Aug 11, 2022 - Economy & Business

The art of effective trolling

Illustration of a person on a laptop featuring a smirking icon
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Sometimes you can say more with humor than with a polished speech or marketing spot.

Why it matters: Consumer brands, public figures and even state governments and federal agencies have embraced the riskiest communication tool of them all ... trolling.

  • But, like any form of communication, the message must be authentic, innovative, informative — and sometimes self-deprecating — to truly stick.

Be smart: Online trolling dates to the start of the internet — the term was first used to describe annoying posts that would flood discussion boards and hijack the conversation.

  • In the 2000s, trolling became more intentional and mainstream through the use of memes and social media, and by 2012, “Brand Twitter” became a thing as Taco Bell and Old Spice prominently duked it out.
  • Now, it’s common practice for social media accounts to troll their competitors, public figures and even the general public.

What they're saying: There’s a fine line between clever and cringey. To walk that line you must be authentic, says communication strategist Lis Smith.

  • Smith, author of the new book, “Any Given Tuesday: A Political Love Story,” says consumers can smell phoniness. However, social media — if used in an original, engaging way — can be an effective tool for breaking through the fractured media landscape.
  • “To be successful online, you don't need to understand every one of the latest memes or the lingo of Gen Z," Smith told Axios. "You just have to be smart, authentic and be willing to have a little bit of fun with it. That's what people respond to.”
  • For example, unlike Elon Musk, “it would be extremely off-brand for Bill Gates to be s**t-posting on Twitter.”

State of play: Some have struck the right balance between smarts and snark in their online content.

  • MoonPie has a reputation for trolling Hostess Snacks (and even the sun), while Wendy’s is known to mock McDonalds for its broken ice cream machines and frozen patties.
  • New Jersey’s Twitter account went viral for capturing the quintessential voice of Jersey through feuds with neighboring states — like Delaware — and a simple "your mom" joke, which tripled the account's followers in 2019.
  • KFC got creative by quietly unfollowing everyone except for five members of the Spice Girls and six men named Herb, as an ode to its 11 herbs and spices.
  • And the CIA trolled us all by declaring, "No, we don't know where Tupac is."

Yes, but: Brand trolling doesn't always land. Well-known head-scratchers include The Gap's insensitive tweet following Hurricane Sandy and IHOP's corny and confusing fake rebrand.

Zoom in: Politicians are known for trolling too.

  • Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate John Fetterman — who is currently polling 17 points higher in Pennsylvania than his opponent, Dr. Mehmet Oz — is the latest politician to gain attention for using social media memes and tricks to point out Oz’s ties to New Jersey.
  • Fetterman enlisted several stars from the Garden State — including Snookie from “Jersey Shore” and Steven Van Zandt from Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band — in his efforts.
  • These antics are creeping into Oz's earned media efforts and social chatter, according to Newswhip data. Most recently, Fetterman's petition to induct Oz into the New Jersey Hall of Fame was the 12th-most shared article about Dr. Oz on social media.

Trolling can go both ways. Conservatives are known to troll President Biden with "Let's Go Brandon" chants and swag, but recently supporters of the president tried to co-opt the nickname by embracing the imagery of Biden as a superhero named "Dark Brandon."

Zoom out: Trolling can also lead to change, and younger generations are using it as a tool to call out corporate culture and encourage more work-life balance.

The bottom line: Humor-based trolling is risky, but if done right, it can be an effective communication tool to humanize your brand and differentiate yourself from competitors.

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