Turing Test Your Social Media

December 20, 2017

Could your social media messaging pass the Turing test? In 1950, renowned scientist and mathematician Alan Turing proposed a simple test, originally called the Imitation Game, to determine if a machine could, in a blind test, fool a human judge into thinking it was also human and, therefore, intelligent. Turing’s test, which has since become eponymously known, marked a dawning moment in the field of artificial intelligence, and his pioneering work remained the benchmark for verifying if a machine possesses artificial intelligence (AI).

Passing the Turing test has become the focus of modern AI engineers. The coveted prize for being the first to pass the Turing Test was awarded for the first time in 2014, when a supercomputer impersonating a 13-year-old fooled 33% of judges asking spontaneous questions at London’s Royal Society. Ironically, as more AI supercomputers get closer to passing the Turing Test, many of us in the digital marketing and communications industry are increasingly likely to fail a similar test with with our social media audiences. By favouring efficiency over emotion in our messaging, we sacrifice the most compelling aspect of our communication—our humanity.

Social media’s value to businesses and marketers lies in the ability to humanize brands and create meaningful, genuine connections with audiences that are timely and direct. As information condenses and competition for our thinning attention spans increases, the way in which we adapt our engagement with audiences becomes the vital and essential metric for businesses seeking to control their brands. As it turns out, entering these conversations with the cold and sterile language typical of corporate communications—the press releases, annual reports, and other similar kinds of copy—can rob our audiences of the authenticity and immediacy of social interaction that drew them to social media platforms in the first place.

Take these headlines for instance:

Does it sound like a human speaking? Or does it sound like a robot masquerading as one? The tone and language reads at best like typical sales copy and at worst like corporate jargon. Despite their different industries and offers, the posts above share a common cardinal sin of social media: putting product before personality. The content doesn’t open a conversation—it only asks the audience to open their wallets.

It’s second nature for marketers to state the offer and end with a call to action. For traditional media, it’s still the best practice, because with traditional media it’s the end of the conversation. In new media, old habits die hard, but they need to die, regardless. When crafting our content, we should consider our message, our audience, and the environment in which our content appears. The pithy headline style of news and magazine publications may seem like a great fit for social media—it’s condensed and punchy, which is what the platforms demand—but the social environment only emphasizes how robotic and unfeeling this style of writing is.

The warm message People Magazine is trying to share captures the disconnect perfectly. The person behind the copy defaults to the journalist’s formula for a lede, juxtaposing a humble moment of human compassion and connectivity with the cold, clinical style of a bygone era of print media efficiency. This might still work for breaking news in the digital age, but it’s not something you want to replicate as part of your brand identity.

Consumers have grown skeptical of marketing and corporate messaging, especially younger demographics who have grown up immersed in media that’s saturated with marketing and corporate messaging. In social media especially, our tone and language determine how our audiences see us. What we say is often less important than how we say it.

Successful brands have embraced a new approach.

This year the fast food chain Wendy’s has been the subject of countless online listicles thanks to its cheeky approach to community building. It’s often said “flattery will get you nowhere”, so the social media team at Wendy’s took the opposite route by mercilessly roasting its audience and its competitors—and the community loved it. Their tweets were rude, offensive, and even crass at times, but most importantly they were human.

Not only did Wendy’s receive tremendous community engagement, their new approach  translated into financial success. In their 2017 Q1 and Q2 reports, Wendy’s cites their social media activity as a significant contributor to their success.[1][2]  Of course, these gains resulted from more than their just social media presence alone; but it’s undeniably an integral part of their brand as a whole.

This doesn’t mean you should insult your audience to connect with them. It means you connect with your audience by approaching them with a relatable, human tone.

What do all of the tweets above have in common? Not one of them is pushing a product. Whether it’s jokes, practical workout advice, or the encouragement of a child’s creativity, each of these brands are connecting with their audiences in a way that’s meaningful for them and representative of the company’s values. Not only do they understand their audience—they understand what their audience wants from them.

More than any other medium, social media allows you to build a relationship with your audience. Consumers don’t want relationships with machines, and they don’t want relationships with inhuman corporate entities. They want relationships with brands that act and feel like real human beings.

Sonic the Hedgehog was once one of the best-selling videogame franchises of all time, directly competing with the industry’s de facto mascot, Mario. After it’s creator, SEGA, moved away from developing hardware in the form of home consoles, the quality of Sonic games notably declined, and the character fell into relative obscurity. Even the most devoted fans acknowledged the blue hedgehog’s fall from grace, and Sonic became a punchline within the videogame community. So how does a punchline stay relevant? By making jokes, of course.

SEGA adopted a new strategy for Sonic’s official Twitter account that acknowledged its own history of shortcomings and consequent “meme status”. By embracing their position rather than opposing it, they effectively embraced the community and created a meaningful connection between the character and its fans. In his interview with The Verge, Aaron Webber, the man behind the Sonic the Hedgehog account, discussed the glaring problem SEGA faced:

“A lot of the posts were very comfortable, very corporate, very bland marketing. Buy this, support this, check this out. I felt like Sonic’s attitude wasn’t there. Sonic and Sega, especially in the ‘90s, had such a signature attitude, and that’s what made them stand out so much.”

What is it that sets accounts like Sonic and Wendy’s apart from the competition? What’s unique about the way their audiences connect with the brands? Simply put, their brands are genuine. They demonstrate self-awareness and an acute sense of the culture in which they’re participating and the audience segments with whom they’re engaged. Essentially, it’s what they say and how they say it.

Now look at your own social media messaging. Read it aloud. Does it sound like something a human would say? Would it pass the Turing test? If not, it’s time to re-evaluate your social strategy with your audience in mind, and talk like someone you’d want to talk to.