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Every time a holiday or big event rolls around, we see companies trying to make holiday social-media tie-ins that can range from successful to strange. While it’s easy to make social blunders by trying to appropriate a holiday into a promotion, this doesn’t mean you need to stay quiet during any holiday season. As long as you know the holiday and your customer base, you can jump into the holiday chatter without making a mess — whether it’s Valentine’s Day this week or something else.

Take the above image, posted on Loyola University Chicago‘s Instagram page. It’s a very straightforward message from Loyola to wish its students and staff a happy holiday. It doesn’t force a sales pitch into a holiday package — which is a big reason it works — but it does raise brand awareness and keep Loyola on people’s minds through the holidays.

“Social media and social engagement should really be about having a conversation, so holidays are a great conversation-starter,” says Glenn Murray, Founder and CEO of 220 Communications. “But it’s about the occasion and not your product — be a strong supporting actor and let the holiday be the star of the show.” With Valentine’s Day coming up, instead of talking about social mistakes past, we’re going to take a look at how your brand can do holidays right.

Keep Your Campaign on Topic

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With any social media campaign, it’s important whatever you’re doing is relevant and topical. If you venture too far afield, your followers may be confused by the holiday connection you’re trying to make, or worse, be offended by it. So before you start planning a big social push, stop to think about whether your product or service really fits with this holiday. If a holiday campaign would be forced, you may be better off skipping the promotion entirely.

“With social media holiday tie-ins, you’ve got to really know what your brand and your brand’s audience will both deem appropriate,” says Denise Blasevick, CEO of The S3 Agency. “You’ve also got to know the holiday — don’t tread on anyone’s sacred ground and don’t do anything wrong because you’re trying to leverage a date without understanding the meaning of it.”

The image above is an example of Blasevick’s holiday strategy, with a social campaign designed for Turtle Back Zoo. For the month of February, the zoo’s groundhog isn’t just predicting whether we’ll get six more weeks of winter, but also other pop culture phenomena, taking over the zoo’s Twitter account for the month.

“Groundhog Day offers a perfect integration between activities at the zoo — people and press come to watch ‘Essex Ed’ see or not see his shadow — and those we can facilitate in our social spaces,” says Blasevick. Essex Ed has already correctly predicted this year’s Seahawks Super Bowl victory — a natural tie-in, since Groundhog Day was on Super Bowl Sunday — and he will be making more predictions as the month goes on. “We really try to mix things up to keep up the factor of surprise while appealing to a wide variety of followers. This is the first year we’re using a hashtag — #EssexEd — and encouraging the Twittersphere to ask Essex Ed to weigh-in with predictions on specific subjects.”

Unfortunately, there are no easy rules on what you should or shouldn’t promote on a holiday. “It really depends on your product,” says Murray. “For example, I have a client that has a relationship board game — it talks about all the questions you should ask before you get serious with somebody. A week before Valentine’s Day we’re going to post on social media asking questions from the game and trying to engage people to talk about it.” With an obvious social connection and relevant Valentine’s Day discussion, that one’s sure to be a holiday hit.

It Pays to Be Creative

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Creativity definitely counts, especially for holidays when social media users see a lot of the same old thing — like an endless parade of companies promoting their products as ideal Valentine’s Day gifts. “If you’re just shoving products down people’s throats it doesn’t work — they’re getting overloaded with that. So you’ve got to be a bit more clever to deliver,” says Murray. “It’s not just ‘buy this,’ ‘buy this,’ ‘buy this’ — it’s giving people a reason to buy.”

Something different on a holiday can really make your brand stand out, like the image above which Shutterstock posted for Pi Day. Though the holiday is all about the number 3.14 (and thus celebrated on March 14), Shutterstock played with the concept by posting an infographic showing the number of “pie” photos the service had. More than just a clever idea, fun concepts like this one have a lot of viral potential, spreading brand awareness with every share.

Whether fun is part of your brand image or not, this kind of lighthearted attitude can be appropriate for many holidays. “Holidays should offer a fun way to celebrate something together,” says Blasevick. “We avoid anything that doesn’t feel genuine, in terms of the brand. Also, if it feels too forced — if it’s too hard to figure out a way to make that connection — we don’t do it.”

But while creativity is important in crafting a memorable message, you don’t want to take things too far, and you definitely don’t want to force a holiday connection in an attempt to be relevant. “Some stores actually do Valentine’s Day sales for printers,” says Murray. “I don’t know any woman who’s dying for a printer on Valentine’s Day. The things that don’t seem like they fit — they probably don’t.”

Whatever your social plans for Valentine’s Day — and holidays beyond — be sure you stay genuine to both the holiday and your brand. Remember, if a holiday tie-in doesn’t feel quite right, don’t be afraid to skip it; you’ll always have more social opportunities, and more holidays, in the near future.

[Image credits: Loyola University Chicago, Turtle Back Zoo, Shutterstock]