The Secret to Great Social Content

hedgehog_fox[Hedgehog & Fox - as found for sale on Etsy by StayAwake in London, Ontario]

First off, the title of this post is misleading. There is no formula, everything is social and it’s not about the content at all.

But with that out of the way, there IS a different philosophy to creating social content and the key to uncovering it lies with a theory posited by Isaiah Berlin*, a philosopher in an essay called “The Hedgehog and the Fox” where he refers to a poem by the ancient Greek Archilochus, who describes the two characters as follows:

“The fox knows many little things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”

Foxes are multidisciplinary, adaptable, self-critical, tolerant of complexity, cautious and empirical, while Hedgehogs are specialized, stalwart, stubborn, order-seeking, confident and ideological. While Hedgehogs look for evidence to support their beliefs and are highly susceptible to confirmation bias, Foxes tend to appear to the outside world as uncertain and a bit scattered.

Bear with me here. This matters.

Quite often, people seek out things like formulas and best practices and all sorts of ways to ensure the best outcomes. Books and posts and articles and infographics are gobbled up whole in order to satisfy an eager marketers desire to implement a ‘highly impactful’ content strategy. These types are Hedgehogs. They will see a popular 700×700 inspirational quote being passed around Facebook like wildfire and think, “A-ha! That’s the key! We need to create more square inspirational quotes!” This results in something like this:

Screen Shot 2013-02-27 at 9.41.22 PM

Not saying that these sorts of techniques are without merit. Hell, it’s been shared 225x and liked 1,274x. I, myself, have deployed a few of these bad boys and achieved great results. But when analyzing any data behind the content I’ve produced, there just isn’t enough evidence to support that a formula alone makes for good, sharable, interesting content. And formulas grow tired and have declining returns.

Hedgehogs use formulas and pump out content that satisfies formulas and when the returns on that content decline, they look around and find new formulas to mimic. This is not only unsustainable, but it’s insulting to the people who are following your content. These messages speak to the choir (who will sing on key), but will rarely incite others to join in.

Foxes, on the other hand, approach content very differently. They may pick up ideas from what’s hip and happening and learn from other successes, but they spend WAY more time figuring out what it is that their customers really care about and work on delivering THAT. This takes all of the multi-disciplinary, adaptable, self-critical, tolerance for complexity and empirical talent they have. They can’t “plan” a calendar months in advance. That would be ludicrous and a waste of time. Their content morphs and bends with too many variables, the biggest of which is the needs of the audience itself.

I wrote about these Foxy creatures at length in my last post on content. It’s not hard to find them, either. Just look at the YouTubers that are killing it with subscribers. Two of them stayed at my house last weekend and when Carlos asked them about their ‘secret sauce’, they looked at him puzzled. In their minds, there was no such thing as a ‘secret sauce’. They just run around with a camera and whatever they think is funny, they record and post. When I told them there were some basic principles, they pushed back and said, “If you start using rules, you stop using your instincts.”

IF YOU START USING RULES, YOU STOP USING YOUR INSTINCTS.

That is a phrase very much worth repeating. Whether it’s Roman and Dennis of SerialPranksters or the incredibly funny Jenna Marbles or my personal fave Hanna Hart, there is no way you can decipher a formula for success. The only things they have in common is that they are naturally funny, have great instincts for what others will find funny and just keep producing. Sometimes they produce huge hits and sometimes they produce misses, but they are consistent and adaptive. (and uniquely themselves)

I’ve tried to explain to clients over the years that the best gauge of what will be well-received is something that they, themselves, would find entertaining or useful. But Hedgehogs have a very tough time shifting to this perspective.

“I would find my PRODUCT entertaining and useful. It’s the BEST!” they answer.

This is where the self-critical aspect comes into play. Most Foxes will say that they are really bad salespeople, but in actuality, they are great salespeople…especially in a cynical world. They don’t think of themselves or their product as “the most amazing whatever”. They never stop wanting to improve and, as a result, end up growing rabid fan-bases because of their humble approach and customer empathy. Many beloved brands I’ve studied carry the self-critical gene: Zappos, Threadless (their motto was actually, “We are never good enough”), Etsy, and Southwest Airlines…just to name a few. They are more focused on their customer’s happiness than their own any day and it shows with loyalty and sales.

But back to content. There is no secret because ‘secrets’ and ‘formulas’ and ‘best-practices’ belong in the realm of Hedgehogs. But if you are a stubborn Hedgehog, and you admit it, there ARE a few ways to become more Foxy:

  1. put down the content calendar and just hang out with your customers (AND your competitors’ customers) more. Not with a clipboard taking notes or with the desire to convince anyone to try your product. JUST CHILL and absorb.
  2. stop thinking of your audience as content consumers. They do not live for your ‘sharables’. They aren’t sitting with index fingers hovering over the like button, eagerly awaiting your next witty post. They have lives and you are a small, teensy part of their daily thoughts. If they don’t think of anything else other than you, you have a bigger problem on your hands.
  3. go to a movie, read a book, subscribe to blogs, skim through magazines — outside of your industry and outside of your comfort area. Embrace diversity and different points of view. Have conversations with people you would never dream of having conversations with.
  4. think really hard about what you are truly passionate about. What makes you laugh, cry, sing…what inspires you. What are you drawn to? Think about this honestly outside of the context of your business. Do more of that. Learn how to trust your instincts again and when they lead you astray…
  5. don’t fret. Some things will work and some things won’t. But keep going and learning from those mistakes. Take criticism with a grain of salt and start to learn what is constructive and what is not. Being experimental and open doesn’t mean you have to bend with every whim either. You’ll learn over time and hone that instinct beautifully.

The ‘secret’ to great social content is about a new approach to thinking. One that is service-oriented and empathetic. A question I always pose to people I work with on content is, “Is this going to make people feel better? Smarter? More in control of their lives? Help them look good to their friends? Help them make more friends? Give them tools to grow? Save them a headache? Time?” If the answer is no, you are really just adding noise. If a tv, paper or magazine constantly put out content that did nothing but serve their own interests, they wouldn’t last long. Every brand has to think like a newsroom now (while every newsroom has to think like a brand, really).

So the secret? Think like a fox, stop following advice and tap into those instincts.

———————————————

* credit where credit is due: I read about Berlin in Nate Silver’s awesome book The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail-but Some Don’t - where the theory inspired this entire post. And I can’t help but point out that I did not gain inspiration for a post by reading a social media book, but a book about statistics, predicting outcomes, sports and politics.

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Categories: community, eMarketing, featured, social capital

Author:Tara Hunt

Strategist. Researcher. Interdisciplinarian. Founder, Lime Foundry + Buyosphere. Author, The Whuffie Factor. Speaker. Mother. Karaoke lover.

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89 Comments on “The Secret to Great Social Content”

  1. March 1, 2013 at 17:07 #

    “IF YOU START USING RULES, YOU STOP USING YOUR INSTINCTS.”: totally agree. And for some reason, I mainly see this in women much more than men.

    • March 1, 2013 at 18:08 #

      @Ippo: I resemble that remark!

      @Tara: While I am not not out to generate social content in particular, your post gives me much to consider about myself and how I approach things in general. I appreciate your thoughts, thank you!

    • March 2, 2013 at 01:58 #

      Ooohhh. That woman/fox, man/hedgehog approach to work idea has so much potential for discussion! Interesting.

  2. March 1, 2013 at 18:36 #

    I really enjoyed your blog post! Very insightful :)

  3. March 1, 2013 at 18:40 #

    Instinct is ofter put aside.
    As a fox, I love the idea of giving it more space :)

  4. March 1, 2013 at 19:53 #

    Great post!! Love that quote :)

  5. March 1, 2013 at 21:35 #

    Great advice – thanks for this!

  6. March 1, 2013 at 21:36 #

    **Really dig the quote and the content of your post…Sad thing is folks “seeking” what is catchy or what is going to get the most views; miss out on just posting something original. I’m an avid reader..so I don’t come on blog sites for that. Truth be told my interest in blogs ARE the posts that are original/from one’s personal experiences/written well and pull me in within seconds.

  7. March 1, 2013 at 22:02 #

    Reblogged this on Longhorn Web Design.

  8. March 1, 2013 at 22:36 #

    This is some great information. There are a few blogging things I’ve done that are foxy, and some more hedgehoggy. It’s a continuous learning experience, and as foxes do, I try to better over time. Really interesting thoughts.

  9. March 2, 2013 at 00:26 #

    I am relatively new to the interwebs of Facebook, blogging and Twitter and find myself already losing interest in some of it because of all of the “inspirational” posts and repetition. Even though I am another information junkie, I try to pull myself away from it and process the fact that, “No, I don’t need to look at any more posts on what awful things some parent did to their kids or what’s happening this week to help the rich get richer,” and, damn, I better be angry about it all.

    I think that your first sentence is a bit misleading in the way you says it’s misleading—you do actually offer some formulas and secrets…and success is about the content.

    But there are all kinds of markets. Not everyone can run after the YA’s, but they seem to be driving a large part of the social scene and lots of people want a piece of it.

    I am trying to forge my own space at ceejae-devine.com, since I was “told” that, in order to be successful in the world today, a writer has to have a platform. Congrats on getting Freshly Pressed. I am finding some really incredible people via this amazing service offered by WordPress.

    BTW, I used to do some felt crafting with my kids and love the fact you were able to find a “fox and a hedgehog” on Esty. Now I’m off to check out a couple of your links…

    • March 7, 2013 at 17:36 #

      Great reply to this article. Definitely too much inspiration out there and not enough honesty about who we really are and how we all “really” think.

  10. March 2, 2013 at 00:57 #

    Reblogged this on Embrace Your Weirdness.

  11. March 2, 2013 at 01:22 #

    Great post Tara. No secret sauce but I enjoyed your post. Very helpful. You can learn a-lot from animals. Including hedgehogs and foxes.

  12. March 2, 2013 at 01:38 #

    I do love this thank you! But I DO have a rule built around the old notion of ‘flaming’. If I think of something I need to write about, I stop myself doing it straight away and I stop myself replying to anything straight away unless I’m impart in helpful information. Errr… the other thing is I am a compulsive editor / rewriter / reviser. Sorry.

  13. March 2, 2013 at 01:44 #

    True words, awesome post :D

  14. March 2, 2013 at 01:56 #

    Really interesting post. I’m definitely a fox person…as my supervisor will undoubtedly attest due, given my scattered approach to project management!

    You have to think like a fox when designing programs for kids, though, right?

  15. March 2, 2013 at 05:41 #

    Cultclassik.wordpress.com
    Pinterest.com/cultclassik

  16. March 2, 2013 at 07:14 #

    I agree with the “start using rules, stop using instincts” concept too. I used to have an editor (at a newspaper where I worked long ago) who was SO rule-oriented. The guy was like a robot. I thought of him while I was reading your blog just now. I’m glad you wrote it. This is fantastic!

  17. March 2, 2013 at 07:48 #

    Reblogged this on Live, Laugh, Love.

  18. March 2, 2013 at 09:10 #

    great post !!

  19. March 2, 2013 at 10:23 #

    Hmm, interesting. I think growing up I was told that everything needed to be analytical and that instincts and emotions were unreliable. So it’s a struggle to develop an instinct faculty that is not a saboteur.
        Hmm, I wonder if the “Hedgehog & Fox” is related to the “Hawk & Eagle”: detail versus pattern.
        Yikes, I was thinking about rules for instincts…eeek,,, I wonder what a foxy eagle would be like… suppose it would chase the mice into the chicken coop and let the fox join in. (mixed parables)
        Enjoyed your article. Thanks.

  20. March 2, 2013 at 13:19 #

    I love the thought of encouraging people to go outside and interact with the physical world as a means to better utilize the virtual world of the internet.

  21. March 2, 2013 at 13:38 #

    Reblogged this on AraBelle!.

  22. mommyjstyle
    March 2, 2013 at 14:12 #

    Very useful and true

  23. March 2, 2013 at 14:13 #

    Ditto on insightful……….. embrace diversity, spontaneity, and hope.

  24. March 2, 2013 at 14:54 #

    Your article is very insightful and helpful!! Thanks for sharing your perspective!!

  25. March 2, 2013 at 15:10 #

    Nice…really nice…

  26. March 2, 2013 at 16:14 #

    “stop thinking of your audience as content consumers. They do not live for your ‘sharables’. They aren’t sitting with index fingers hovering over the like button, eagerly awaiting your next witty post. They have lives and you are a small, teensy part of their daily thoughts. If they don’t think of anything else other than you, you have a bigger problem on your hands.”

    Amen, sister!

    I’m a fellow Canadian in the U.S. (who’s also lived in YUL). I’m also a journalist and NF author, so I never ever take any of my readers, in print, online or at my blog, for granted.

    I think the ease with which one can post, blog and link is deeply misleading and seductive; it’s so quick and easy and coo, you start to think why aren’t your readers stampeding over RIGHT NOW? Because, as you wisely remind us all, they’re busy! As I recently blogged, “think of your readers as small, tired children” with very short attention spans. I think too many content creators forget this, or never even realize it.

  27. March 2, 2013 at 18:31 #

    Thank you!

  28. March 2, 2013 at 19:52 #

    Great article. The last line really says it all. :)

  29. March 2, 2013 at 21:16 #

    Very interesting post – food for thought!

  30. March 2, 2013 at 22:16 #

    Reblogged this on multimediaus and commented:
    Tara Hunt has a very level-headed approach to social content. I like it.

  31. March 2, 2013 at 22:24 #

    I agree wholeheartedly about the chill and observe principle. Businesses actually feed into each other. People have to stop treating rivals like enemies and maybe more like stepbrothers if you will.

    I particularly like this bit of your article ‘IF YOU START USING RULES, YOU STOP USING YOUR INSTINCTS.”

    So true, rules and conventions are great but they can really limit creativity and growth if you adhere to them all the time.

    All in all, a great article Tara. I look forward to reading your other work.

    Thanks

  32. March 2, 2013 at 22:36 #

    In other words, speak from the heart and follow your bliss, eh?

  33. March 2, 2013 at 23:29 #

    Great suggestions in a lighthearted post!

  34. March 3, 2013 at 00:33 #

    Fantastic post, very useful. Looking forward to reading more.

  35. March 3, 2013 at 01:15 #

    Great post. I’ve been told all my life to become a hedgehog and almost becoming methodis but always felt something is wrong and awfully not in place. Thank you for the post and it inspire me to change my approach not just to work but for other thing as well.

  36. March 3, 2013 at 01:18 #

    Reblogged this on The Amber Light's Blog and commented:
    Well, now I know I am a Fox!

  37. March 3, 2013 at 01:21 #

    Great post filled with insightful gems to get me thinking. Thank you

  38. March 3, 2013 at 01:23 #

    Lots of traffic for this post fo’ sho’! Great info and helped me feel like the way I approach my clients and followers IS the best way to go. I have always been a go with what FEELS right and fits in the flow. My blog is eclectic, with major theme, but you never know what I might be posting. And it may have nothing to do with the “theme” of my work. People like variety, they like to be in your REAL life and they like to learn something that will help them live a better life OR affirms that theirs is just as okay as everyone else’s. Thank-you for sharing a wonderful creation and congrats on the FP nod!!! enjoy the ride!

  39. March 3, 2013 at 02:22 #

    Love, love, love! Thanks for the against the grain advice!

  40. March 3, 2013 at 04:40 #

    Awesome, thought-provoking article!

  41. March 3, 2013 at 06:03 #

    Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed! :) I really enjoyed reading your post! Very informative! ;)
    ~Jen

  42. March 3, 2013 at 10:19 #

    Reblogged this on Ramanmalhotra's Blog.

  43. March 3, 2013 at 10:27 #

    Great advice and well written. Thanks very much! P.s. the photo really caught my attention, I love it!

  44. March 3, 2013 at 11:06 #

    Your post is truly wonderful; will make sure that i share it with my colleagues (SMO guys) when i reach my office on Monday:)

  45. March 3, 2013 at 11:19 #

    “IF YOU START USING RULES, YOU STOP USING YOUR INSTINCTS.” I really like that saying!

  46. March 3, 2013 at 15:30 #

    Great blog post and love the hedgehog and the fox

  47. March 3, 2013 at 17:52 #

    make you own path don’t follow :-)
    just think first person has to start from himself .. if he/ she had followed someone than changes wouldn’t been happened…

  48. March 4, 2013 at 02:36 #

    You could also read Jim Collins’ “Good to Great” for a whole different perspective on the hedgehog. That’s not a critique, I truly appreciated your insights on marketing. I’ll be following your blog and hopefully putting your wisdom into practice with my own work. Thank you.

  49. March 4, 2013 at 12:03 #

    Great post.

  50. March 4, 2013 at 14:53 #

    Thanks Tara. Creative minds think outside the box. This article is a nod in the right direction of thought.

  51. Well said! Content matters, but it needs to be organic – your customers can sniff out phoniness, it’s best to be real, and to remain humble. Thanks for the great article!

  52. megacolby
    March 5, 2013 at 03:52 #

    Reblogged this on Technicolby.

  53. March 5, 2013 at 07:33 #

    Reblogged this on Alternative Rootz Video Productions and commented:
    Great blog post about social content. Fox and Hedgehog analogy cool.

  54. March 5, 2013 at 19:15 #

    Great post! I help people with social media and I think the toughest thing to convey sometimes is that there is no formula. It’s a tool not a holy grail. I think people get lost in the technology and forget that at it’s core it’s simply a way to connect with people. The problem is that there are so many people preaching about it but so few who are very good at using it.

  55. March 5, 2013 at 21:01 #

    I’ve always used my instincts and the “pros” thought I was an idiot. But My stuff has been extremely successful. Thanks for the reassurance! lol

  56. March 5, 2013 at 21:03 #

    Reblogged this on jampotjaws. and commented:
    Glad to see I’m not the only one who thinks blogging by the rules is the only way to do it!

  57. March 6, 2013 at 06:47 #

    Great post! Thanks for the food for thought!

  58. March 6, 2013 at 10:23 #

    Hiii. I love your blog a lot. Hence, I have nominated you for the Versatile Blogger Award. Congratulations ! Please visit http://justmikemon.wordpress.com/2013/03/05/the-versatile-blogger-award/

  59. March 6, 2013 at 12:32 #

    Goes without saying how useful this post is in reminding us of the power of intuition. I agree with it completely. There’s magic in following our intuitive instincts. When we follow our intuition, we allow our nature, our true selves, to lead us and not some irrelevant formula we try to force into our personality. Schemes and formulas along with pride is good but only when they are in line with our instincts. Following our instincts will always, without exception, be the right choice no matter how nonsensical it seems.

  60. March 6, 2013 at 17:22 #

    You made me feel better about being a fox…Thank you :)

    • March 6, 2013 at 17:29 #

      Foxes rule! ;)

  61. March 6, 2013 at 21:27 #

    Great time for me personally to read a helpful blog like this. You provide some awesome marketing tips and i need them! I’m hoping to start crowd funding a feature film and am racking my brain trying to think of some smart, affordable ideas to establish a solid social media presence and secure a fan base. Thinking like a “fox” is slick. I planned to go the empathetic approach (I’m a first time filmmaker trying to make it so I would be silly to act anything other than humble.)

    Thank you for sharing! It was a great, helpful post.

  62. March 6, 2013 at 23:17 #

    So, at first I wasn’t really sure where this was going, but actually it made a lot of sense in the end. Now I just have to figure out if I’m a hedgehog or a fox….

  63. March 7, 2013 at 02:24 #

    I was definitely drawn to the post because if the hedgehog/fox plushies, but glad that I stayed for the content. Thanks for the food for thought!

    Lex
    http://www.leftylex.com
    http://www.etsy.com/shop/LeftyLexCreations

  64. March 7, 2013 at 02:47 #

    I’m a 21 year old just about to enter the business of marketing and this is some great insight! Thank you so much!

  65. March 7, 2013 at 03:51 #

    This is absolutely very helpful and insightful. Well written and well deserved in FP. Thanks for this inspirational tips. Trusting our instincts really does work!

  66. March 7, 2013 at 13:05 #

    Reblogged this on segunoluwatosin's Blog.

  67. March 7, 2013 at 20:24 #

    This is a great post! I would like to repost it (with links back) at http://www.theblogbabe.com, is that okay?

    Allison

    • March 7, 2013 at 20:35 #

      Sure! Go ahead and reblog! :)

  68. March 7, 2013 at 22:11 #

    Reblogged this on PR Musings and commented:
    Be the Fox: “If you start using rules, you stop using your instincts”
    Interesting concept for social media!

  69. March 8, 2013 at 04:39 #

    nice, thanks for sharing

  70. March 8, 2013 at 06:14 #

    Your post is very insightful, I am doing online marketing and I agree that great social content is very important, and also it’ll will boost sales! Thanks for sharing :)

    • March 8, 2013 at 14:58 #

      I didn’t mean for that to be the core message of the post. You may want to read more carefully.;)

  71. March 8, 2013 at 17:29 #

    Love “IF YOU START USING RULES, YOU STOP USING YOUR INSTINCTS.” This tends to lead towards more of a “mainstream” feeling blog and then you lose that unique quality behind your blog.

    Its “ok” to have appealing look and feel that attracts people. But, the content being unique is the biggest attraction to growing and maintaining your audience and having real interaction.

  72. March 9, 2013 at 06:18 #

    Great job Tara! My first time reading your stuff. I like your philosophy and will definitely be following your future posts. Thanks!

  73. March 9, 2013 at 17:09 #

    You have to keep being creative to stay ahead of the curve!!!!!!

  74. March 9, 2013 at 19:12 #

    This was a great post- as a university journalism student we’re taught that we should have a particular niche (which I’m sure in many cases is very useful) but I love writing articles and posting blogs that relate to what I’m up to, my friends are interested in or an issue that has just uncovered itself- and not all of it is totally related. I find I write better on intuition and impulse, and I think people enjoymy work more than when I’ve sat down and planned the article to a tee for a small audience.
    Maybe I should show this to my lecturer and he’ll see my point.

  75. March 10, 2013 at 13:59 #

    Great post and glad to know about Foxes and Hedgehogs! I’m a Hedgehog on my art biz blog, but a Fox here on my personal WordPress blog. Some interesting things to consider.

  76. March 10, 2013 at 18:19 #

    Reblogged this on Oyia Brown.

  77. March 12, 2013 at 19:35 #

    This was a telling post for me. As a writer I follow other writers on different social media. Too often they keep using the same tired methods to “inform” me about their books and stories, which is little more than jumping up and down and screaming “Look at me!” ad nauseam.

    I find I am always more drawn to those writers who use a little more artistic effort at marketing. :)

  78. March 13, 2013 at 21:16 #

    Reblogged this on Apple of Life.

  79. March 14, 2013 at 01:05 #

    Foxy thoughts versus hedging your bets. Cool.

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