The meta factor: understanding it for marketing, virality, and activating groups
This post is not about "the metaverse" (a buzzword we quite dislike) or the company meta, who have tried to co-opt a useful term. So let's explore the actual concept and what to learn from it...
In epistemology, the theory of knowledge, the prefix meta is used to describe about (its own category). For example, a metablogger would be a blogger who writes about blogging, a YouTuber who makes videos about YouTube, a CRM software maker who creates guides about CRM software. You get the gist.
Everyone online is to a good extent meta as the medium is the message, so lots of people talk about the medium while using it. As someone who spends a great deal of time as contributor, participant and observer of a pretty diverse array of web communities (from Twitter and Reddit to niche industry forums and sites) I find the meta aspect fascinating. What I mean by this is without fail, every community enjoys having discussions about itself. It’s something not usually stated directly within the communities, but it’s a reality.
And why not? Just like countries, schools, etc. – any grouping of people together in one place – there always exists discussions about the places we’re in, even if we aren’t expressly there for the purpose of discussing those places themselves.
We all live in a city or town, and we’re there to live, work and play – but we also have a tendency to talk about the city itself as a natural by-product of living there. No problems with this.
We went to schools, where we are there to learn, not necessarily talk about the school itself – but a byproduct of going to the school is discussing the school, becoming a fan of the school, having rivalries with other schools, etc.
A simple way to think of online communities is view them in this light. Just as like-groups of citizens or students of a certain place – while they are all different, there is the normalization factor that they are all members of the community. Even the rivaling tribes have commonalities they will drop their torches and smile at together. (see: very viral threads on Twitter about a funny topic) And, while no one actually goes to a school just to talk about the school, it happens, just as nobody joins a a social network merely to talk about the social network, yet this also happens.
"I think that our grandchildren will probably regard the distinction we make between what we call the real world (and digital) and what they think of as simply the world as the quaintest and most incomprehensible thing about us."
Digital communities, whether structurally defined networks or niche specific and loosely connected, as they are no different than physical communities, foster very similar discussions, rituals and memes between members about the community itself. These discussions come up so frequently because a truism of human nature is we want something to talk about, and our minds gravitate to those subjects we know will register with others and generate conversation. Talking about the place we currently are is an easy conversation-starter, and people frequently take the path of least resistance with social connections because they are safe and low-risk.
Just like residents of a certain city also discuss the city, digital community members discuss the community. In both cases these conversations can be thought of as as meta discussions. Interestingly enough, it’s not just new members, it’s just as likely seasoned members reference the community itself as topic of conversation.
Obvious, right? I think so – but the value here is understanding the nuances of specific and valuable communities and learn how to use shared experiences, discussions and ideas about the community itself which so easily permeate their group as strategic knowledge to tag ideas, marketing and messages to. Remember, meta threads want to spread. The media is the message in this case, literally.
We’re all unique, but even the most unique people have strong commonalities and connections in meta discussions. I call this the meta factor, and it’s something you can and should use to your advantage in marketing strategy.
Some ideas to put the meta factor to good use:
1. Find an obvious commonality that’s vocalized frequently in comments/discussions, but never made into an actual topic in and of itself.
2. Vocalize a shared experience for the silent majority. Fun, super viral Tweet by Zuby shares an example of a potent meta tweet below.
3. Remix a cliched or overdone topic everyone is familiar with into something fresh, updated for the times or nostalgic.
4. Speak to the community in their own language somewhere unexpected, outside of the community itself (think of the fantastic Twitter billboard campaign where they used community Tweets in offline ads, perhaps one of their best marketing initiatives ever, which inevitably even got posted back to Twitter by countless users who of course took photos).
5. Groups with a commonality that all members are conscious of are naturally drawn to ideas which reinforce the value of that commonality. Create ideas the community wants to support. Communities are by nature self-protective, so anything that solidifies their presence in the world should spread. Giving people confirmation bias (has to be clever, not pandering) almost never fails.
6. Push and attempts to inorganically spread ideas using the meta factor through something like ads almost never works – generally don’t bother unless you have a very sophisticated understanding of the community. In 99% of cases by brands and big companies, this will be seen as the kids say “cringe” and you will incite the internet’s favorite crab.
In my honest opinion, if you’re successful with push meta content, it also had pull factors in it too – whether by luck or design. The most tight knit and beloved communities and tribes will turn on members who sell out faster than the idea will spread. Here’s a fun, rare example of a great meta ad on Reddit by Triplebyte I saw a bit ago and saved because thought was so clever. The community absolutely loved it (the founder cosplaying a popular meme) and it was catchy, memorable and made me interested in learning more about the company purely because of how fun and creative they seemed.
7. Change the dynamic of the community – lead them in a new, more desirable direction. This requires bold action, but it’s possible if you set forth a new future vision that is more compelling to enough members of the community than the current path.
This is just a start – the meta factor has application for marketing in many ways, and is an effective strategy to permeate informal and formally grouped networks naturally.
The web has always enjoyed talking about, well, the web. That’s nothing new. It was true in the days of forums and boards, in fact some of the most heated threads stemmed from meta discussions.
Back when Digg was popular some of the most popular submissions on Digg were about Digg. This is true on Reddit today. Several of the blogs about blogging such as Darren Rowse’s Problogger still receive a huge amount of attention.
I especially enjoyed years ago the New Yorker published a humorous (and prescient!) story on the web’s continued obsession with meta threads in today’s social platforms:
First, I take a sort of new angle on Facebook, which means you’ll post me on Facebook. My second half concerns itself with Twitter, so you’re powerless not to retweet me, perhaps with a pithy comment before the retweet, like “Long but worth checking out.” And I throw in a nod to Google+ or Circles or whatever the hell it’s called, which means I’ll be Added or Encircled or something. There’s nothing pandering about me whatsoever!
You see, all I need to do is be self-referentially about the technology you all use and I’ll replicate like the virus in “Contagion,” a movie that, if any of you saw it, will inspire you to now post me to the “Contagion” Facebook page. Look: “The Hunger Games,” “The Smurfs,” “ ‘The Smurfs’ Meets ‘Shame.’ ” This is too easy.
The whole story is worth reading for a laugh. Although the best part is this is the web most of us have known for 2 decades now. In this case, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
On the Limits of Meta and Overcoming Them
My regular readers know that I’m a big fan of Seth Godin. He’s a great source of inspiration for me, no denying it.
Seth’s post years ago about the limits of meta got me thinking. It’s one of his classic, pithy writings that he has mastered the art of. Here’s the whole thing, minus the last sentence which didn’t have to do with this discussion:
The limits of meta
Blogging about blogging, writing about writing, documentaries about documentaries, songs about songwriting…
It’s tempting to use a medium to write about the medium.
It works for a while, but there’s a limit. Pretty quickly, you hit a natural ceiling and you won’t be able to go any further.
I almost always agree with Seth, and I think he is correct here about hitting a natural ceiling in terms of purely creating meta content.
But, there will always be those who desire meta content and want fresh incantations of it. In fact, there are people who are downright obsessed with it. To not have this as a tool in your toolbox is to be missing out on a key instrument like a phillips head screwdriver and make your life harder.
Side note: I’m not one of the pure meta-creators and actually respect that specific game – I couldn’t blog about blogging all day, for example, I would quickly run out of things to say. That’s why I write on a diverse array of topics: marketing, social networks, digital trends, public relations, internet memes, startup companies, psychology/sociology and so on and so forth – many different things interest me.
But, again want to reference Darren at ProBlogger who built very respectable businesses (through primarily) blogging about about blogging. Or YouTuber Ben Johnson who makes YouTube videos about making great YouTube videos, ie:
If you’ve been around awhile, these and others are names you know (as side-note I’m friends with Darren, and despite blogging in particular not at all being new, he still actively works on this topic). Now they may be the exceptions, not the rule – but when I read Seth’s post, my first thought was: “Darren and Ben prove this wrong.” They both have 6-7 figures in subscribers/traffic, thriving businesses they work on full time and mainly are meta creators. They both have created so much meta content and are two of the fonts of information om their subjects.
With that said, both of them don’t only “blog about blogging” or “YouTube videos about YouTube. These creators do quite a bit to foster community around meta, going so far as to turn it into their own category. So they do clever things people to get diverse and consistent content and engagement, such as:
Run contests and create interesting calls-to-action and challenges
Answer subscriber questions and foster community
Encourage subscribes to share their our journeys and progress
Run other reviews and related products
Create posts that turn the comments into the main content
Have message-boards, job boards and inspire their readers to connect with each other
Feature guests posts and videos on complementary and supplementary subjects
Many of these are tactics that engage the community. Perhaps that is the natural progression of the best meta-content creators – they have already given so much to the development of what their niche is, that they can turn their influence and followers into a flourishing and active tribe. That would certainly remove the ceiling of having to personally create infinite meta content – a flow of new, passionate users would keep things interesting and be amenable to ideas that branch out.
With that said – both these brands and their sites are meta sites. And, they both frequently create meta content, keeping it interesting and fresh each day – no simple task.
Of course, blogs about blogging are passé at this point, as are people who do this with blogs covering Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, YouTube, etc - the strategy of building a media brands covering very specific, frequently meta products that they also use to run their business is really as old as the internet itself.
Winning big off a niche meta-media brand, just by ‘showing up’
Nick O’Neill cofounded AllFacebook.com, a site that covered the growing Facebook (now of course meta) ecosystem. He sold it less than 2 years later to WebMediaBrands. The site generated millions and was sold for a tidy profit. This was actually a relatively easy idea for someone, all Nick really had to do was show up and cover the narrative of one of the fastest growing companies, and not have to really worry about much else. Probably a blue ocean opportunity for someone to do this about TikTok here (if you build this and make millions, consider sending me a check …joking, you don’t have to, I love when people borrow ideas, someone please go for it). Also, there’s a case study on this one here if you’re interested.
I think meta content in any genre will flourish, regardless of ceilings, so long as:
The creator is passionate about it and has near limitless creativity and can provide a flow of new ideas
There is an audience thirsty for more such meta content and it’s not completely oversaturated yet (either be first or be obscure)
The personality of the creator is so good, they can get away with as much meta as they like, because they’re simply a joy to follow (think of how ‘meta’ the show Community consistently was, and how they always got away with it)
Granted, there is an upper limit to the people who can do this successfully forever for any type of content, so being early has outsized rewards.