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Social Media

15 Lessons From This Year's Online Wins, Scandals and Top Videos, Tweets and Instagram Posts

These top moments reflect larger cultural trends that anyone building a brand can tap into.
Valerie Macon | Getty Images

Recently, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube announced their lists of the tweets, posts and videos that garnered the most engagement. While many of the moments and trends that made the lists were fueled by celebrities and current events, elements of authenticity and human connection helped them rise above the noise.

We watched as Twitter arguably changed the world this year when the user-led #MeToo campaign led to investigations into allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct, taking down men from Charlie Rose to Kevin Spacey.

Related: 5 Social Media Rules Every Entrepreneur Should Know

And we shared joyous moments, like Beyoncé;'s pregnancy announcement, and silly movements, like the teenager's online viral campaign for free chicken nuggets.

Entrepreneur spoke with social media strategists and other experts about why these moments resonated, and how anyone looking to build a brand or following online can apply the same themes and tactics in their feeds.

Click through the slides to learn from the year's buzziest tweets, videos, posts, stories, hashtags and more.

15 Lessons From This Year's Online Wins, Scandals and Top Videos, Tweets and Instagram Posts

1. Twitter can be a force of good.

Much of what the top tweets had in common was a sense of authenticity. Whether its authors were sharing feelings of hope or loss or pleading for help, they were earnest and honest.

"People always love an authentic, feel good story -- and these stories can't be manufactured," says Natalie O'Grady, a social media specialist and PR associate at A.wordsmith.

Just look at the video Detroit Lions punter Sam Martin posted to Twitter on Aug. 31 seeking help for victims of Hurricane Harvey in Houston. Appearing with his dog, Martin made an earnest plea for retweets, with the promise he'd donate six pounds of dog food for every retweet. The tweet was the ninth most retweeted post of the year, with some 623,000 retweets.

15 Lessons From This Year's Online Wins, Scandals and Top Videos, Tweets and Instagram Posts

2. How you react matters.

Customers have long taken brands to task on social media, but a charged political environment made the landscape trickier as customers boycotted companies they felt didn't align with their their political beliefs. Just this winter, customers filmed themselves smashing Keurig machines prompting the hashtag #BoycottKeurig when the company pulled ads from Sean Hannity's television program over its coverage of Senate candidate Roy Moore's sexual misconduct allegations. Ironically, the company pulled the ads in response to a wave of criticism it received for still backing the show in the first place.

"Brands were skimming trends but weren't listening to what their followers were saying on Twitter," says Christine Carzo, marketing director at Digimind. She advises that brands invest in tools such as the one her company provides so they can get a better grip on what their customers are saying and doing on social media.

While businesses never have full control of their brands online, how they react is critical. After video of a passenger getting physically dragged off a United Airlines plane went viral this spring, the company reacted first with corporate speak on social media, and provided a mixed response that didn't take responsibility for the incident.

As Michael Fineman of Fineman PR told us earlier this year, companies need to act quickly to regain confidence after a crisis. Social media can prove to customers that the company is addressing an issue and working to prevent it going forward.

15 Lessons From This Year's Online Wins, Scandals and Top Videos, Tweets and Instagram Posts

3. Prop up others.

When 17-year-old Carter Wilkinson asked Wendy's how many retweets he would need for a year of free chicken nuggets, the company laid down a challenge: 18 million retweets for the nuggets. Wilkinson's challenge was something anyone could get behind, and Wendy's did the right thing by making him the center of attention.

Related: 10 Laws of Social Media Marketing

"With Carter and his year of free Wendy's chicken nuggets, a silly initial tweet became an opportunity for the Twitter community to help an average kid achieve a 'dream' (of free nuggets) and 15 minutes of fame," O'Grady says.

Pretty much everyone came out a winner in this story. Not only did Wilkinson get free chicken nuggets, he also raised awareness for pet adoption and breast cancer research. Wendy's got great exposure, and everyone else had a fun story and a hero to root for during a tough time when people needed a good distraction.

15 Lessons From This Year's Online Wins, Scandals and Top Videos, Tweets and Instagram Posts

4. Movements can start on Twitter, but brands don't need to jump on them.

The #MeToo campaign had world-shaking effects on the worlds of business, journalism and Hollywood, not to mention human resources departments. But, that doesn't mean brands should jump in on the action just because.


"It's important not to chime in on a sensitive issue just because you can. It needs to be productive in nature," Todd Grossman, CEO of social media analytics and monitoring platform Talkwalker, told Entrepreneur. "That's what brands should really think about before they contribute to a conversation. They might want to open dialogue about their internal policies, for example, that support women and what they can do better in hopes to change."

Some businesses did try to get in on the trending hashtag, with mixed results.

15 Lessons From This Year's Online Wins, Scandals and Top Videos, Tweets and Instagram Posts

5. Protect your account, from the outside and inside.

There were two high profile cases this year of corporate Twitter accounts publicly bashing the president, then swiftly claiming they were hacked: McDonald's and IHOP.

Whether these accounts were in fact hacked, or whether rogue employees decided to risk their jobs to blow off some steam, the lesson is clear: Secure your social media accounts with good passwords and only hand the keys to individuals who can be trusted with your brand's voice.

15 Lessons From This Year's Online Wins, Scandals and Top Videos, Tweets and Instagram Posts

6. Remember: Truly viral videos are still impossible to plan.

Certain factors help videos succeed, but overall, you can't manufacture a viral video. Just look at the viral video from March -- more than 25 millions views -- in which the children of an expert being interviewed live on BBC burst in the room during the interview.

Related: 12 Social Media Mistakes That Entrepreneurs Make

"Virality isn't a tactic. The tweets and YouTube videos that end up trending are often nonsensical, or completely unplanned (like the adorable kids interrupting the BBC interview)," O'Grady says.

Rather, says Paul Beck, CMO at storybooth, a teen YouTube channel that attracts an average of more than 2.6 million views per video, "The level of engagement around the content is as important as the content itself." For the BBC video, it sparked conversation about raising kids while working and even racial profiling after people assumed an Asian woman in the video was the kids' nanny when she was their mother.

15 Lessons From This Year's Online Wins, Scandals and Top Videos, Tweets and Instagram Posts

7. It's not all about English speakers.

Many of this year's biggest videos were in languages other than English. The most viewed video of the year was from a Thai singing competition, and other popular music videos were in Spanish.

"YouTube really is democratic and does a much better job representing the landscape of people than 'mainstream media,'" says Brendan Gahan, founder and EVP of social video agency, Epic Signal. "The fact that the number one trending video isn't in English is something that just wouldn't happen in traditional media. We're a big world, recognize that and embrace it."

Since YouTube's users truly come from across the world, not only is it a good platform to learn about people's interests, it can also help you find new audiences or customer bases.

15 Lessons From This Year's Online Wins, Scandals and Top Videos, Tweets and Instagram Posts

8. Understand your audience.

There's a reason why iDubbbz and Phil Defranco are consistently among the most popular YouTubers.

"Audiences are not viewing these videos as TV, they truly are social in nature," Beck says. "When the creators understand their audiences well, those are the ones to watch. They understand and appreciate their audience. When you relentlessly study and engage with your audience, you begin to understand the challenges and experiences they have, literally in their own words. Using these exact words, phrases, ideas, questions and challenges as the basis for the content you create ensures you can consistently make 'better content.'"

15 Lessons From This Year's Online Wins, Scandals and Top Videos, Tweets and Instagram Posts

9. Don't be afraid to get silly.

As in past year, popular videos "evoke a powerful emotional response. They don't just make you smile -- they make you LOL, you don't just nod your head, you get up and dance," Gahar says. "Create something that isn't so overly sanitized that your audience doesn't feel anything. To stand out, you need a reaction."

Related: This Instagrammer With More Than 2 Million Followers Literally Cooks Her Content

For many of YouTube's creators, that was through a "childlike sense of silliness and titillation," says Geoff Weiss, senior editor of Tubefilter. "For instance, we saw a lot of creators gluing random objects to their faces (including googly eyes and Swarovski crystals), as well as adult YouTube stars dressing up in superhero costumes and silently enacting bizarre skits. Slime was another huge trend. And one of the most-viewed creators on all of YouTube for much of the year was a 6-year-old toy unboxer named Ryan ToysReview."

He adds, "From an entrepreneur's perspective, if you can incorporate any of the aforementioned trends into your brand's social media strategy, you're bound to grab some eyeballs."

15 Lessons From This Year's Online Wins, Scandals and Top Videos, Tweets and Instagram Posts

10. Do your due diligence.

YouTube was rocked by two scandals this year. The first was when advertisers found that their campaigns were running against the videos of extremists and those with hate speech. This news triggered advertiser boycotts, resulting in the loss of revenue for many YouTubers.

The second more recent scandal was when it was discovered that children were being exposed to inappropriate videos. This prompted the video site to say it will hire 10,000 more people to screen content for kids.

Image credit: Youtube Screengrab


What these incidents go to show is that if you are doing any type of campaign on YouTube, be vigilant and cognizant of where your ads may appear.

"Brands are treading more cautiously than ever before about the influencers with whom they align themselves," Weiss says. "This is especially pertinent during a year when PewDiePie, the platform's most-subscribed star by a mile, experienced a stunning fall from grace due to anti-Semitic jokes and then, later, the use of the n-word during a livestream."

15 Lessons From This Year's Online Wins, Scandals and Top Videos, Tweets and Instagram Posts

11. Invite people into your life.

On Instagram, the most-liked post of 2017 was Beyoncé;'s twin pregnancy announcement, while number four was a photo of her holding her one-month-old babies. She was open about the pregnancy with her fans and followers after controversy around the birth of her eldest daughter, Blue Ivy, in 2012. Rumors that she faked the first pregnancy had circulated, so this time around, the star revealed more maternity photos without surrendering control of her famously ultra-curated, protected image.

 

A post shared by Beyoncé (@beyonce) on Feb 1, 2017 at 10:39am PST

While the average Instagrammer doesn't have millions of followers, celebrity status or twins, for that matter, anyone trying to build a social following should tap into the power of sharing their story. In fact, the hashtag that ranked ninth among those that increased most in popularity throughout 2017 was #bts, which stands for "behind the scenes."

"The larger lesson there for businesses to take away is the idea behind transparency and inviting people into your story. We want to know the people we're buying goods and services from," says Molly Marshall, a social media and digital marketing strategist. "As we go more digital, people like to talk about how that's a detrimental thing, that we're all interacting so much online, but it's obvious that we're still wired for and seeking connection."

15 Lessons From This Year's Online Wins, Scandals and Top Videos, Tweets and Instagram Posts

12. Show your vulnerabilities.

Sometimes the best way to be transparent with followers is to give them a glimpse not just behind the scenes, but a glimpse of something unfinished, sensitive or unexpected. Singer and actress Selena Gomez, who openly battles lupus, surprised fans when she shared an image of herself in the hospital for kidney transplant surgery, holding hands with a friend who donated the organ. The image was the third most liked post on the platform in 2017. It was Gomez's empathy-inspiring way of explaining why she'd been out of the spotlight throughout the summer.

 

A post shared by Selena Gomez (@selenagomez) on Sep 14, 2017 at 3:07am PDT

Related: 10 Proven Ways to Make Millions on Social Media

Businesses looking let their guards down might opt to depict unused prototypes, a warehouse with a backlog of inventory (perhaps accompanied by an apology for delayed deliveries) or other examples of trial and error. Chances are, customers will appreciate the honesty. Posting less polished user-generated content is another way brands can let go of control and show followers something genuine and humanized.

"For so long, marketing has been so buttoned up," Marshall says. "Now, it's about showing people the things that, in the past, businesses have been afraid to show."

15 Lessons From This Year's Online Wins, Scandals and Top Videos, Tweets and Instagram Posts

13. Add value offline and document it online.

Even though celebrities topped out lists of massive followings and engagement, many of these personalities did more than just hawk a product. "Even with these celebrities, they've led with value in some way," Marshall says. Whether it's doing charity work or sharing their art with their fans, they contribute something valuable beyond the posts that show up in their followers' feeds, which in turn makes their social media posts interesting.

 

A post shared by therock (@therock) on Sep 5, 2017 at 7:31am PDT


Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson ranked fifth in Instagram's list of celebrities who gained the most followers in 2017. The star has a lot of opportunities to touch the lives of others as an actor, and this summer, he learned the story of a 10-year-old boy named Jacob who performed CPR on his 2-year-old brother, having learned how to perform the life-saving technique after watching The Rock do it on screen in San Andreas. The actor arranged for Jacob and his family to be flown to Vancouver, where he was on location shooting the forthcoming Skyscraper, spent time with them and treated them to a spread of sweet treats.

15 Lessons From This Year's Online Wins, Scandals and Top Videos, Tweets and Instagram Posts

14. Use Instagram stories.

Instagram Stories turned a year old this summer. The account with the most-viewed Instagram stories (among accounts with more than 5 million followers on the platform) is @lelepons. The 21-year-old model, actress, comedian, former Vine star and current YouTube star posts clips of her videos on her stories, expanding her audience by leveraging multiple platforms.

 

A post shared by Lele Pons (@lelepons) on Dec 5, 2017 at 12:45pm PST


"A lot of my clients and students are really small, one-person businesses selling online," Marshall says. "I keep telling them to get on stories. Instagram has 800 million users now, and the algorithm has made it harder to reach people in the main feed. Stories is just another way that you can reach people."

Since not all of Instagram's active users post stories, chances of your story being seen are more likely than a post. To boost visibility further, Marshall suggests adding geotags and hashtags to your stories to help people who may be interested in the content find it.

Along these lines, Marshall also encourages people looking to build their followings or gain exposure via the platform to use the live feature. Although it can be intimidating to livestream, if you're willing to do something others' aren't, she says, you'll be more likely to stand out.

15 Lessons From This Year's Online Wins, Scandals and Top Videos, Tweets and Instagram Posts

15. Rethink aspirational.

Instagram is inherently a more aspirational platform than, say, Twitter, due to its visual nature. The hashtags that gained in popularity most throughout the year reflect this: #Travel, #travelphotography and #naturephotography were three of the 10 hashtags on Instagram that saw the largest increases in use in 2017. Trending hashtags on Twitter tend to revolve around news and collective moments.

"Obviously celebrities have amazing lives, so they're just naturally aspirational," Marshall says. "But, aspirational doesn't have to mean luxury or high-end." The offline experiences humans crave most in an increasingly digital world paradoxically show up online the most often, she explains.

 

A post shared by Louis Cole (@funforlouis) on Dec 6, 2017 at 1:05pm PST


For example, Instagrammer Louis Cole (@funforlouis) posts photos from far-flung destinations, but he doesn't stay at swanky resorts. This spring, he launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund a documentary about global diversity called Beyond Borders, to be filmed during a 90-day trip around the world in a four-seater plane. More than 1,500 backers pledged the equivalent of nearly $150,000 to make the film a reality.

Cole's crowdfunded trip, like all of his travels, is meant to showcase natural beauty and the stories of oft-disregarded locals.

"I like that I can inspire this large audience of people around the world to go and explore the world themselves and live their own adventure in their own way," Cole told Entrepreneur earlier this year.