


Going a little deeper, one thing I want to highlight is the emotional element.


Emotions are very important – the information we transmit has to have a certain emotional appeal.


By showing you these images, I underlined that elements like fun or entertainment trigger some emotional reactions.


Humor and fun, anger and outrage, love, fear – they are the right ones to have the desired viral effect… but sadness usually doesn’t work.


A sad story is not something that we would be very inclined to share.


But outrage: yes, so if the EU passes a new law on the curvature of bananas, this may trigger an outrage, so people will talk about it.


And how to turn your message to use of these elements is a though thing to do. But that’s why EU institutions have communication experts and that’s why we are all trying to find stories and package them in a way that’s going to work.


In my opinion, the worst thing that can happen with communication is not that it’s considered controversial. The worst thing that can happen is that it’s being ignored because it’s boring.


It is very easy to do boring communication because that means the person who crafted the message didn’t put that effort in making it appeal to one of these elements: being emotional, for instance, or concrete.


I think this is the number one challenge.


To succeed…


And then the last point: a few ideas about how to succeed in crafting messages, especially for social media, that can go beyond the Brussels’ bubble.


#1: Set the expectations right
What sort of things could we talk about and what could actually be interesting for the broader public? And there are a lot.


But the everyday business is hard to tailor for a social network.


If we have the expectation that we can do something or that a certain issue can reasonably take off – that is already a very first step.


#2: Act like a venture capitalist

The venture capitalist’s work is that they finance ten businesses while knowing very well that five, six or seven are going to fail. But the other two or three are really going to take off.


And this is how mostly in social media the kind of content that becomes viral is often hard to predict. You may do your very best effort and still not a lot of people actually care.


Experimentation is therefore something that needs to be done constantly, especially with an audience whose interest level is very low.


#3: Don’t take it very seriously

Take it seriously when it comes about the procedure and how things are managed; preferably not to talk about anything politically incorrect (which is not the same as being controversial but respecting certain basic principles).


Not to take it very seriously – so a little bit of sarcasm or a little bit of fun can do miracles.


#4: Allow staff to experiment and fail

In terms of how social media is managed in-house (broadly speaking, in the EU institutions but even in the private sector ): empower people to experiment and sometimes to fail.


This is hard to do, especially in governmental structures: the Commission, the European Economic and Social Committee, the local government of Milan – it’s a hard thing to do because no one would like to be seen as having failed, or if legal issues or liability is involved. So this sort of empowerment is essential for true experimentation


Good luck!



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