“Think of the end at the beginning, always.” That’s what my previous boss and mentor constantly asked of me. As a young social media manager, getting into the habit of thinking through each pitfall and every improvement opportunity was critical in helping me grow my career.
My boss also taught me the importance of social media silence, a strategic measure we take during times of crises—local or national—and halt all social media publishing. In the wake of one of the largest modern social movements in history, it goes without saying that a lot of brands are rethinking their place in people’s social feeds.
As a social media manager, you understand your audience better than anyone. You’re the person who takes the time to understand what your audience wants, demands and needs. And sometimes that’s knowing when to speak up and when to say nothing at all. To successfully navigate a crisis, I always fall back on those two lessons passed onto me by my mentor. Always think through every potential pitfall your brand might fall into, and know when your brand needs to stay silent.
What is strategic silence?
To clarify, social silence is not the same as going dark, something several brands have done in recent weeks. Rather, social silence means pushing pause on any social content that isn’t relevant to the current events or contains information that is critical to your audience at this point in time. It’s a strategy that should be used sparingly and only during times of crisis or extreme unrest.
In my time as social media strategist at the University of Colorado Boulder College of Engineering & Applied Science, we’ve previously implemented social silence for emergency incidents on campus and after a tragedy. There is no timeline or anticipation for how long this silence lasts; it can be one hour or one month. And for the posts that do go out, which are usually emergency messages, the tone we use is concise and objective.
When you implement social silence, you:
- Acknowledge there is nothing “business as usual” about the current environment.
- Maximize the reach of critical messages that your audience needs to be aware of.
- Minimize the potential to come off as tone deaf or insensitive to the situation.
At the same time, the thought of going silent can be scary for some organizations. However, just because your brand is going silent that doesn’t mean:
- Your engagement rates will drop. They will recover eventually and trying to hit your metrics goal shouldn’t be a priority in times of crises.
- You can take a break from your job. This is an opportunity for social media managers to help influence the direction of their social strategies and contribute to key decisions.
- You have to stay silent. As a representative for your audience, it’s your responsibility to ensure their messages are elevated to the people in your organization who need to hear their questions and concerns.
- You’re going unnoticed. In the COVID era, the transition to everything digital has elevated everything about the work you do and every move you make on social is being scrutinized.
- You have to always be “on.” A West Virginia University study found social media managers struggle with their mental health especially during a crisis, so be sure to ask for time off and space when you need it.
What the University of Colorado College of Engineering & Applied Science learned from two weeks of silence
In response to the nationwide protests, the University of Colorado’s College of Engineering implemented social silence across all of our platforms in the beginning of June.
One of the main reasons why we enacted social silence was because of our audience. Based on our community’s Tweets and Retweets, we knew our audience’s focus was on issues pertaining to Black Lives Matter and the protests. This ultimately informed our decision to pause our usual content and silence our feed so our audience could focus on the issues sweeping the country. The screenshots below show when we enacted silence on our feeds (May 27) and when we began to roll out our usual content (June 22).
When we look more closely at our impressions and engagements pre- and post-social silence, there are two spikes in the graphs that tell an interesting story. Our engagements are recovering much quicker than our impressions, with engagements in June much higher than the bump in May, yielding a higher engagement rate per impression.
This proves our audience didn’t abandon us during periods of silence and came back when the time was right. Additionally, we learned going silent positively influenced the way our audience engaged with our content. For context: the bulk of engagement on our usual content typically takes around 24 hours while the majority of our engagement on our crisis messaging took place within the first 30 minutes of publishing.
Putting social silence into action
For strategic social silence to work, you need a combination of your gut instinct and support from your leadership team.
Bring supporting evidence to help make your case for why silence is needed. Do you have social data or feedback from your community to justify going quiet for a few days? What are other universities saying and doing during this time? Consider outlining what social metrics you’ll measure when the university goes silent and how you’ll prepare to go back to posting as usual. Lay out what you hope to achieve with silence, as well as the consequences you risk facing if you decide to continue with your regularly scheduled content.
Looking at the university’s feed and the messages we were getting tagged in, I decided it was time to implement social silence and shared a formal recommendation with my supervisor. After talking through potential outcomes and how silence would impact the content calendar, we both concluded it was best to silence our feeds. We also identified how we would use social data to determine if this decision was successful or not within the first few days of implementing this strategy. With the buy-in to go silent secured, we immediately paused all of our scheduled content in the Sprout Social platform.
Going silent helped us achieve a few things. For starters, it ensured our audience was only able to see content they were interested in seeing and was relevant to the protests. And it helped the university amplify our most important messages, like a statement from our leadership team. We learned our audience turns to our social media channels for timely information, and that’s how we’ll continue to treat our feeds as we look ahead to the fall semester.
Knowing when to go back to posting as usual
Brands, of course, can’t stay silent forever. And audience sentiment will play a huge role in determining when the time is right to go back to posting as usual. If the issue at hand has yet to be resolved and your audience is still talking about it, that’s likely a strong indicator that silence should continue. You’ll know when the time is right by using a combination of your gut instinct and what your audience is telling you.
When it’s time to post as usual, start slow. To test the waters, we began by posting objective research stories at half of our normal posting frequency over three days. In addition to measuring audience sentiment, we used impression and engagement data to see if the slow rollout was resonating with our community. During this 72-hour period, we saw a healthy amount of impressions and engagements, indicating our audience was, in fact, engaged. By the end of the 72-hour period, we were back to our normal posting frequency.
Had we seen a stagnant amount of engagements and impressions during our silence, we would have pivoted accordingly and begun reintroducing our usual content calendar. Social data and audience sentiment were crucial factors in understanding when to resume posting as usual and if the silence was even working.
Never underestimate the value of saying nothing
As a strategy, social silence is often under-appreciated by many brands. These past few months have only emphasized both the importance and the value in pushing pause on our regularly scheduled content every now and then.
Strategic social silence gives brands an opportunity to reevaluate their publishing calendar and to better understand how their audience views their social media channels. It also gives brands a chance to amplify the messages their communities want to hear and minimize the potential of appearing tone deaf. In times of crisis, your brand will be judged by your audience on the moves you make and how you respond. And sometimes, the best response any brand can take is to say nothing at all.