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How 3 Serious Brands Engage Humanly on Social Media


Leaf through a portfolio of social media award winners, and you’re likely to see entrants from the tourism, cooking, and fashion industries. Putting together an Instagram or Snapchat plan for these companies may not be easy, but then again, emerald beaches and platefuls of poké make for great social sharing. 

What about those less-than-obvious brands? I chose three Content Marketing Awards finalists that prove even serious brands can be human and entertaining.

Cisco uses Snapchat to woo new employees

Finding great talent is a perennial problem for technology companies, and hiring young technophiles is particularly important to ensure a strong talent pipeline. Cisco highlights the everyday lives and challenges of young employees – a smart way to entice young professionals to apply to work at the IT and networking giant. Cisco’s Talent Brand Team’s mission is to make personal connections with future talent, and they do that by showcasing Cisco employee voices and their work with technology across the @WeAreCisco social media channels. The challenge is: how to stand out?

#Cisco’s @WeAreCisco uses #Snapchat & #Instagram to recruit new talent on #social. @clare_mcd Read how> Click To Tweet

To connect with university students, new graduates, and Generation Z, Cisco recruited 20 super-ambassador employees (whom they found through social media listening) from several geographies and invited them into a meeting using Cisco’s Webex platform for a launch brainstorming session. That group was soon dubbed the Kitten Rainbow Unicorns (everything that is awesome about the web), and the social media team launched a pilot Snapchat program that effectively handed over the keys to the #WeAreCisco Snapchat account to these young unicorns.


Each day, one of the employees  (the program has now grown to 70+ Snapchatters around the globe) was responsible for creating a Snapchat Story about what it’s like to work inside Cisco. (To ensure that the project didn’t run off the rails, each member had to sign the Cisco Social Media Policy, promise not to share the password, and go be themselves.) After three weeks, the pilot was transitioned to an ongoing effort. The Kitten Rainbow Unicorns get together to share ideas for future takeovers, and compare notes about what works well and what doesn’t.


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“In just over a year since our pilot program, we’ve doubled our unique views each day, and we average 60-70% completion rate (how many people watch from start to finish on each Snap). Our research indicates that is 20-30% more than the industry standard,” says Carmen Collins, social media lead for  Cisco’s Talent Brand,

The idea of employee-generated content is found throughout the WeAreCisco social media channels, including  Instagram. In the same way the team found ambassadors for Snapchat, they’ve identified employees posting photos of life at Cisco on Instagram, and through listening on the #WeAreCisco hashtag, they request permission to amplify the photos and stories on the @WeAreCisco Instagram account. You’ll find a similar strategy on all of their social channels.

“Through employee-generated content, we’ve got authenticity which builds trust. Our Instagram account, for example, has grown organically (no paid followers) from 0-20K followers and double industry engagement rates,” Collins says. ”While it’s not like our takeovers on Snapchat, it’s the same idea, customized for each social media platform.”

CalSTRS reaches millennials with quirky financial content

CalSTRS is well known as the largest educator public pension; it provides benefits for more than 914,000 California educators and their families and has an investment portfolio worth over $213 billion. The pension fund conducts annual surveys to ensure that it’s reaching its members and positively influencing their behavior relative to saving and investing – and a more recent survey showed it could improve its outreach to early-career members who might not be as savvy (or motivated) about retirement planning.

The fund decided to put a greater effort into its Facebook page — specifically, ensuring that its educational content has a human face. As CalSTRS explains in its CMA submission, “Our voice is youthful and positive, but never inaccurate or silly.” CalSTRS publishes original videos, humor, and teacher-interest stories, and news about the CalSTRS portfolio. It publishes more than 25 posts per week, many of which are repeating themes such as Pie Day Friday, Investments 101, and Teacher Talk (profiles of California educators). The posts share educational information, but do so with fun and quirky humor. It’s proof that money management need not be such serious business.

.@CalSTRS publishes on #Facebook to ensure that its educational #content has a human face. @clare_mcd Click To Tweet

Merrill Lynch wants to stand out on Twitter

Speaking of serious money management … financial advisers Merrill Lynch wanted to ensure that its online content didn’t suffer from serious-subject syndrome. The company’s Twitter handle, @MerrillLynch, is its key content distribution channel to share information about smart money management as well as cast the brand as a sage adviser to customers and prospects. But getting attention for financial news on Twitter is a bit like trying to keep your umbrella right-side out in a hurricane. The social team at Merrill decided to take a different, less staid approach.

Rather than only publishing the serious stuff, Merrill experimented with newer and more-playful formats. For Father’s Day, it published a “GIFographic” that shows the current state of paternity leave around the world.


View full GIFographic

And it published a Twitter Gallery Card that highlighted the benefits to cities “When the Political Convention Comes to Town” (#RNCinCLE; #DemsinPhilly). “It’s all about giving followers experiences that are memorable, timely, and useful,” according to Merrill Lynch in its CMA submission. The company is also becoming more adept at using hashtags and leveraging influencers to get greater visibility for its content online.

Give #Twitter followers memorable, timely, & useful experiences, says @MerrillLynch via @clare_mcd. Click To Tweet

Finally, Merrill uses its internal thought leaders to deliver just-in-time content to media outlets during big news events in the financial industry. (For example, after the Brexit vote.) And it uses interactive polls and questions during these breaking news events to keep the Merrill-made available videos of experts sharing the latest thinking from its BofA Merrill Lynch Global Research conversation open and engaging. The result: With nearly a half-million followers, the @MerrillLynch handle has the second largest following of all wealth management firms – and more than Money magazine’s handle.

What can you learn from these unexpectedly fun examples?

1. Develop a clear plan.

Earlier this year, Melissa Eggleston wrote a great article about finding your brand’s identity – and why that matters. She explains, “Identity is constructed from core values. It’s the foundation that informs both an organization’s culture and its brand(s). When identity is unique – or clear and distinct – an organization will attract an audience that shares its core values … Companies that do not have clear, responsible sets of core values applied effectively come off as inauthentic and inhuman.”

Companies that don’t have clear, responsible sets of core values come off as inhuman. @melissa_egg Click To Tweet

If you’re not sure whether quirky content or a playful voice would work … it’s possible you don’t know what your company stands for or at least haven’t spelled it out clearly. In other words, uncertainty may be a sign you need to work on brand identity, personality, and voice BEFORE you embark on a new content initiative.

2. Don’t force it.

Want to know the perils of straying too far from your company’s identity or consistent voice? Who better than to warn us than Jonathan Crossfield? Jonathan chronicles the mishaps of well-meaning but overly artificial brands on social media. (And what happens when brand banter just isn’t funny.)

3. Talent-facing content is a great place to begin.

If you’re shy about using humor across your social channels, you may feel less constrained with employer branding – particularly if you’re trying to attract a younger crowd. Consider starting with employees or future talent prospects to try out a more playful tone and voice. Tim Washer, an SNL writer and creative director at Cisco, has great tips about how to exercise your funny bone.

4. Consult your younger professionals.

Cisco understood that to use Snapchat it needed to consult its younger workers (who else would come up with Kitten Rainbow Unicorns). Always ensure that if you’re trying to reach a certain demographic, you have a planning and strategy team that includes that demographic. That will save you from the perils of trying too hard.

You need to have a planning & strategy team that includes the demographic you want to reach. @clare_mcd Click To Tweet

5. Think in terms of repeating themes.

Rather than attempting a wholesale personality change, why not try it in small doses? Weekly themes give you permission to break from the serious stuff. For example, CalSTRS’ Teacher Talk repeats each week and is expected by its audience. (My all-time favorite version of this is GE’s takeover of the Hey Girl meme — though in that case swapping out Ryan Gosling for Thomas Edison.)

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute