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Social Media: Is Your Content All Rhetoric?


In social media, the audience pulls the strings. Most of the time, our social media activities are designed to encourage the audience to pull strings that favor us – amplifying our content or spreading our message – but if the audience doesn’t agree with what we have to say or sees an opportunity for mischief, we can quickly lose all control.

While many marketers focus on reach and engagement, none of that matters if the message contained within our content doesn’t resonate with the audience.  

Of course, there have always been people who are particularly good at holding an audience, getting them to agree, and persuading them to act. This was just as true two-and-a-half-thousand years ago, when the philosophers of ancient Greece began to analyze and document how the most effective communicators would routinely win the audience.

A rhetorical toga party

Socrates would have thought the internet an abomination. Then again, he thought the written word was a step too far; he argued it would lead to knowledge by rote, not reason. We know this because his student Plato wrote down the first Socratic dialogues (oh, the irony).

While Plato was certainly more open to new media than his tutor was, he still believed the written and spoken word should be dedicated to the pursuit of pure logic and truth, devoid of style and persuasion. Not so his greatest student, Aristotle – one of the most influential philosophers in all of Western thought and the key figure in any discussion of the rules of persuasive language: rhetoric.

Rhetoric is a massive topic with hundreds of documented techniques, concepts, and descriptors. Yet even the basics of Aristotelian rhetoric can help marketers assess and deconstruct their successes and failures in social media communication.

Why? Some questions can’t be answered with data. Why does one message resonate while another provokes a backlash? Why can one brand get away with a particular campaign while another might crash and burn with the exact same idea? Let’s deconstruct just such a rhetorical disaster.

The taxi industry versus Uber

It’s 2015. You’re the association representing the taxi industry in Melbourne, Australia, and customers are flocking to Uber. What do you do? If you’re the Victorian Taxi Association, you briefed your PR agency to run a social media campaign. The website launched in September 2015, inviting people to share their taxi experiences, alongside a social media campaign with the hashtag: #YourTaxis.

Unfortunately the audience was only too keen to share stories of rude cabbies, stinking cars, even abuse and assault. There were also plenty of complaints about a taxi system that is inefficient, often doesn’t turn up, and routinely ignores complaints and feedback.

The campaign also backfired massively as many tweets used the hashtag to compare the negative experience of catching a cab with the far more positive experience of catching a ride with good ol’ Uber. Instead of the taxi industry winning customers back from the ride-sharing interloper, this campaign probably did far more to boost its rival by highlighting numerous reasons why people were making the switch.


The campaign had a good distribution strategy, targeted the right places to reach the intended audience, was well funded and had measurable outcomes, but these were all processes and numbers. Strip all of that away and the rhetoric at the heart of the campaign was fundamentally flawed. And if the message is out of step with the audience no amount of processes and numbers can save it.

If the message is out of step w/ the audience no amount of processes can save it. @Kimota. #socialmedia Click To Tweet

Why should I listen to you?

Aristotle identified three appeals of rhetoric, sometimes called the three proofs. These appeals can be likened to three ingredients that should inform all of your content, seasoning your messaging and communication to your audience’s taste.

The first appeal is ethos: the appeal to authority, sometimes called the appeal to credibility. In short, it’s why you should listen to me and trust what I have to say.

Our perception of the messenger changes our perception of the message. We’re less likely to listen to somebody who we believe has a different agenda, can’t demonstrate sufficient expertise on the topic or – on an even more basic level – is simply “not like us.”

For your message or content to work, there has to be some common ground or alignment between you and the audience. There has to be mutual respect. If not, this has to be addressed first or the audience will simply reject what you have to say.

For content to work, there has to be some common ground or alignment between you & the audience @Kimota. Click To Tweet

The poor reputation of the Melbourne taxi industry – illustrated by the hemorrhaging of customers to Uber and, one would assume, the internal consumer analysis, complaints, and feedback – should have indicated that any campaign or message from the taxi industry would be treated with great skepticism and even hostility. Acknowledging this negative reputation up front might have led to a different insight and a campaign focused on repairing the trust that had been lost.

Back up your claims

Logos is the appeal to reason and was Aristotle’s answer to Plato’s concerns that rhetoric was all style and no substance. Logos means you still need to back up claims with appropriate evidence and reasoned argument.

A perfect example of everyday logos would be a courtroom. Two sides argue a case based on the same evidence and the same established facts. Yet each interprets those facts and suggests alternative explanations or context to argue a different version of truth: guilty or innocent.

Just as in the courtroom, you have to address and ideally refute the counter arguments put forward by the other side of the debate. If you understand the audience and have researched the viewpoints they might hold about the topic – something social media makes easier – you’ll know what the likely objections or criticisms to your message may be. Then you can address these objections up front within the content: “Some people might say … but our evidence shows …” Otherwise, plan how to respond to the likely reactions in advance, scripting various responses so everyone is prepared to answer the hardest questions and handle the curliest of criticisms.

Script responses so everyone is prepared to answer the hardest questions & curliest of criticisms. @Kimota Click To Tweet

It’s also a good idea to have someone perform the job of devil’s advocate. Let that person review your content or campaign ideas to identify the worst possible reactions they might receive once released into the unforgiving wilds of social media. This person should see your message or content fresh, without the context of the planning meetings and internal discussions, just as your audience would. (After all, your followers don’t get briefed on your strategic intentions.) Then evaluate the risk and either change tack or prepare how you might respond just in case.

The #YourTaxis campaign was completely unprepared to handle the criticisms and extremely negative feedback. It offered boilerplate responses that thanked people for their feedback alongside vague promises that this time they would listen. At no point did the campaign or messaging even attempt to address the genuine and specific criticisms put forward by the audience.

Make ’em laugh, make ’em cry

While logos appeals to the minds of the audience, pathos aims for their hearts. It might sound counterintuitive, but pathos may be the most powerful of all three appeals as our decisions and reactions are far more emotional than they are rational.

This may be why, in the absence of anything more constructive to say, the #YourTaxis campaign went all in on an emotional appeal. At an industry conference before the launch of the #YourTaxis campaign, the agency explained the strategy would “… build on the emotional connection Melburnians have catching a good ol’ cab.”

Of course, the social media audience did have a strong emotional connection to taxis – a negative one. Where this blatant appeal to pathos failed was in completely ignoring how the audience felt about the taxi industry. You can’t persuade an angry person to be happy without first addressing the cause of the distress.

All of this was obvious to Aristotle back when a social audience was limited by how far your voice could carry. Today, a single tweet can reach an audience that spans continents, yet the art of appealing to that audience is too often forgotten. Instead of focusing so much on reach, shouldn’t we pay more attention to how our message will be received?

Don’t answer that: It’s a rhetorical question.

This article originally appeared in the December issue of CCO magazine. Subscribe for your free print copy today.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute