The thing about the Internet is that you can never truly control how users will perceive, edit, store, or disseminate your information.
And if you’re a corporation or a business or some form of formal entity utilizing the wonders of social media for advertising and marketing, one has to be equipped to anticipate, cope with, and address your audience when the message spirals into a stream of backlinks, clones, and reactions.
As a scholar of self-branding and celebrity on the Internet, here are three quick observations on some incongruence in the recent social media branding campaigns at the University of Western Australia (UWA), where I am currently enrolled as a PhD Candidate.
Backlinks and clickthroughs
On its official ‘The University of Western Australia – UWA‘ Facebook page, the managers of the page (presumably from University Marketing?) embedded a link to what appears to be the official page for the mascot, ‘Laurence the Peacock‘.
And said official ‘Laurence the Peacock‘ page looks like this:
The description of this page lists a website, ‘http://www.uwapeacocks.net/‘, which leads to a blog with several pages of photographs and histories of the peacocks that roam the campus grounds:
However, as a dotnet, it is clear that this site is not an official University-managed or -affiliated page. Apart from a stark contrast from the UWA visual identity managed by University Marketing, the website also lists a ‘@gmail’ email account, as opposed to the official ‘@uwa.edu.au’ standard. That a series of officious web presences would list an informal page (albeit with seemingly legitimate and well-constructed information) does not come off as branding savvy.
Clones and parodies
I assume parody pages are usually the bane of every officious marketing team, but I personally think they are a brilliant measure of the audience’s perception – and more crucially – reception of the brand. Parody pages are a neat archive of what your audience really thinks of your product and message, albeit caked in layers of irony, sarcasm, wit, and humour, which can be frivolous and playful, or productively subversive and critical.
What the marketing team needs is a critical lens and a firm grasp of Internet vernacular in order to get to these organic responses.
Founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg @finkd has attracted a parody account on Twitter, @notzuckerberg, that often provides biting commentary on Facebook privacy policies and the politics of other social media platforms. (Please also check out the very brilliant @notofeminism for an education in feminism in Internet speak.)
However, these parodies are not always palatable or productive to all segments of the audience. Because, some times students are just, you know, playful.
Ownership and redress
Later on, a controversial image of some UWA mascots launched and photographed during the official rebranding campaign on campus was posted on the ‘UWA Students‘ page (it has since been removed). While it took a few days for the public to notice, when the bad publicity gained traction, it circulated widely and quickly across several social media platforms with critical commentary and disapproval from staff and students. The image was particularly inappropriate and offensive to many members of the UWA body (and for this reason I will not republish them here).
The parody ‘Lawrence the Peacock‘ also remixed and parodied the image by editing the caption to alter its message. Crucially, it was this parodied caption that playfully expressed the rousing disagreement and anger towards the conceptualization of the original image. However, apologies seem to be… in progress.
I say ‘in progress’ because, while it was the official University Marketing behind the campaign, an informal apology was posted on behalf of the (presumably) University Marketing team on the less officious ‘UWA Students‘ Facebook page, as opposed to the official and more widely reached ‘The University of Western Australia – UWA‘ page.
In the comments section, many students expressed regret and discontent regarding the lack of transparency in assigning responsibility and redress throughout the incident.
On a brighter note and to give credit where it’s due, the ‘UWA Students‘ Facebook page has previously been rather interactive and social media savvy in engaging with their student population, especially in their integration of various social media platforms including Twitter and Instagram, as well as their creative videos and giveaways that often attract students.
What to make of all of this?
Internet vernacular is truly a skill.
One cannot simply map existing practices of advertising and branding onto the social media sphere. This media ecology has generated its own inherent logic, praxis, and vocabulary over the years, and becomes increasingly contextualized as you narrow down to your target audience.
The official ‘Laurence the Peacock‘, for instance, has been curating a rather contentious brand image thus far.
It is unclear if Laurence is meant to undertake the persona of a typical University student, if he (yes the Peacock was officially introduced as a gendered male at the launch) is playfully mocking student habits, or if he is a parody account given the ways the University’s newly branded ‘#pursueimpossible’ has been juxtaposed against a series of images portraying a ‘darker side’ of student life.
Social media branding is appealing, has the potential to attain virality, but can also easily backfire if not properly understood and crafted. For other brands who have mastered this elusive skill, see, for instance, Smosh’s or Daily Edge’s list of witty corporate Twitter accounts.
To my knowledge, the other prominent official Facebook pages affiliated to UWA are ‘UWA Student Guild‘ and ‘UWA Postgraduate Students’ Association‘. Playful ‘Overheard at UWA‘ is also popular among students, whereas ‘UWA – Cuts Hurt‘ has become popular among postgraduates at the University for organizing activism against cuts to higher education.
Social media branding is tricky business.