Hot or Not: What Works and What Doesn't on Social

Here’s the thing about those 121,000,000 Google results for ‘What Works Best on Social’: none of them pertain specifically to your brand and its respective fans. So instead of wading through 17,285,714 pages (yes, I did the math) to find the answers, I’m going to attempt to simplify things for you. And while I can’t give you the definitive blueprint for social media success, I hope to provide you with the adaptable mindset necessary to find that winning content calendar. 

One of the mistakes that’s often repeated when creating content for social media is overthinking it. Since the attention span of a user on social media is equivalent to that of a goldfish, you simply can’t afford to. And we did just that with one creative direction for Smith & Forge Hard Cider on Instagram.

Smith & Forge has a voice, tone and visual identity deeply rooted in 19th Century America. It was a time when the transcontinental railroad was little more than a pipe dream and electric bills didn’t exist yet - because, well, there was no electricity.

We wanted to emulate the best content Instagram has to offer - beautiful, resonant photography, but with an overlay and aesthetic that’s unmistakably Smith & Forge. So we reimagined contemporary DIY, but with humorous 19th Century concoctions instead:


Our writer found formulas often used back in the day - like this remedy for hair care. Then our designer and myself would acquire the actual ingredients, or what looked to be the actual ingredients. We then placed a filter reminiscent of old-timey silver plate photography known as a daguerreotype, and wallah! We had ourselves an awesome social post. Heck, even the commenter @grgry agreed. Fast forward a few weeks and we’ve now posted a series of similarly performing Smith & Forge Life Hack posts.

As thrilled as we were with the end result, it was hard not notice the better performing, simpler shots of the tankard, as seen below:


136 Likes and 6 comments for a simple tankard shot, compared to just 50 Likes and 1 comment for what our team considered to be the most aesthetically pleasing visual we’ve ever developed for the brand.

Now, how on earth could that be possible? We were absolutely convinced that our Life Hack posts would excel on social - particularly Instagram, a platform seemingly tailor-made for professional photography enthusiasts. 

But in my experience, the age-old adage “keep it simple, stupid” has a tendency to rear its head when you least expect it to. And it’s an apt descriptor, considering how foolish I felt after scratching my head at the results of Life Hacks. 

We severely over-delivered for a social media post. It was a great looking visual, sure, but not necessarily what our fans wanted out of our channel. Instead, it became abundantly clear that they have a proclivity toward:

  • The rich amber color of the liquid.
  • Close-ups of the packaging - what we refer to as “Product Simple”. 
  • Easily digestible content. Remember the goldfish?

So what did we do? We rolled with the punches, and adapted: 


The above was our proposed (and approved!) solve, along with the results.

  • We zoomed in on the product, even doubled down on the product, showing both the bottle and can. 
  • We made Smith & Forge the focal point, ensuring it was secondary to nothing else. 
  • We altered the copy so that the concoction was now up to the interpretation of the user, as opposed to us having to spell it out for them. 

And above all else, we adapted. We found a happy medium, somewhere between storytelling and product simple photography - and the result doubled our engagement from the last top-down creative.

And ultimately, having a willingness to adapt might be the most valuable insight I can share with you. Be malleable, and be prepared to set aside personal creative preferences in favor of consumer creative preferences.

Approach your content calendar with a willingness to accept failure, and learn from those shortcomings. After all, why do we fall? So that we can learn to pick ourselves up. That’s a Thomas Wayne quote, not mine. But the most efficient way to find true success is developing a creative litmus test - and that requires occasional shortcomings.

Besides, building a social media channel is just the first step. Maintaining it is an entirely different ball game. So how does a Community Manager provide consistently fun and engaging content when limited solely to responses?

Let’s say you’re a Community Manager tasked with responding to fans as opposed to content calendar creation. Some view response-centric Community Management as the bane of creativity. I see it as a golden opportunity, just with slightly tighter parameters! Glass half full, right? 

Much of what I employ today in Community Management comes from a book by the same name, Marketing Outrageously by Jon Spoelstra. In it, Spoelstra explained how he turned a $12,000 rubber-chicken investment into roughly $2.5 million in revenue. Jon was brought in as a marketing consultant tasked with reviving the Sacramento Kings' season ticket renewals back in the 90’s. 

Typically, that was done with renewal letters issued to fans. The only problem was, fans weren’t opening the letters. 

So Spoelstra comes in, drafts a letter and ties it to the leg of a three-foot-long rubber chicken wearing a jersey that read, "Don't fowl out!". It was absurd, but genius - not only did people read the letter, it led to that aforementioned $2.5 million in revenue. 

That outside-the-box thinking is something I always strive for in Community Management. And when applying that mentality to user responses, the results speak for themselves: 


For Beth here, I had to do a bit of sleuthing: 

  • I saw that she was an avid gamer and huge fan of Counter-Strike.
  • I also saw that she had a sizeable following on Twitter, so there was a lot of potential in a retweet.  
  • And, she just so happened to be talking about McDonald’s, without @mentioning us. So I knew it would come as a surprise to her that we reached out.  

So I tailor-made a response for her, and that massive engagement was the result. But here’s the kicker: it was the best performing post from McDonald’s Corp.’s Twitter that month - and it was a simple response, not a published Tweet that was delivered to our followers. And it wasn’t the only time, either: 


That last one might seem like a foreign language to you, but it certainly didn’t to the user - it was more Counter Strike lingo. It’s amazing how well a curated response can perform with a simple Retweet and subsequent Reddit post, isn’t it? And if the brand team really trusts you, images can be thrown into the mix as well - like what I did here for Hefty:


Notice that Claire made no mention of @Hefty in her original tweet? Again, proactively engaging with users traveling in the same circles as your brand works wonders, especially if said user has a sizable following. And yet again, this post performed better than any single piece of uploaded content for Hefty that month.

If the above has taught me anything, it’s that the only constant to social media is change. Not just for the viewers, but for us as well. It’s a constant process of learning, adapting and overcoming the challenges of standing out in a noisy space. And having a willingness to alter content what hasn’t worked - even if you hold it dearly - is integral to the success of your content. 

So to answer that question about what makes a winning content calendar on social? To put it simply - experimentation! Don’t look to the content creation and community management examples of others as a blueprint. Because what’s working for their social channel might not necessarily work for yours. And at the end of the day, why would you want to fit in when you could find a way to stand out?