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What The Romans Can Teach Us About Social Media Marketing

Social media marketing becomes more competitive every day, with almost countless individuals, businesses, and other organizations taking their messages to digital platforms. It’s noisy. It’s messy. It’s relentless. And while data science and analytics paint better and better pictures of our work, social media marketing can still feel like a crapshoot.

 

Times like these, we can find help in the fundamentals. I’m not talking organic vs. inorganic engagement or reputation management 101.

 

I’m talking basic principles of persuasion. I’m talking about the Romans, ancient Romans. Togas and legions. Those ones.

 

They, too, had their communication problems, and like any good writer or speaker, they stole ideas from others (the Greeks) and added a few pieces of their own. Rome’s most celebrated speaker and writer, Cicero, came up with what he called “the five canons of rhetoric,” that is, the five key ingredients to the process of persuasive communication:

 

  • Invention
  • Arrangement
  • Style
  • Delivery
  • Memory

 

These ancient canons of rhetoric can help us create, frame, and manage social media marketing strategies that are consistent yet flexible, persuasive but not pushy. No kidding. Here’s how, canon by canon.

 

Invention

 

“Invention” here means the creation of ideas, topics, and messages. Ancient communicators devoted much of their time to figuring out methods of invention.

 

What are you going to say? Who are you going to say it to? What does your audience believe in and feel? What about your company, brand, and product is unique and worth building stories about?

 

Explore these questions and much more to strategize your social media messaging. Don’t keep these core messages fixed forever, but have clear ideas and purposes when you do implement the messaging. Think before you speak.

 

Arrangement

 

“Arrangement” for Cicero and his fellow Romans meant the structure of the speech: the introduction, body, conclusion, and so on.

 

Strictly speaking, we can apply this canon of rhetoric to the individual messages we create. Is there a piece of the post that attracts the eye, a piece that first engages the reader, a piece that calls the reader to action? These are some basic building blocks of many social media posts.

 

But we can also apply the Arrangement canon more broadly:

 

How do you organize your messaging so that posts build upon each other? When does it make sense to cross-post between Facebook and LinkedIn, and when does it not?

 

Create posts that work with each other to build a coherent, compelling story about you. Build an overarching narrative to draw your audiences in and keep them around. (See why a clear Invention process is so important now? As we’ll see, these canons of rhetoric work with each other.)

 

Style

 

Style is more straightforward. It’s the tone. The feel. When Cicero spoke before a jury—he was a hugely successful lawyer—he had to make a stylistic call: sarcastic invective or stern Roman Citizen? Appeal to the gods, or appeal to the Senate and People of Rome?

 

Tone on social media is difficult, to say the very least. Strike the wrong tone and your brand could be dead in the water. Strike the right one and your brand could catch fire (the good kind). As soon as your business has a Twitter account, you’ve got the tiger by the tail. Speak well and keep it happy.

 

Your best education here is the real-world successes and spectacular failures of other brands on social media. See what audiences genuinely respond to.

 

Some companies like Wendy’s have made a success of being snarky on Twitter. Arby’s has decided to use food art, memes, anime, and video games references to sell roast beef.

 

A login screen for a video game is recreated using paper and featuring Arby's food.

This post (also cross-posted to Instagram) makes a video game reference. It still features Arby’s product, but its emphasis is on engaging  and entertaining their target audiences on these platforms (younger folks, to say the least).

 

 

On the other hand, during the viral #Laurel vs. #Yanny debate, the U.S. Air Force decided to introduce the unique sound that its A-10 Warthog makes while firing 4000 rounds/minute in Afghanistan.

 

Screenshot of a now deleted US Air Force tweet featuring an A-10 Warthog.

 

Yeah, that didn’t really jive with the vibe of the whole thing, and the post was soon removed.

 

Delivery

 

Delivery regards the performance itself. Another great Roman rhetorician, Quintilian, went to great lengths describing how the speaker’s toga should be handled during their speech. (Keep it neat at first; then, near your exciting conclusion, let the toga become disheveled to eloquently reflect your exertion.)

 

Now, no kidding, delivery is more complex—but just as important.

 

In social media marketing, delivery means deciding which messages should be pushed at what times and on which platforms. LinkedIn for B2B, Instagram and Facebook for B2C, and so on. Your chosen medium and target audience have a very close relation. “Medium is the message” and all that.

 

Delivery also means incorporating multiple media into your messaging. Mix up the medium you use to communicate. Company photos and other images, gifs, memes, infographics, good old-fashioned text, videos—a healthy social media strategy should rely on multiple channels to deliver messaging.

 

Finally, timing is a critical to delivery. The ancient Greeks had a great word for this: Kairos. It’s a word for time that expresses “the appropriate time” rather than, say, clock time.

 

Be sure to post regularly to maintain audiences and engagement. Consider having a regular series of posts that you deliver at consistent times every week or month, like the classic whiteboard Friday from Moz. Post an announcement when your company completes an exciting project. (Remember: “exciting” is defined by your audience and industry.)

 

In addition to scheduled deliveries, remain flexible enough to respond to any relevant current events and trends. Doing so can be enormously helpful, making your social media strategy more organic, and organic engagement is almost always better. Just wade carefully. Watch that tone!

 

Memory

 

And finally, we arrive at Memory. For Cicero, this was simply remembering what he had to say. He and many other speakers over the centuries have had many mnemonic devices to remember their speeches accurately.

 

For social media marketing, Memory is the part that drives us a little crazy, makes us a little paranoid at night.

 

Memory is the structure we build to ensure that all our good ideas and plans actually get implemented. It’s the “management” part of social media management.

 

You have to keep a handle on your Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram—each of which has the potential for great reach and engagement, each of which has the potential for a digital faceplant. You might as well be juggling career-ending katanas.

 

Thankfully, we have tools to manage our social media presence across different platforms. Hootsuite. Buffer. Sprout. Myriad others. Each has its advantages. Research them. Determine which is best for your business and audiences. Use one, lest your campaign sputter out and join the littering remains of countless social media initiatives on the internet.

 

 

Social Media Marketing with the Five Canons

The art of rhetoric, i.e. the art of persuasion, is very old. Above anything else, rhetoric experts have always emphasized the adaptability and dynamism of effective persuasion. These Five Canons blend with each other and are most definitely not a Step 1, Step 2 process.

 

If you never come back to Invention, your strategy will fail. If you never adapt your tone for the situation, your strategy will fail. Think on your feet. Never stop reading the room. Have a plan, but be willing to throw it out. Social media marketing is a crapshoot. Knowing some rhetoric will help. Smart speakers and writers have been discussing how to best persuade audiences for millennia. Don’t leave all that learning on the table when you sign into Facebook.

 




 

 

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