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Canadians are naturally good at improv. Look at Second City, SNL, Kids in the Hall and all the standup talent from Yuk Yuk’s.

Maybe it’s part of our DNA: the feeling we’re always gazing at something we can’t have. We’re also polite, happy to give people the benefit of the doubt and generally comfortable going where the flow takes us.

Social media’s a lot like improv. To do it well, a brand has to think on its feet and perform! Sometimes you click into the prevailing ethos and it’s pure magic – like when Oreo dunked in the dark. But mostly it’s TV-ad-dull unless it devolves into that can’t-believe-you-went-there dumb behaviour. U.S. restaurant chain Dave and Buster’s recent racist tweet comes to mind. 

Throwing away the script – almost
In marketing communications, we come from a scripted culture. A concept is hatched, written, revised and then sliced and diced again and again. Should this be “the” or “a”? Does it work better with a thumbs up or thumbs down – or maybe we should get rid of the thumb altogether? I know it’s in there three times, but can we mention the product name once more?

And in the creativity/scrutiny battle, when scrutiny wins, our work lands with a thud.

Social media is like the hippie-esque younger sibling of marcomm. It can be sharp, but may be too unpredictable to trust. And that scares the crap out of people who are ‘in control’. A lot of organizations are still trying to squeeze it into the fully-scripted model by making every social interaction fully planned out…down to the minute.

The trouble is, if you stick too close to prepared text when you’re talking to people, you come across as a huckster. Or worse, your well-prepped content is just too lame to share.

Enter scripted improv
That’s what happens when you begin with a well-conceived campaign and then add another element – unpredictabilty. As in a whole bunch of ideas that are a lot less rigid, more off the wall, kind of dangerous and just plain human. And when you take centre stage, you go off book.

How can brands get behind that? Here are five ways.

  • Act like Don Draper – that is, strategy first, copy second – and be sure you have a good stiff drink in the wings
  • Go crazy with ideas. Make them fresh, irresistible, daring and a bit scary. As in, your gut says go for it, but you’re just not sure. (Okay, guts don’t always work and there will be mistakes, but learn from them. Just do it quickly.)
  • Get comfortable thinking on your feet. But realize free association of the highest magnitude doesn’t just happen. You need to practice a lot in order to get good at this.
  • Split-second timing is the essence of comedy. You have to know exactly when to release the hounds, as Mr. Burns might say.
  • Add a pinch of judgment for good measure. Just because you can do it, doesn’t mean you should.

Scripted improv is risky. And it takes trust, planning and letting go. Its unpredictable nature makes your work a lot more authentic and fun. Are you comfortable enough to take that chance?

A version of this post was originally published in Marketing magazine.

About Martin Waxman


Martin Waxman conducts social media and online crisis training workshops, is a digital and communications strategist and speaks at events across North America. He's the co-founder of three PR agencies, president of a consultancy and has worked in the industry for 25 years. He writes a monthly column for Marketing Magazine, teaches digital strategy and is chair of PRSA Counselors Academy.

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