Social Media: Source, Subject and Context Strategy

A recent browse through credit union and bank Twitter accounts turned up these interesting, and in one case truly unintelligible, tweets:

  • Ready for some radio? (included link to a radio station)
  • Protecting the culture a common the today
  • Any big plans for the weekend?
  • If you loved that video of the elephant, then you’ll probably love this video of a baby rhino! (included link)
  • Our favorite thing about summer? All of the free activities! (included link to a city’s listing of summer activities)
  • I posted a new photo to Facebook (included link to Facebook)
  • If you need your lawn mowed call these guys! (included link to a lawn company)
  • Will we get more snow this winter, or do you think #spring is on its way?

These tweets highlight a particular problem with bank and credit union social media engagement: A disconnect between the content of messages and the combination of source, subject and context perspectives most appropriate for financial brands.

Let’s start with defining a few key terms.

  • Source references the organization or person sharing a message.
  • Subject references the content of a message.
  • Context references the environment or circumstances within which a message is shared.

Now, let’s explore two of these tweets.

If you loved that video of the elephant, then you’ll probably love this video of a baby rhino!

Think about this exchange in a branch environment. Picture a customer or member walking in and one of your tellers saying, “Hey… want to take a look at a baby elephant video? How about a baby rhino?!” Add to that the visual image of the teller swinging around their monitor, baby elephant video at the ready.

The scenario borders on ridiculous, but it helps to understand why.

First, consider the context of the engagement. The consumer is in a branch environment. Even for the most causal of banking institutions, consumers in a branch environment expect some degree of on-point professionalism. Being asked to partake in the viewing of a baby animal video is likely “out of context” for the consumer. Even if the consumer finds the video amusing, at best the experience will make the consumer say “what?” and at worst serve as a jarring experience undermining the brand image.

Second, consider the source. A teller is a partner in ensuring the financial well-being of the consumer. Most consumers certainly expect tellers to be friendly and professional, perhaps even funny, but above all focused on the task at hand. An out-of-context offer to share a video from someone who should be focused on the integrity of the transaction is, again, jarring. In addition, and perhaps this goes along with context, most consumers don’t expect that tellers will be trolling America’s Funniest Videos while on the job.

Finally, consider the subject: baby animal videos. Sure, baby animal videos can be highly entertaining, but are such videos what consumers expect to encounter in their interactions with tellers? More than likely the answer is no.

On to another of the tweets above. Now we will look at:

Protecting the culture a common the today

It is impossible to discern what this tweet was supposed to mean. It is gibberish through and through. It is likely the result of a simple careless mistake, such as a too-quick click of the tweet button, but it is out there and it may be negatively impacting consumer perception of the organization.

Again consider source, subject and context. The source of this message was the branded twitter account of a bank, therefore consumers are likely to expect that the brand will speak with professional intelligence. The tweet violates that perception because someone made a mistake and because it is a big mistake (this goes far beyond a mere typo after all).

With regard to subject, there isn’t one. This means that this institution is likely firing off tweets without regard to what it is trying to say. There seems to be no subject governance parameters that the account manager is using to define the relevancy (and consequently correctness) of tweets. Most consumers expect brand messaging to be brand-relevant. This message is not at all relevant, brand or otherwise.

Finally, most consumers carry with them the hope and belief that their financial institutions tend to the details – perhaps more so now than prior to our recent financial crises. It is not impossible to assume that consumers will come to the conclusion that an institution making such blatant mistakes is careless in all areas. This relates to context in this way: it is a message shared within the brand framework – a framework undoubtedly defined by the expectation of attention to detail.

With regard to the remaining tweets on the list, many are simply additional examples of the same subject, source, and context expectation violations explored in the two tweets above – though with one particular point of additional consideration: they could be seen as simply pleasantries exchanged between institution and consumer. For example, asking a consumer at the tail end of a transaction whether they have any big plans for the weekend is normal dialogue.

The difference in this example, however, is that the question was asked of no one in particular. Once again change the venue to a branch. It would be seen as slightly weird if an employee were to stand in the middle of the branch lobby and ask questions of no one in particular with the hope of sparking a conversation. In addition to the weird factor, disconnected (not tied to a personal interaction between teller and consumer) questions about weekend plans, radio station preferences, or the need for lawn mowing services are out of context given the source and subject material expectations consumers will have in-branch.

Some argue that social media “channel context” allows for a relaxing of the typical rules governing brand/consumer interactions and therefore you shouldn’t compare what people do on social media platforms with similar in-person interactions. In other words, social media channels themselves define context, a context within which it is okay to ask general questions of no-one in particular, messaging errors are acceptable, and a certain frivolity of message content and style is expected.

Perhaps for some brands this is true, but not for most, and even brands that present frivolous, carefree, or tongue-in-cheek images via their social media interactions extend that style of interaction beyond the boundaries of social media platforms (or rather, their style is applied to social media platforms). The Virgin Group and Southwest Airlines are two examples where there is a consistent casual personality on display. Context, source and subject material are defined by the companies themselves and drive social interactions both online and off. They do not let platforms and channels define them. This is the correct approach.

So, to strategy. What should financial institutions consider? At a minimum, institutions should explore and define source, context, and subject expectations – not simply for social media channels but for all types of interactions – and then apply those same expectations to any channel used to facilitate communication to, and interaction with, consumers.

Beyond the basic implications of that challenge, here are a few other strategic considerations:

Brand Voice

A critical task is to define brand voice. A consistent voice will help consumers understand how the brand is to be viewed, approached, and interacted with. A consistent voice also helps undergird your value as a source.

If you don’t already have a defined voice, or if you find your voice changes from channel to channel or from staff member to staff member, you need to develop one. Defining a voice should be an exercise that incorporates not only internal preferences, but also consumer perspectives from the broader market you hope to serve. Without market preference consideration for organizational voice you run the risk of disengagement. For example, if you develop an informal voice but your market expects a degree of formality, you might undermine consumer perception of your brand and trust in any recommendation you might make.


Remember that context simply references the environment or circumstances within which a message is shared. Also remember that you should shape context rather than allow platforms to do so on your behalf. To that end, you should define, or at least identify the common circumstances/contexts that spark consumer engagement. Generally speaking, consumers most commonly engage to learn about something, complain about something, or buy something. These three areas define a contextual framework for interaction.

A good starting point in developing strategy that helps shape or control context is to define how your voice is to be used in interacting with consumers as they learn (and ask questions), complain, and purchase. This exercise should include both defining interaction specifics within the three generic categories (learn, complain, purchase), and also what you “say” to consumers “in context.”


Subject material tends to make itself known after working through the development of brand voice/source and context parameters. For example, if you settle on “learning” as a contextual point of interaction, then what you write and share should obviously enrich the learning context. Same goes for handling complaints and selling products and services.

Truthfully, the real challenge in this area isn’t so much developing strategy but refraining from expanding social media communication beyond the contextual parameters within which you excel in delivering value. Consider this tweet:

Ready for some radio? Check out….

Unless a contextual point of interaction is advocating customer/member participation in community activities or events, or engagement with local businesses, then you would never send such a message. Within the broad contexts of learning, complaint resolution, and purchase support such a message has absolutely no value. It relates to nothing.

Wrapping It Up

Social media, at least as defined by the likes of Twitter, Facebook. Google+ etc., is a rather new phenomenon. What isn’t new, however, is social interaction. From the first account opened at a financial institution, social interactions between financial brands and consumer have existed. What these new tools have given us are simply more points of interaction. Whereas we used to only have one point of interaction (in-branch), which expanded to two points (in-branch and mail), and then three (phone), we now have multiple channels all demanding contributions of time commitment and content. For many people this proliferation of channels is dizzying, hard to manage, and leads to such well-constructed messages as, “Protecting the culture a common the today.”

To avoid missing out on powerful platforms for consumer engagement, to avoid embarrassing mistakes, or even simply to make sense of all the options, financial brands must define a strategy – one that identifies the proper context of interaction, an appropriate organizational voice, and the ideal areas of informational interest that are appropriate to both consumer and brand.

A revised version of this article was published by The Financial Brand on July 2, 2013.

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