It started as a joke and exploded into a media storm, securing mass international publicity – encouraging people to talk about a rather obscure competition.

It was Boaty McBoatface! When the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) opened an online competition encouraging the public to submit names for its latest research vessel, we can only imagine what it was expecting. Perhaps famous arctic explorers or renowned historical leaders of relevance to the polar regions in which it would be operating (it’s been commissioned to conduct research in the Antarctic including studying ice sheets and marine life).

Instead, the suggestion of ‘Boaty McBoatface’ was offered by a former BBC Radio presenter turned communications manager, James Hand. At the last count, the nomination gained over 124,000 votes, making it the most popular by a long shot. The website even crashed after receiving so much traffic – although its fate is still being decided by Government!

After the mass media attention, Mr Hand took to Twitter to apologise to the NERC. Julia Maddock, acting associate director for communications and engagement, insisted the Council was “delighted” with the publicity as it was generating conversations and people were getting involved – precisely what it wanted.

Ms Maddock was even quoted as saying: “No need to be sorry James, we are loving it.”

In an age where social media is everywhere, we’re often reminded of both the benefits and pitfalls of it. We see crisis case studies, ‘how not to’ examples and gaffes (typically political) being widely shared. But, like Boaty McBoatface, we also see creative executions and quirky suggestions that are fun, interactive and which quickly go viral.

So, what can we learn from Boaty McBoatface? As a communications manager James Hand is obviously adept at crafting engaging content. As a professional, before posting his suggestion, it’s likely he would have also considered the potential negative repercussions of his tweet and whether any of that negativity could have been harmful to him or his employer.  But he made a bold suggestion which paid off.

Social media is all about content sharing – so don’t be afraid to be brave with tweets and posts, but if working on behalf of a company of brand, consider whether it fits the profile.

Timing is key. More customers now post to social media with their complaints and customer service issues, so be sensitive to that. If your company is facing a tirade of negativity, posting a tongue-in-cheek comment or quirky video will just provide another avenue for unhappy customers to direct their frustration at.

Shareable content is key to consumer engagement, yet it can also lead to a person being discredited or the downfall of a brand. Once you post on social media, you cannot control how far it goes.

Brands can maximise the way they use social media by adhering to their core values, being consistent and delivering engaging and shareable content that is relevant and on brand.

It is worth noting that with increased social exposure, there is the need to increase and maintain engagement levels, whether the sentiment is negative or positive. And responses should always be in-line with key messaging.

Social media is here to stay. As Boaty McBoatface highlights, the results of interesting, engaging and shareable content cannot be denied. But don’t underestimate the power of social media. Ensure you have a plan in place which is audience relevant.

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