On January 28, Elon Musk sparked off the first in a series of intriguing tweets about flamethrowers and zombies. In under a week, he had attracted a third of a million likes and 90.000 retweets, all promoting his private tunnel building initiative, the ‘Boring’ Company.
By creating an offbeat story to generate a massive online buzz, Musk achieved a social media slam dunk. He used social media to popularise his negotiations with the authorities from whom he needs permission to start tunneling, to fuel excitement around his next big adventure - the launch of Falcon Heavy and the first car in space after the Lunar Rover - and to make a few million on the side by selling flamethrowers (and fire extinguishers).
Best of all however, he pointed the way for other CEOs, by showing them that the days of playing it safe on social media are well and truly over, and how to make boring interesting. Literally.
Musk’s public popularity arguably has a greater impact on his company than that of any other business leader. He is bigger than his brand with 19.7 million Twitter followers, compared with Tesla at 2.5 million. Among CEOs, only Bill Gates has more, with 44.2 million - but he gets substantially less engagement.
Musk’s personality spotlights his product. Tesla is just 15 years old and produces 100 times fewer vehicles than some of its rivals, but it ranks third out of 29 of the world’s car brands in its social media visibility, outperforming legacy brands such as VW, Ford and Toyota.
A report from Talkwalker shows that Tesla also accounts for 25% of all conversations about electric cars on social media, with BMW in second place at 10%, Toyota at 6% and the world’s biggest (non-Chinese) electric car maker, Renault at 3%. Regardless of their technology, BMW and Renault’s inability to match Tesla and Musk’s remarkably effective social activity makes Tesla the brand most closely associated with electric cars and autonomous vehicles on global social media; a dangerous outcome when more than 95% of vehicle shoppers are turning to social media to research the motor market, making it the virtual showroom for futuristic design and technology.
Top CEOs such as Tim Cook and Satya Nadella focus on corporate updates and current affairs, while Musk uses an average of only four tweets a month to share personal musings, new business ideas, opinions and reflections on his failures.
He avoids prescriptive, corporate social interaction and attracts his customers’ attention by capturing their imagination.
Musk and his team have mastered the art of making advocates of their customers, not with traditional reviews and recommendations, but on an emotional level, in which customers actively want him to succeed. They are interested in him as a person.
We see a similar customer dynamic in the UK with challenger banks, which get their biggest responses by achieving milestones such as banking licenses and launching new products. Again, their customers want to see them win. It’s a far cry from the big banks, whose social strategy is one of reflected glory, tapping into their partners’ good causes, with charity and sports sponsorships.
Such communities of cheerleaders are competitive weapons in the hands of autonomous upstarts with legacy brands in their sights. Product shortcomings and even corporate controversies are contextualised. His customers are his fans. Musk goes far beyond the tactic known as advocacy marketing, in which companies project their reputations by harnessing the power of online employee, partner and customer communities.
Corporate scions with hundred-year histories won’t pivot to new norms with ease. But Elon Musk teaches CEOs that they are going to have to reach out of their comfort zones and grasp this new reality; that audiences want to share their values, aspirations, authenticity and wit, qualities that foster empathy. That’s how to ignite priceless global followings on the biggest, most influential and dynamic source of data available today, social media. Of course such dynamism comes with risks, but to those who get it right can shape perceptions and unleash the inner Tony Stark in us all.
Richard Sunley is the UK analyst at social listening and analytics firm Talkwalker.
Image credit: OnInnovation/Flickr