The @ShippamsPaste Twitter feed may have been a (very funny) fake, but there’s much it can teach us about how social-media marketing should be. 

Over the last few weeks, Twitter has been agog at the rise and fall of @ShippamsPaste, supposedly written by ‘Ben’, an ‘executive social media intern’ at Shippams. (For non-UK readers, Shippams is a very old, very traditional brand of fish and meat pastes with no social-media presence). 

Through the feed, ‘Ben’ shared events from his life at Shippams, his dealings with colleagues and his search for a girlfriend, all played for laughs. He also encouraged followers to ‘engage’ with the Shippams brand by inviting interaction, devising hashtags (‘#paste’), jumping on trending topics and so on. 

Once word got out, @ShippamsPaste went viral, rocketing to 8000 followers in three weeks. Then Twitter suspended the account for passing itself off as the real thing, restoring it briefly on condition it admitted to being fake. Its creator, Ed Jefferson (@edjeff), then went public with a Guardian article explaining his motives. 

The fake account parodied the lame way in which some brands use social media, working their way through an established playbook of tactics that utterly fail to engage people. As Jefferson explained, ‘faking a spectacularly inept attempt to “do Twitter” just seemed funny – as did picking a real, but nearly forgotten, brand to do it.’

And it was funny. Very funny. But on a meta level – what it was, rather than what it said – @ShippamsPaste showed exactly what brands should be doing. Using Shippams’ products as a jumping-off point rather than the finish line, the feed took the brand into completely uncharted waters and unlocked a previously unsuspected area of potential appeal. 

Campaign on a stick

With some judicious tweaks, the characters, events, jokes and tone of voice put forward by @ShippamsPaste could have been developed into a brilliant creative campaign across multiple media.

Mother London couldn’t have created a better brand rejuvenation strategy, and Shippams got it for free. With the right execution, the campaign could have sent Shippams into the same brand space as Tango, Pot Noodle, Rice Krispies Squares and other ironically ‘wacky’ brands. 

Such a campaign would have easily been the equal of our old friend, Old Spice. But, just as with Old Spice, its power would flow from the quality of the ideas, rather than its success in achieving ‘engagement’ or ‘interaction’.

The @ShippamsPaste account was interruptive rather than engaging, and broadcast rather than interactive. It was more like a traditional TV ad than a modern social-media campaign. 

Relevant abruption

As a result, it achieved what respected creative Steve Harrison calls ‘relevant abruption’, grabbing audience attention and pulling it towards a product.

Now, marketers might say that the abruption wasn’t all that relevant, because @ShippamsPaste didn’t communicate any product benefits, or offer to solve any problems, or do any of the things that ads are supposed to do. But experience has shown us that straightforward selling through social channels doesn’t really work (unless you’re broadcasting offers or discounts). 

If you’re going to enter the social space, where only the funniest, weirdest, most fascinating content can catch and hold attention, best you go in armed with some powerful, arresting creative ideas.

Arguably, @ShippamsPaste was far more likely to shift product than a by-the-numbers social-media campaign aimed at generating ‘engagement’. OK, hip young Tweeters might not be the traditional target market for Shippams, but why not aim high?

Owning the voice

The fake account also raised interesting questions about who owns and controls brand voice in the social space. With the barriers to publication as low as they are for Twitter, there’s nothing to stop rogue accounts like @ShippamsPaste being set up, in their hundreds, potentially. However, if they generate publicity and brand equity, is that really a problem?

The account got the Shippams brand in front of thousands of people who’d forgotten about it, or never heard of it. The only problem for Shippams was people thinking it was real, and, weighed against the benefits, it wasn’t a very big one. What they lost in control, they gained in exposure.

As recent cases like Chapstick’s Facebook facepalm show, many brands are still some way from genuine acceptance of negative feedback in social channels. But if brands are what people think of them, they’re also what people say about them, however they choose to say it.

In a world where audience attention is increasingly fragmented, the wise brands may be those who learn to ride waves of publicity – even if they haven’t made those waves themselves.