Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram have become increasingly crowded with branded accounts seeking your attention. Every few seconds, your favorite brands are tweeting at you.
But what most people don't know is how much time and effort goes into curating these accounts, writing tweets, and filling your news feed with content people want to see. For instance, it can take a team of at least four social-media and advertising specialists up to 45 days to plan, create, approve, and publish a corporate social-media post.
To learn more about the process, I spent a morning at Huge, a digital design and advertising firm that runs the social-media accounts for eight brands, including TD Ameritrade and Audi. At the agency's New York office, a team of five social-media gurus spend their days keeping tabs on conversations across Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and whichever social app pops up next.
One Expert Versus 800 Million Amateurs
Of the many changes the internet has brought to the advertising industry, few have been as profound as the explosion of social media.
The emergence of massive platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram have forced brands to compete for users' attention against just about anyone with an internet connection. They are easily ignored. It's a far cry from the days when they simply purchased your attention with 30 seconds of TV airtime or a full-page ad in a magazine.
This crowded free-for-all for eyeballs is the driving force for an entire industry of social-media professionals, a group of internet-savvy, primarily young people charged with mastering media that's so new most colleges don't offer courses on how to use them.
But what these attention-wranglers do all day remains something of a mystery to those who don't work in the industry. After all, the allure of social media is that it's open to anyone who wants to participate. How, then, does one differentiate between an expert and the more than 800 million amateurs who log in to Facebook each day?
What I found is that while the act of pushing out a tweet or posting something on Facebook takes a relatively short time, social-media managers spend countless hours monitoring the internet in search of trends to chat about and customer comments in need of response.
And if someone important decides to interact with a brand they're working on after midnight on a weekday or when they're spending time with friends on a weekend, well, it's not called real-time marketing for nothing.
"Social media is definitely perceived like you’re just dicking around on the internet all day, and I do a fair amount of that," said Andrew Cunningham, a Huge community lead. "But the thing is, it just never ends. It’s a 24-hour-a-day job whether I like it or not."
The Tweet That Took Two Months
While those interactions require real-time reflexes, other posts are planned well in advance. Take this tweet, which Huge posted for its client President Cheese on April 30, but had been in the making for nearly two months.
The planning began in early March, when one of Cunningham's colleagues on the social-media team, Jessica Lindsay, sat down with a Huge project manager and someone from the agency's strategy department to begin planning social-media posts for April.
There, they discussed general themes the brand could talk about over the course of the month and create a calendar of proposed post ideas. In April, the brand would be continuing its "Art of Cheese" campaign, which provides its 100 Twitter followers and 220 Facebook fans with tips on how to best enjoy its products.
The campaign had previously been running on various food and cheese blogs before Huge created President Cheese's social-media accounts from scratch at the beginning of April.
Shortly after the initial meeting, Lindsay met with a copywriter and graphic designer to brainstorm tweet ideas for the next month. It was then that the copywriter suggested a tweet centered on the idea that Camembert, a French cheese popular during the spring, was best served at room temperature.
The copywriter and designer met the next week to create the image for the tweet, which was then pitched at a team meeting alongside other posts for April. The meeting includes Lindsay, the copywriter, a designer team, and a project manager.
Then it's on to an internal review, where senior copywriters and strategists sign off on the work over the course of the following week. The post was then sent to President Cheese and, some 45 days after conception, published on the internet for the world to see.
Thus far, the post has yet to be retweeted, but it has generated two favorites.
Cunningham said that about one-third of Huge's social-media posts are planned in this fashion with the rest being written on the fly. The exception to this rule is TD Ameritrade, which as a banking brand has a much stricter approval process.
'We Don’t Read Newspapers Anymore, Or Even Turn On The TV'
As for how the team spends the rest of its time, Lindsay says her day starts at 9:30 in Huge's social-media war room, which is outfitted with four huge screens that monitor brands on a variety of social-media analytics programs. There's also a TV in the room that the team has tuned to in case of a major news story that requires Huge's brands to excuse themselves from the social-media conversation.
Upon arrival, Lindsay and her colleagues check TweetDeck and Facebook to get a real-time pulse of what's happening on social media and to see if their brands have any messages that need response.
“It’s just so instinctual to check Facebook and Twitter in the morning to see what the news is," said Megan Toth, another Huge community manger. "We don’t read newspapers anymore, or even turn on the TV.”
Then, the team consults its editorial calendars, documents that outline a brand's plans for the month. The calendars include high-level goals, as well as a schedule of the posts the community managers plan to publish on a given day.
'If People Give You A Hard Time For It, It's Really Because They're More Jealous That They Don't Have A Fun Job'
By the time I visited in late April, Hard Candy, a cosmetics brand Lindsay works on, had already planned out how it would discuss Mother's Day and prom night, two important events for its female demographic.
On that day, Lindsay was in and out of meetings with the brand plotting out how it would bring the experience of attending an event it held for beauty bloggers to fans on the web.
The team splits the rest of its day compiling statistics on how people engage with their posts and compulsively refreshing social-media feeds in a manner that will be instantly familiar to anyone who has come of age in the post-Facebook world.
The ability to count this activity as "working" is both a gift and a curse.
"If I tell someone, 'Oh, I didn’t see your text,' it’s like, 'bull f---ing s--t. I know you’re logged in 100%, 24 hours a day,'" Cunningham said. "Every notification that I get is viewed within minutes."
Still, there are some benefits to what Cunningham calls a "connected lifestyle." Being on social media all day requires Huge's team to stay on top of the latest trends, allowing them to get paid to do the things they'd be doing in their free time.
Often, these activities are things that would get people working other jobs in trouble with their bosses. And that, Lindsay says, is what makes the job so much fun.
At the very least, it beats plodding through spreadsheets all day.
"If you’re on any social platform, it’s OK. If you’re reading an article to find out what’s going on, it’s OK," Lindsay said. "I think that if people give you a hard time for it, it's really because they're more jealous that they don't have a fun job."
Correction: An earlier version of this story said 13 people could work on a tweet at Huge. That figure was based on a statement made by a Huge community lead that a President Cheese team meeting to approve April's tweets was attended by Jessica Lindsay, a copywriter, a designer, and a team of 10 to 20 strategists. After the story was published, a representative from Huge said that the meeting was attended only by Lindsay, a copywriter, a designer, and a project manager.