I Will Follow: Social Media Lessons from U2

Seeking a few friends who wanted to join a band, Larry Mullen Jr. started U2 by posting a note on a message board in the Mount Temple Comprehensive School in Dublin in the fall of 1976, almost 35 years ago.

If that’s not old school social networking, I don’t know what is.

Yet, had Mullen decided to start U2 in 2011, you could presume he may have posted a note to his Facebook wall, or perhaps tweeted his intentions to form a band. And once the guys got together and started jamming, Island Records might have been out of luck; these days they could have just gone Bieber-style and released I Will Follow on YouTube.

Either way, since the mid-80s, Mullen’s creation still reigns as the biggest band in popular music. A corporation unto itself, U2 has grossed millions of dollars on platinum albums and wildly successful tours. Although their underwhelming PopMart tour almost sent the band the way of Friendster and MySpace, nearly bankrupting them in the process, they’re survivors in a dying industry. With all of the transformations and reinventions U2’s undergone along the way, there’s a lot to be gleaned from the history, music and marketing of Ireland’s most famous export.


U2 has always been out in front of technology, and they can teach us a little bit about social media as well.

With that in mind, here are a few lessons from Bono — by the way, how the hell is that guy not on Twitter? — and the boys about Social Media courtesy of some of their most famous tracks, as well as a few deeper cuts for the superfans out there.

Out of Control – The band’s first single in 1979, this tune is a reflection on the idea that the two biggest events in life, your birth and death, are out of your own control. Pretty heady stuff for a bunch of 18 year-olds. But the song’s message rings true in social media: Some things in life can’t be controlled; brands need to realize that as much as they want to, much of the conversation around their product/team/celebrity will be out of their control in the social media space.

Your brand will be discussed across multiple social platforms, and while you can try to influence customers and “choreograph “the conversation by asking questions of your followers or pushing hashtags, you really can’t manipulate them and they’re much more likely to let you know when they’re upset. You’d be best served accepting this reality.

Seconds – “It takes a second to say goodbye…Push the button and pull the plug…say goodbye” – Seconds…that’s how long it takes an accidental tweet or poorly conceived status update to do its damage. Once published, you can’t put the proverbial toothpaste back in the tube. Sure, you can delete the tweet, but it really only takes one person to retweet it, and it’s saved forever. Just ask Chrysler. Your brand and its sullied reputation will be front-page news on Mashable, and these days, CNN as well, and the collateral damage could include someone’s job — perhaps your own.

Tryin’ To Throw Your Arms Around The World – While this tune’s presumably about a hangover (having been to Dublin a few times, this feels accurate), the title is appropriate for social media marketing managers who are tasked with maintaining communities across disparate sites and platforms, and new services are popping up every day. So how do you decide where to establish a presence? You can’t be everywhere all the time. I’d suggest dropping anchor (at the very least, reserving your brand’s username) as services pop-up, and to periodically check in on them to see if they’ve gathered critical mass.

For instance, in the photo-sharing universe, there are plenty of fledgling platforms, but the Celtics have caught on quickly on Instagram with a little bit of effort and by reaching out directly to the nascent platform’s creators. The result? At 10,000+ followers, the Boston Celtics are already the biggest sports property on the service and rank among the biggest brands delivering regular content to Instagram.

Mysterious Ways – Do you have any idea how Facebook’s news feed Edge Rank works? Why does Twitter decide you’re similar to certain people? And how the hell does LinkedIn know whom you may already know (typically, with scary-good predictions until you hit the 500 connections mark) outside of your network? There’s a lot of math behind most of it, with algorithms, data and some common sense logic influencing the suggestions and results. The average user probably doesn’t think about any of this stuff, but there’s some sophisticated science involved.

Elevation – For digital marketing professionals, the advent of social media has brought with it a favorable shift in the personal brand building landscape. Speaking from my own experience, social media has opened the door for speaking and panel opportunities in the past year at multiple conferences around the country. Used correctly, social media can really help elevate your career and professional reputation.

Then again, re-read the Seconds paragraph and remind yourself of how fast you can damage it with a careless tweet.

With or Without You – Simply put, if you’re not creating a presence in the social networks, especially Twitter and LinkedIn, you’re missing out on a lot of opportunity. Professional and career opportunities surface daily on these platforms, and if you don’t have a presence, they’ll pass you by. If you’re not taking advantage of them, your colleagues and competitors are.

Sometimes You Can’t Make it On Your Own – When it comes to social media, you’re not supposed to make it on your own. And if you’re trying to, you’re missing the point. You should be connecting with people you cross paths with in the digital world, both online and off. There’s no harm in making some new contacts and branching out a little. These platforms have helped me make valuable connections in Boston, around the country and across the globe at multiple companies and in various industries where I’d otherwise have no exposure or access.

Unknown Caller – That’s not to say you should accept every random LinkedIn request that comes your way. While most people have no problem with following or being followed by randoms on Twitter, it’s another thing to be expected to accept a LinkedIn request from a total stranger or someone you’ve met only in passing. A LinkedIn connection implies endorsement – and I’m not willing to vouch for someone I’ve never met in person, unless they really bring some serious value to the table online. And even then, I’m unlikely to do it unless there’s really something in it for me in the offline world.

Even Better than the Real Thing – To hear some social media and digital marketing “gurus” tell it, you’d think virtual goods, LBS check-ins, game layers and augmented reality were not only the next best thing, but that they’re even better than the real thing. But you can’t lose sight of the fact that whatever your business is, you’ve (hopefully) got a valuable, real-world product or service that needs selling. And if you don’t, isn’t now a good time to take that $6 billion offer from Google before somebody figures it out?

Either way, the question you need to ask is simple: Will these digital bells and whistles actually help you move the needle, build your database, or accomplish your marketing goals? The good news: If you ever need a reality check, there are just as many naysayers (don’t get me started on LBS/check-ins) as evangelists for most of these trends. So read up…there’s plenty of information and opinions out there.

Miracle Drug – It seems marketers are looking for a secret sauce when it comes to social media success. The truth is, there’s no miracle drug that will grow your social presence. What will work? Building an actively engaged audience takes time and patience, as well as a solid strategy, not to mention some trial and error along the way. But perhaps most importantly, you have to be dialed in to emerging trends and ready to be flexible, as the rules of engagement are constantly changing with little or no warning. Given how new social media is, there’s plenty of unknown to deal with, and we’re all learning as we go.

I know I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Rob says:

    Being both a U2 and social media fan, this analogy is “Magnificent”!

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