The importance of honest real life stories in social media marketing

Written by Norgela Gediminas

Part 1

Web 2.0. in recent years has changed the whole concept of business to customer communication. Years ago it was common that marketers spent huge amount of money just to communicate one-way message about their company or product via media. TV, newspapers, and magazines were the main communication resources at that time. 

However today social media has changed it. People spend less time in front of their TV (Nielsen, 2014) and sales of physical newspapers are going down because of the rise of the internet (Greenslade, 2014).  Additionally people pay less attention to ads show on media. For example, TV viewers pay attention only to 20% of all broadcasted ads (Teixeira, 2014). Users do not actually need to do that anymore, because ads have two types of content which bring value to a user – information and entertainment (Teixeira, 2014). Unfortunately today the first one can be substituted by Internet almost completely.

This was a reason a reason why brands adjusted their communication. Today there is a lot of brand of presence of brands in social media – social networks, video sharing sites, blogs and etc. This way of communication is perceived as cheaper than traditional advertising (Fournier and Avery, 2011). However, traditional approach which is focused on specific attributes and a paternal voice (Holt, 2002) was not welcomed there (Fournier and Avery, 2011). Internet was built to connect people to each other, not to create a new communication tool for marketers (Fournier and Avery, 2011). According to Holt (2002), modern brands should behave like complete members of society. Even though they have tried to create perceived authenticity in post-modern branding paradigm, today it should be not only perceived but also a real authenticity (Holt, 2002). It is so because consumers started to see the commercial purpose behind it (Holt, 2002).

As a result, brands have to be closer to people than before. Social media gives marketers a tool to do that. The whole concept of it is based on two-way communication, thus consumers are able to engage with a brand and even co-create its value. Brand building strategies on social media usually include relationships, interactivity and tailored offerings (de Chernatony and Christodoulides, 2004 cited by Christodoulides, 2009). This type of communication facilitates user engagement, thus they are willing to create user-generated content around the brand. This interaction creates additional value to a customer, as a result they want to share such content and establish their own identities by sharing.  Additionally this leads to stronger and closer relationships between companies and customers (Van den Bulte and Wuyts, 2007, cyted by Christodoulides, 2009). However user-generated content and co-creation of brand value lacks control, thus brands are not able to manage the final outcome completely (Hennig-Thurau et al. 2010 cited by Singh and Sonnenburg, 2012). 

According to Shih, Lin, & Luarn (2013), brands should apply fan-centric strategy in order to facilitate strong relationships.  This type of strategy is focused on understanding needs and desires of fans and providing them with content which they really want. This can include interesting topics which are not directly related to purchasing communicated by honest and positive language. In this case fans of the brand are even more important that the customers, because fans are willing to engage with the brand on social media and comment and share brand-related content. As a result, they become brand advocates and spread message to others by the electronic world of mouth. (Shih, Lin, & Luarn, 2013)

However, not all brands behave in a way that social media users want them to. Since social media was established to connect people, they want to do so. Some brands still use their selling messages to gain user attention, but it is only distracting users from the purpose of connecting with others. Some of the social media marketing specialists recommend that only 10% of all content brand publishes on social media should be the promotional one (Brady, 2013). This sounds more than reasonable since people come to social media websites to read informative and entertaining content which they would like to engage to. Brands on social media compete not only with each other, but also with other people (Baer, 2015), thus they have to create a content which is equal to and as interesting as content created by other people. Together with Holt (2002) ideas this shows that brands should behave like normal people on the internet, thus their communication should remind honest and real-life stories. Nevertheless these stories can still be used to communicate core brand message to consumers, but this real-life dimension stimulates higher user engagement. For brands wich are using social media it is important to understand, that they are in the social environment, thus they should also follow the social rules (Barwise & Meehan, 2010). Any kind of social media has its own unwritten rules and only when brands are willing to follow them, people will start to respect brand related content and it will be accepted (Barwise & Meehan, 2010).

Furthermore, Facebook recently have changed news feed algorithm which will have an impact on self-promotional organic content from pages (Loomer, 2014). This decision was made after a survey asking users how they feel about the content of their newsfeed (Facebook for Business, 2014). People like to see stories which are related to them – for example from friends, or content from page which they really like to follow, however, they are usually irritated by promotional content (Facebook for Business, 2014). The rules have been changed for organic content, thus Facebook will show less from pages who try to directly push people to buy product or download an application, ask them to enter promotions with no real context or use the same content from ads (Loomer, 2014). As a result marketers will have two options either to pay for Facebook advertising or to create more engaging, creative and human approach content, so there will be more real-life authentic stories in Facebook marketing at least. Therefore, social media providers have to listen to their users and feel pressure because they want more authentic content, thus social media has to adapt and push marketers to make more engaging content. 

As a result, these facts should lead brands to create more authentic and natural content. Nowadays brands invest a lot of money to create highly polished messages in a quality which cannot be achieved by an ordinary user, either it is a video or printed advertisement. Usually, they chose to use people which are considered in society to have nearly perfect appearance, moreover, photos of them are even more improved by special photo editing software. In addition, these advertisements remind beautifully looking but unrealistic, usually ideal looking expensive studio environment. Such advertising helps companies to emphasize features of products or services, however it looks artificial and inauthentic. Avoiding this type advertising and switching to more organic visual information can reduce the distance between companies and users.

However, there are many examples in contemporary advertising, which are based on more real-life and organic appearance. One of them is Dove “Real beauty” campaign which emphasized a natural beauty of women and used casual looking models in advertising (Singh and Sonnenburg, 2012). Moreover, many celebrities like Lady Gaga, Beyoncé, Brad Pitt and many more started to speak against photo manipulation and require to show them as they do really look (Miller, 2014).

In addition to this, businesses started to avoid “stock” photos in current online design trends, because these photos look unnatural and lack story behind it. For example, company Google last year redefined their design language, which today is called “material design”. It is a set of principles, which should be used in web and mobile applications in next years, according to current online design trends. One of the main points of these principles is to avoid “stock” photography, because photographic stock and clipart are neither specific nor interpretive. It is recommended to use the unique voice and express creativity. The images should tell a story, be quite specific and contain real-life context behind rather than be universally applicable to any kind of topic. (Google Material design introduction, 2014)

What type of photography should companies choose according to current design trends? Source: Google Material design introduction, 2014

    Finally when brands decide to create a strong real-life story it is important to remember that stories have to be strongly related to core values of the brand, because stories will be associated with a brand. Stories have to contain specific elements such as locations, problems, situations, attitudes and more which cause to listener feeling of empathy (Woodside 2010 cited by Singh and Sonnenburg, 2012) and help to recall story afterwards (Schank 1999 cited by Singh and Sonnenburg, 2012). Together with empathy brands should also create a basis for consumers to fit their own experiences into this story, thus they will be more connected to it and willing to engage with it (Escalas 2004 cited by Singh and Sonnenburg, 2012).


Since traditional communication methods are losing their effectiveness, brands are focusing more computer mediated communications. However, marketers try to use traditional advertising techniques to spread their messages there. Unfortunately it was one of key reasons which pushed consumers away from traditional media, thus brands are repeating the same mistake. It is important to remember what was the real purpose of the social media, thus people want to connect with other users there, not to watch promotional messages. Content created by other users is more important on the Internet, as a result brands there have to compete not only with each other, but also with content created by other ordinary people. As a result brand can use real-life authentic stories which are accepted and supported by users, thus, it is a practical tool to build brand awareness, empathy or emphasize brand values on social media. These stories facilitate user emotions because they are “closer” to consumers and most of them will find something in common with these stories and will fit their own experiences into it. 

On the second part two cases will be described where two different brands (WestJet airlines and Maroon 5) used real-life stories to increase their brand awareness and user engagement.

The importance of honest real life stories in social media marketing. Part 2. Cases.

    In the first part different literature was used to analyze the importance of honest and real-life stories in contemporary social media marketing. Users have a bigger connection with stories like that, thus their engagement is also higher. This is a result of too many promotional messages on social media, so there is higher demand for organic and genuine content from the brand. Real-life stories help to eliminate the gap between companies and consumers, thus they remind content of ordinary social media users, which is more valuable. In both of these cases brands have included at least some of their consumers inside the story, as a result this created empathy among others and facilitated user engagement.

WestJet airlines Christmas ad 

The Calgary-based airline WestJet decided to use Christmas period and spread the mood around their customers. The brand-focused campaign was developed in order to communicate and emphasize WestJet’s caring culture and of course increase brand awareness. This action was based on a short 5 minute YouTube video, which was interactive for airline’s customers and employees and at the same time sentimental and full of emotions. The experience of participants was captured and broadcasted for others via social networks. The video was filmed with hidden cameras, thus genuine emotions of ordinary airline passengers were shot, and as a result it created a sensational connection with viewers what inspired high user engagement.

Real-time giving campaign was created together with 250 travelers. Guest who were traveling on one WestJet airlines flight next to departure gate were able to scan their boarding pass and blue (the brand color of the airlines) Virtual Santa appeared on a large screen. People were asked what they would like to get for Christmas by him. Company received various requests such as “socks and underwear” or “large screen TV”.

The WestJet “Digital Command Centre” was able to compile the wish list of each passenger because all the data was gathered. Right after that 175 volunteers based on destination airport went to purchase all the personalized gifts from a wish list. (Shorty Awards, 2014).

Passengers at their destination airport found a surprise - decorated baggage carousel which brought not only their luggage but also wrapped presents, which they asked for Christmas. Their reactions were filmed by 19 hidden cameras. Thus, it was able to capture real unplanned emotions.

The short 5 minute video was launched on WestJet’s YouTube page on December 9, 2013. The video was supported by PR announcements and promoted posts on Twitter and Facebook. In addition to this, The Calgary-based airline promised that they will provide free flights to a family in need, once the video will reach 200,000 views. The video was viewed more than 100,000 times within first 16 hours and after couple days it became the fifth most shared viral ad globally in 2013. (Shorty Awards, 2014).

    Additionally, a strategic communications plan helped this campaign far exceed planned objectives and increased company’s sales during holiday season unexpectedly by 86% compared to the previous year. The video was viewed more than 40,000,000 times (, 2015) in 235 different countries, thus brand awareness grew globally. However this video was not only viewed so many times, but inspired user engagement as well. There are more than 20,000 user comments (, 2015) and more than 170,000 shares (Shorty Awards, 2014). It is measured that promoted posts on social networks gathered more than 42 million impressions on Twitter and 3.2 million impressions on Facebook. Additionally WestJet managed to get 4 times more day fan posts on Facebook compared to competitors during the first week (Shorty Awards, 2014).

It took 2 days for this video to attract attention of the largest news networks across North America such as CTV, CNN, ABC, The Daily Mail, The View (WestJet blog, 2013). All these and many more created more than 328 million PR impressions all around the world (Shorty Awards, 2014).

    This whole campaign was very successful and brought results which were many times better than intended. This short emotional story communicated WestJet’s core values and engaged with users all around the world. This significantly increased brand awareness and created more loyalty opportunities. In addition to that this campaign was also praised internally by employees who communicated the main message with all other stakeholders via their own personal networks (Shorty Awards, 2014). 

Maroon 5

Famous American pop rock band Maroon 5 decided to use their fans in order to promote their new song called “Sugar”. The core idea was to engage with theirs fans while making a new music video. 

The band visited various weddings during 6 of December, 2014. They surprised all the participants by unplanned performances. At first group of people enter the ballroom and start to transform it to a small temporary stage hidden under the curtain. The whole crowd seems to be confused, but right after the curtain drops and all participants are astounded by a performance of such a famous band. The video ends with all participants dancing around the stage and it looks that Maroon 5 idea worked brilliantly. 

The whole video is full of screaming noises and beautifully made scenes try to capture honest emotions of surprised people. This video “is making many brides-to-be hopeful that Adam Levine (singer of Maroon 5) will surprise them at their upcoming wedding”(Inquisitr, 2015). This real-life situation tries to engage with viewers and make them feel that they could be in that place too. Unfortunately most of these weddings were staged, however one of them was confirmed to be “legit” ceremony. This ceremony was selected when the band invited their followers on Twitter who are going to get married to participate in their upcoming video (Inquisitr, 2015). 

    Despite the fact that not all ceremonies were authentic, the band tried to hide this fact and managed to make a video as authentic as possible. As a result since 14 January, 2015 this video was watched more than 133 million times on YouTube and was shared more than 400,000 times on different platforms. Even for the biggest music stars it is hard to achieve such numbers in such a short period of time.


Both of these cases emphasize the importance of a real-life stories in contemporary social media marketing. Genuine emotions of ordinary people facilitate other user feelings and these stories become more related to them. The success of these cases together with other facts such as that Facebook will minimize amount of promotional content on organic newsfeed and the Google is expecting that all the brand will use more authentic information in their content can prove to us that there will be increasing number of stories which will remind to consumers real-life situations. Moreover, the brand which will implement strategies like this or any other fan-orientated strategy will benefit significantly more, especially in a long term, than brands which will be still using traditional branding techniques such as promotional content. 


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