In 2015, 22% of Americans used social media several times every day. As a result, more than 70% of corporations planned to increase their spending on social media branding.

Brands and social media are not always good bedfellows in business strategy, however. The structure of social media and its associated technologies means that potential customers can opt out of brand advertising. Think of streaming video on YouTube, for example. You often have to watch a snippet of an advertisement, but may also be able to proceed after a few seconds, with the entire advertisement unwatched.

The Relative Failure of Branded Content

Ten years ago, the dominant idea regarding brand advertising and technology news was that social media would be a boon due to the potential of branded content. Branded content – content sponsored by brands – was thought to be the wave of the future.

That never came to pass. Many of the most popular Instagram and YouTube channels, for example, are innovations by previously unknown citizens. Corporate channels languish, comparatively. A Harvard Business Review article on social media and branding points out that McDonald’s YouTube channel has 204,000 subscribers and ranks #9,414. The YouTube channel of PewDiePie, a previously unknown Swedish video game player and commentator, has more than 41 million0 subscribers.

Why? Douglas Holt, the author, hypothesizes that branded content comes across to social media viewers as “corporate spam.” It doesn’t promote engagement.

Following the Crowd, Not Leading

How can companies leverage the potential of social media? Holt argues that they need to collaborate on beliefs and interests held by users of social media, and champion those beliefs.

Dove soap, for example, has successful social media campaigns due to its “Campaign for Real Beauty.” It capitalizes on critiques of corporate ads that promote unrealistic and unhealthy images of extremely thin models. The “Campaign for Real Beauty” features models who are more robust than conventionally thin models. Some are also older and there is marked ethnic diversity.

Holt provides a detailed case study of the Chipotle restaurants. While Chipotle’s image has been tarnished several years ago by multiple contamination scares. Since then, it’s original scaling of the social media/brand summit is unquestionably an example of a successful linkage between widespread consumer concerns and a brand.

In this case, the concerns were that American food had become unhealthy due to standardized practices of farming and ranching. Successful social media branding that follows the crowd goes through four stages:

1. Mapping to the orthodoxy – the conventional orthodoxy of fast food was that standardized was best and provided abundance. Witness McDonald’s.

2. Locate the cultural opportunity – Orthodoxies change. American society has been interested in healthier food and sustainable practices for at least four decades. Witness the rise of organic and health food offerings at any grocery store.

3. Target the crowd – Consumers interested in healthy food and, in fact, increasingly fearful of farming and ranching practices were ripe for an inexpensive fast food that promised to be healthy.

4. Diffuse the new ideology – Chipotle produced brilliant social media spots touting its commitment to health and sustainable practices.

Advertising has always attempted to lead the crowd. With social media, the better strategy may be following it.