Social Media Lessons from Russian Trolls

Put politics aside. This isn’t an article about that.

This is what I’ve learned from reading about the Internet Research Agency and their actions. Some of these are rules that I knew before but were emphasized or reaffirmed.

(1) Social Media is an Effective Channel

The Clinton campaign spent $581Million. The Trump campaign spent $340 Million. That leaves us with a difference of $241 Million dollars.

There are conflicting reports on how much advertisement was sold to the Russians trolls. One report says roughly $300,000 in Twitter ads and $100,000 in Facebook. TechCrunch reports the number was as low as $46,000. A third report from Business Insider says it could have been $1.25 Million a month.

The point is the total, even the most generous reporting, is much less than either campaign. It’s much less than the difference between the two campaigns.

Social media can be a really cost-effective channel. You just have to know what it’s good at and how to leverage it.

(2) Focus on Headlines

Are you actually reading this or just skimming the bullet points?

The internet doesn’t lack for content. People are becoming more judicious in how they spend their attention. No one has time to read long content (like this) unless it is enticing. A great headline bundles all the relevant information (or, at least, the sentiment/idea you should walk away with) in an irresistible way.

One of my favorite social media stunts of all time was when NPR published an article on April Fools Day stating that Americans no longer read. If you clicked the article link you learned that it wasn’t a real story. Rather, they wanted to see who actually took the time to read. Many people didn’t click and chimed in that they still read. Even though the hadn’t.

(3) Boosting Posts Works

There are tons of articles that argue boosting posts is a waste of money. However, it allowed for the very targeted distribution of fake news (excuse the unironic usage).

Facebook has an algorithm that determines what small percentage of people will initially see your post. This group is like a test group. If they engage with your post, Facebook thinks “Oh, it must be good!” and then shows it to more people. When you boost a post, you’re gaining control over who is in the test group and increasing the size of the test group.

Assuming you are targeting the right group and providing them the right message, you are planting the seeds for virality.

(4) Recipe for Virality: I Can’t Believe It / I Knew It

Boosting only works if the audience picks up your message and amplifies it. Crafting a viral message is hard, but I think these events give us some clues to a recipe.

Fake news has a balance of “I can’t believe it!” and “I knew it!” For example, Trump protestors were paid by the DNC? It’s an outrageous headline, but it completely resonates with what the target audience suspected to be true.

The “I can’t believe it” element has to be exciting and incredible. It has to be just out of the bounds of truth. It has to feel like breaking news from undercover journalists. The pay off of the headline being true needs to be big. It has to feel like a gotcha moment.

Then you must balance it with the “I knew it.” It has to be just believable enough. It has to be what the target audience secretly suspected and is now being affirmed. It has to fit in with the mental model the target audience has constructed.

The viral headline has to validate and enhance existing beliefs. Go too far with either ingredient and it becomes a conspiracy theory or something everyone already knew (boring).

(5) Trust

The quickest way to get someone to trust you (despite knowing nothing about you) is to say what they want to hear. In that instance, they aren’t trusting you, they are trusting their own idea thanks to your validation.

Don’t get them to trust you. Reinforce and expand the idea they already trust in themselves.

(6) The Truth Comes Out

Ryan Holiday has a great book called “Trust Me, I’m Lying” in which he shares his story of manipulating the media while working for American Apparel. He outlines the tactics he used but warns readers that the beast you feed will eventually turn and bite you.

As we’re seeing in this instance, the truth comes out. If you want to use the above lessons, make sure that you do so with the best intentions. Respect people’s attention and dignity.

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