Dear brands, please stop trying to be funny on social

I blame Oreo. Insofar as the slightly over-sugared chocolate biscuit can even be blamed for anything, the company's wildly successful piece of photoshop work on Twitter during the Superbowl two years ago was something of a watermark moment for brands on social. The execution was clever, the numbers were high and since then brands have been producing reactive content across social with the purpose of... well, I'm not quite sure actually. The posts often range from the occasional quite clever to the tenuous, lazy and baffling. The birth of Prince George was probably a nadir, as was the announcement of the second royal pregnancy earlier this year (see Chris Applegate's excellent Royally Desperate Tumblr for some of the worst offenders). And still, there's no meme or news event that a brand won't jump on, with Kim Kardashian's #breaktheinternet photos the latest example. Most are awful.

In many respects, this activity is just an extension of the time-honoured tradition of newsjacking - spotting something newsworthy and relevant to the brand and gaining extra coverage off the back of it. Except today, agencies and social media managers have carefully planned calendars noting every potentially notable news event with a photoshopped image or a Vine ready and waiting, plus a few in reserve for moments that may happen (Pepperami, for example, were rather good at this during the World Cup - see below).

There's nothing wrong with this, per se. In fact, those who do it well, do it really well. And when done well, with a bit of planning and strategy behind them, then the brand can really see an uptake in engagement and the rest.

The trouble is, in a lot of occasions, that thought isn't there. As social media has grown and matured, so the nature of brands on social has changed. It's not just enough to have a presence, put out on-brand messaging and do the occasional cool or eye-catching campaign.

Given brands as now as much of the ecosystem on social as anything else, it's natural they want to take this relationship to the next level. Which, in this case, means looking to try and be your friend, do the same thing you'd do, and made witty asides to news stories.

Pizza Express

And here's the fundamental difference. When there's breaking news or a meme I might see what Chris Applegate, for example, is saying. I cannot think of any situation where my first thought would be: "I wonder what Twix or Nissan have to say on the comet landing? I wonder if they've done a funny gif?"

But perhaps my biggest gripe of all is it's not clear what these brands are aiming to achieve. Great, your vaguely amusing riff on Prince Charles' foreign visit got 50 retweets. What does that mean? Is this good? What's the context? Don't just tell me the numbers are good, how does this relate to overall performance? What's the benefit to the brand? How does it fit into the strategy? Are these brands churning out content because they feel they have to be amusing or because it's part of something bigger?

You might well get featured in Mashable or Ad Age in their "brands react to X on social media" roundups, but what's the benefit? You're speaking to other creatives. Great. How will this help build brand affinity or affect purchase consideration. Again, is a photoshopped picture of Kim Kardashian's bum going to encourage me to buy a burger? It may well do. I've no idea.

But there's a huge difference between creating a "funny" and producing content as part of a wider strategy. God alone knows there's a lot of meaningless content created by brands already. It's only going to get worse.

Further down the line, there will be somebody or some agency earning a not insignificant amount of money to produce something with negligible ROI. Yes, social is notoriously difficult to measure against certain metrics, but there is an increasing level of sophistication to it that doesn't mean you can't set goals. Again, is it part of a wider brand affinity conversation? If so, how are you measuring it? How many people can, hand on heart, answer these questions with any degree of conviction?

Not all brands are that bad, of course. You can tell those that know their brand, audience and strategy well for social as it's generally reflected in the quality of their output, and if they are producing something reactive across social, it will usually stand up to a degree of scrutiny and have a purpose behind it.

As consumers get more savvy on social, especially on brand behaviour, it takes something exceptionally good to break through the other noise and make a connection with an audience. And a lazy attempt to hijack something popular just isn't going to cut it. For the love of Zuckerberg, please, brands, stop this now.