What do effective social media campaigns look like? Marketers tend to answer this question by adding up numbers. They keep score of views, likes and shares, of the number of feeds that their activity appears in and the number of actions that it prompts. In doing so they can report on the additional reach that social media generates, they can claim engagement with their brand’s message and content, and they can report their progress towards the ultimate prize that such metrics show: going viral.

What if we were to tell you though, that going viral is not enough; that the simple volume of social media activity cannot tell you whether your communications are delivering the objectives that you have almost certainly set for them? What if we were to tell you, in fact, that meaningful engagement on social media isn’t a numbers game?

The end of the attention economy

The metrics that we gravitate towards for social media effectiveness record a campaign’s success in reaching eyeballs and capturing topline attention. They are easily measurable and appear to make it easy to determine winners and losers: the fact that Mountain Dew’s  PuppyMonkeyBaby Super Bowl ad was shared 45,572 times in a week means that it was a success, right? It was almost four times as successful as Heinz’s  ‘Wiener Stampede’,  which only got 12,341.

The problem for brands is that the crowded nature of social media feeds is devaluing attention as a currency, and undermining the meaning of such metrics. Noticing something momentarily, even clicking it or passing it on as a retweet, does not equate to engagement on the level that brand campaigns need.

We are no longer operating in an attention economy – we need to learn to compete in a memory economy instead. As it happens, our analysis of Super Bowl ads showed that Heinz’s was far more meaningfully memorable than Mountain Dew’s.

For a campaign to deliver long-term brand impact, it needs to change the memory structures associated with a brand in a way that is likely to influence future purchase choices. Retweeting and sharing occurs so frequently and increasingly habitually that it doesn’t correlate meaningfully with whether somebody remembers an encounter with a brand or is influenced by it. Making influential memories depends on a deeper level of engagement – and to understand and influence whether that happens, we need to look at social media differently.

Social media effectiveness depends on making brand memories

We can assess whether advertising is creating these powerful, motivating memories by looking at three gateways that information must pass through before being encoded into human memory. To make it into memory, neuroscience tells us, any communication must be novel, capturing attention and alerting the brain that it’s worth rewriting its memory structures around; it must have what we term ‘affective impact’, releasing the emotions that strengthen memory formation in the brain; and it must be relevant, aligning with the memory structures that already exist around the brand – and around what matters to people. Looking at whether campaigns pass these three tests predicts whether they will deliver the long-term benefits that brands want from their investments. Researchers can do this by asking the right questions in surveys of advertising effectiveness. However, we can do something very similar by looking at social media data; focusing less on the volume of impressions, likes or retweets, and more on the shape of the conversations that campaigns create.

The shape of memory-making campaigns

Mapping the Twitter activity that occurs around marketing campaigns produces visuals that are intriguing and beautiful – but they are also, increasingly, valuable. The consistent patterns that regularly occur around brand advertising correlate in interesting ways with the success those ads have in forming influential, long-term memories.

The recognisable conversation patterns that we see can be arranged on a continuum from highly centralised ‘hub and spoke’ models, where all of the social media activity is driven by a central brand account, to highly decentralised ‘uncontrolled’ maps, where many spontaneous conversations occur simultaneously without ever connecting to one another. The sweet spot for brands lies towards the centre of this continuum, where we see autonomous, spin-off networks augmenting the hub-and-spoke pattern, and ecosystems of different groups and communities holding meaningful conversations around the brand.

Budweiser’s hollow Super Bowl win

In this way, the shape of social media conversations provides an early warning as to whether a campaign is delivering long-term brand benefits. Back in January 2015, Budweiser was almost universally acclaimed as having ‘won’ the


Anne is the Global Head of Communications Research for TNS, spanning creative development, media effectiveness, and touchpoints optimisation. She works closely with teams from across TNS to bring our best thinking and offers to our clients.


Kyle is the Head of Data Science and Knowledge Creation at the TNS Global Brand Equity Centre in Cape Town, South Africa. His data science team is intimately involved in the development of TNS’ technology-enabled research offers.


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