Why sites and social should take up the tango

Richard Branson is showing how Twitter feeds and websites can do each other a lot of good, David Bowen says

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I’ve just been listening to a whale imitating a woman saying ‘hello’. It is quite extraordinary, and can be found here, embedded in article by Sir Richard Branson on the Virgin.com website.

What is interesting – apart from the whale itself – is that I got here by clicking a link on Branson’s Twitter feed. So what, you may say, that’s what Twitter is for? Indeed, I reply, but two years ago we said that Mr Branson’s Twitter feed managed to ‘outbland Mr Cook’, with posts such as ‘Talk less – smile more’. Something has changed.

There is still only a handful of CEOs who tweet, and most follow Tim Cook’s masterclass in blandness. These still read like a string of vaguely liberal clichés. To pick a typical scattering from the last couple of months: ‘Nothing inspires us more than fresh ideas’, ‘Happy #MothersDay to all the moms at Apple and around the world’, ‘We’re committed to supporting powerful innovation that helps protect the planet’, ‘Democracies depend on a free and diverse press’. Why have 11m people bothered to click ‘follow’? Perhaps it’s a vague form of political solidarity: I’m pretty sure it’s not because they are blown away by the messages.

The difference between Branson’s and Cook’s tweets (and indeed between Branson’s tweets now and two years ago) does not however lie in the text of the posts, but in the links that accompany it. Sir Richard’s tweets have their share of blandness: ‘Success never happens overnight, keep repeating your steps and walking in the right direction’. But while Cook’s posts are full of hashtags – which simply lead to other Twitter streams – nearly every Branson one goes to Virgin.com.

We know from our analysis that social media is a poor driver of traffic to corporate websites. The percentage of visitors coming from social channels tends to be tiny. But I would be surprised if that were true for Virgin.com. Branson has 12.6m followers, and nearly all his tweets point to the site. They must surely be a major source of visitors.

Of course the other key element is to have stuff on the site that is worth visiting. If Branson’s tweets went to nothing but promotion for his many companies, people would swiftly get fed up. With the exception of Virgin Galactic, which is a heaven for those of us who like boys’ toys and loud noises, the companies are pretty dull. Users of Virgin Trains may feel that ‘dull’ isn’t a strong enough word.

But Branson (or whoever writes his tweets) now points mainly to stories that are fun or intriguing, while Virgin.com is doing its bit by hosting as many such stories as it can. Some are written (or not) by Sir Richard, some by his children, but relatively few are corporate or marketing stories. Although Virgin.com was around (and looked similar) two years ago, it had a much more promotional – and duller - feel.

All this confirms our belief that social media and websites are most effective when they work together. Which is why it is encouraging that, as the governance project we are now working on shows, most of the most sophisticated corporate communicators now run them from the same team. We will be watching closely to see if traffic between them picks up as a result.  

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If you have a query or for more information about Bowen Craggs, please contact Dan Drury: ddrury@bowencraggs.com.