Content Marketing

Google, Social Media, and the Wisdom of Enigmas

Guest post by Daniel Lemin of marketing innovation consultancy Social Studio. He provides brands and agencies with the research, insights and good old-fashioned know-how needed to be more effective marketers.

In the early part of my career I was fortunate to land a job on the corporate marketing team at Google. At the time I felt very lucky (pun intended) to be among the 400 employees of a small but well-known and rapidly growing company. Over time it blossomed to one thousand, then several thousand employees but that unconventional spirit remained.

Doug Edwards, one of my early colleagues and head of the corporate marketing efforts, has authored a book about the culture and people behind one of the world’s most unconventional brands. I haven’t read the book yet (it’s not available until July) so I can lay only cursory claim to knowledge of its contents. But there is at least one element of the early Google culture worthy of discussion as it relates to social media.

It starts with Google’s well known idiom of being an unconventional company, a theme reinforced in its filings to go public. The now infamous “don’t be evil” slogan has become something of a lightning rod for criticisms of the company but permeated all of the big decisions. These nuances left the corporate marketing team struggling to support a brand in such a non-conventional culture. After all, how do you drive brand awareness if you don’t do things in conventional ways? I learned one wholly invaluable lesson from those challenges, one that is as relevant to social media as it is to other media: embrace, and never stray from, who you are at that core. Those cultural or product nuances are probably your best asset, and in a noisy social environment will be the thing that allows you to set yourself apart and be relevant to your fans and followers.

A good, albeit not expressly social, example of this principle lies in the first advertising campaign that Google invested in. Those in the Bay Area may remember it well, a cryptic billboard in 2004 along the 101 freeway:

That’s it. Solve the puzzle and you were directed to a landing page with yet another cryptic puzzle and, eventually, to a landing page designed to recruit employees. Only there was it revealed that Google was behind the whole thing. The thinking was like this: if an unconventional company is going to buy advertising, it’s going to do so in a suitably unconventional way. The billboard, as you’ll note, had no branding on it, no multi-colored logo. Just an equation.

Make Your Content Interesting

This is a principle that many companies overlook when plotting out the content for their social channels. In the race to keep up with competitors they will launch a presence on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Foursquare then struggle to fill that gaping void of content with something interesting. They do it because it’s there and, ultimately, many companies fill it their new channels with content that’s not interesting, or hire viral marketing agencies to produce stuff they think will be funny and hope will have some sort of business outcome.

On the other hand, you have the chance to think like Google and use the nuance of your culture as a competitive advantage. What is it that makes your company tick, and what action are you looking to inspire your fans or followers to engage in? Google’s decision was to pique the curiosity of the mathematically-inclined and challenge them, knowing the subtlety of the problem would be noteworthy in itself. That helped fill the recruiter’s inboxes with resumes, a strategic outcome for a non-conventional program. Slam dunk. Of course, advertising pundits had their own opinions about the campaign, but that didn’t surprise anyone.

Google looked within its enigmatic culture and emerged with a quirky idea to fill the recruiting pipeline. That idea broke the convention of the medium but made the most of the opportunity. That was their concept. What will yours be?

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  1. nrobins1 says

    Great write up Daniel! This is why I always ask clients, “What is your core mission to be in business?”. For my company it is, “To provide education and creative content marketing strategies for SMBs”. For our content, the keyword is “education”. So anything we do, whether it’s social media or paid media, is designed to provide educational value to our target client. Would love to see your portfolio!

  2. Neicolec says

    Thanks, Daniel. Some of us are old enough to remember that ad! And remember how cool we thought it was. I never heard of the “Don’t be evil” slogan, though.

    To some extent, what you are talking about is finding what differentiates you. Ideally, what differentiates you is at your the core of your corporate identity, and part of your values as a company. If your values are solid and unique, you’ve really got a story to tell and a basis on which to build a strategy.

  3. says

    Love it :) This is why I feel so strongly about small businesses using social media, and why it gives them an edge on their larger competitors. They have the advantage of being more in tune with who they are at the core, and they can fluidly express themselves through social media because of that unified personality and small size.

  4. Social_Studio says

    @brittanybotti This is a wonderful point! In a recent conference panel I actually made the exact same point. In many ways, small businesses have an edge over larger competitors due to their lack of scale. It is easy to run a special coupon deal on Foursquare, for example, and pick up the phone to the 15 front line employees responsible for seeing through the transaction to ensure they know it is legitimate. Larger businesses will always struggle with that due to the scale of their operations.

  5. Social_Studio says

    What you say is so true – many times the story and the narrative that really shapes an organization gets lost over time and isn’t translated effectively to marketing efforts (including social channels). You must live in the Bay Area to remember that billboard!@Neicolec

  6. Tikydo says

    I did not know that google was that unconventional. I agree that on the fact that being unconventional can set one apart from the crowd. However, while I can see how this could be applied to a product owner, for an affiliate I think that it could require to have a blog before linking to a product.

  7. OnlineBusinesVA says

    Its good investing in Social media. Social Media platform is ideal for different uses and should therefore have a customized strategy. Due to the rapid rise in popularity and relevancy many online marketing companies now offer Social Media Marketing and strategy development services which are paramount to the success of Social Media as a viable marketing channel.

  8. garious1 says

    I love the idea here of creating something that challenges, something that sparks people’s interest, something intriguing. I guess, this is why those scavenger hunt campaigns became an overnight viral marketing success. Still, what I don’t get about Google is how they don’t seem to fit the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle when it comes to getting social online. Thanks for the awesome advice!

  9. CanyonComm says

    Great example of how Google’s embodies branding, even to the extent of adapting the channel to fulfill its brand promise in the delivery. Another example of Google’s innovative approach is visible in how is breaks all the rules of branding in doodling with its’ logo ( and building brand enviable brand equity.

  10. says

    It’s good to stick to who you are in the core.

    This doesn’t mean you cannot be creative with your marketing scheme though. It just means it has to still be bathed in a coating of who you are as a company. This is why you should always have your company’s mission statement lying around in some drawer at all times!

  11. says

    It’s good to stick to who you are in the core.

    This doesn’t mean you cannot be creative with your marketing scheme though. It just means it has to still be bathed in a coating of who you are as a company. This is why you should always have your company’s mission statement lying around in some drawer at all times!

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