Published: 13 June 2016
In June of 2015, something strange and miraculous started happening to Sega’s official Sonic the Hedgehog Twitter account. The keys to the company’s most important social media accounts have been handed over to a happily deranged gibberish-spouting lunatic… and it’s the single best thing the company has done in nearly two decades.
Over the past twenty years, SEGA and their most iconic character have gone through a rough time, to say the least. Despite having a firm grip on the entertainment console market in the early 90s, the start of the new millennium brought about the end to SEGA’s hardware legacy. The company was forced to focus solely on software due to lacklustre sales in comparison to Sony’s immensely popular Playstation 2.
The hardship didn’t end there.
Even though Sonic The Hedgehog games continued to be released, virtually every one of them was a critical disaster, with reviews citing an abundance of bugs, errors and a general lack of overall fun. Words like “unplayable” and “doomed franchise” started appearing in 2006, and this trend continued right up to the most-recent release of Sonic Boom in Christmas 2014. Abysmal sales followed, and soon after, nostalgic-affection for the mascot dwindled to a minimum. The spiky blue hedgehog had fallen from being a childhood hero for many, to become nothing more than a joke amongst his old fans, as well as the new generation.
Its unclear if the years of failure prompted Sega (now at one of the lowest financial points in their history) to shake things up, but for whatever reason, shortly after the release of Sonic Boom, Sonic the Hedgehog’s Social Media Manager left the company.
With that, a new Social Media Manager was hired, and after a few days of generic posts, it became apparent that whoever this person was, they intended to take a different tack with the account. See if you can spot where the change happened.
Yeah. Not really what you’d expect from the corporate mouthpiece of a company worth tens of millions. As the days went on with ever more increasingly bizarre and “unprofessional” posts going up, people even began questioning if the account was actually a genuine Sega account, and not one of the many parody or troll accounts that are all over Twitter.
As damaging this may appear to be to a Sega’s reputation, news spread of the burgeoning madness on Facebook, Buzzfeed, gaming publications and amongst fans. As a result, followers flocked to the account in staggeringly huge numbers, doubling the total follower count in just 6 months, and earning another 75k followers since Christmas 2015.
The savvier among you may have also noticed the engagement difference between the older posts and the new.
Running the Asylum
It’s fair to say that most Social Media management – whether handled solely by a specialist, or by a marketing manager who takes it on as an extra responsibility – is understandably played pretty safely. In an age where teachers can be fired for having a glass of wine in their hand on Facebook, most would agree that playing it safe is the way to go, especially when marketing to children.
However Aaron Webber, the man behind the Sonic account, decided to take a risk. Being a fan of the character since childhood, he decided to channel the old “radical” surfer attitude of the 90s by making the account stand out. He was brash, bare-facedly uncaring and even more incredibly, he mercilessly mocked the product, as seen here in this tweet, pointing out the ludicrous physics of a particularly bad entry in the series.
He went so far that he thought he “would be fired within a week”, but presumably due to the amazing reaction, Sega kept him on and encouraged to keep it up. That’s the key to all this. In order to gain back the disenfranchised audience, he decided to do something most marketers would not: he acknowledged the decades of fan disappointment, instead of ignoring it. In other words, Sonic became a joke, so Webber embraced the laughter and joined in with the crowd. And it worked.
Whatever pitfalls may face the series in the future, Webber’s work on the Sonic Twitter account has clawed back the love that many fans had lost for the character, and now more people than ever are listening to what gems of wisdom he has to say.
Live and Learn
One of the most important factors of managing a corporate Social Media account is establishing, and keeping to, Tone of Voice. What fascinates me about the story of Aaron Webber and the Sonic Twitter is how the Tone of Voice was shattered, then bizarrely re-established to be an even better fit for the audience.
All it took to achieve that was trusting in an idea that made sense, even if it broke convention, then doing it anyway.
As I work in Digital Marketing and contribute to managing Social Media accounts from time to time, Webber is a bit of a personal hero of mine, and his work on the Sonic Twitter account is my favourite example of the wonders that can happen when brands embrace the “social” aspect of Social Media. While I may not always encourage people to start posting mspaint drawings or taking the mickey out of their products every day, I do encourage them to remember that it is ok to take risks, to really try to understand and really talk to their audience. Sometimes its ok to take off the proverbial “suit and tie” on Social Media and join in the fun.
I shared this story with International Social Media Speaker, Zoe Cairns, who was delighted to see the change in the Sonic Twitter’s strategy, and had this to say on the subject:
“Sonic’s new Social Manager took a risk, however he engaged Sonics fans and built back up their rapport. He delivered a tone of voice and language that related to his audience, grabbed their attention and brought them back on SEGAs side!”
Want to see another example of how this can work? Back in 2014 back my car broke down, and while waiting for the RAC, I decided to pass the time by chatting to their twitter. To my delight, they chatted back.
For any brand, having a customer remember an interaction with your support years later is akin to gold dust. Lets just say I’m still with the RAC today.
In the past, we at Sagittarius have encouraged people to get onboard with things like Periscope, because in an age where people can have openly public customer support, submit complaints and with more channels for listening and watching than ever, putting a face on a business should be strived for, rather than avoided for fear of appearing too candid.
Aaron Webber was good enough to speak with me on the subject, so I’ll let him have the last word:
“Too often, many companies and brands see Social Media as an extension of their PR plan - a one-way street for communication. It's not. Social Media is about engagement - real engagement - and that means two-way communication. That means not just reading what your consumers and fans write, but responding to it. Taking it to heart. Making improvements because of it.
Social defines how your company is viewed. Nobody wants to hang out with a faceless corporation that posts bland marketing copy every day. But you know what people do tend to love, more than faceless corporations? Other people! Real personalities who are both listening to them and responding back. It's the difference between your friend telling you to try something, or seeing it on a street billboard. It seems almost too simple and too easy to be true - but it is.
Let your own personality show, be fun and honest and transparent, and you will find that your uniqueness will elevate you to heights that few of your competitors have ever found.”