Brand freedom versus media coercion: What we can learn from Mastodon

Stay or switch? The turbulence surrounding Twitter after its takeover by Elon Musk has shown that the interdependence of content marketing and social media platforms is tricky. To gain clarity, the St.Gallen agency Festland tested the Twitter alternative Mastodon - with valuable aha moments for brand management.

The images for this article were created by the Mainland design team using artificial intelligence.

"Let that sink in." With this tweet Elon Musk commented on his action when he deposited a lavabo in the lobby of Twitter's headquarters at the end of October 2022. With the gift made of porcelain, he PR-effectively trumpeted to the world that he had bought Twitter for 44 billion US dollars and taken over the leadership.

From the birdcage to the mammoth herd

After the takeover, the new boss ruled like a bull in a china store. Musk's decisions and layoffs unsettled many users and advertisers - and drove them in droves to Mastodon, the open-source platform launched in 2016 as an alternative to Twitter.

Mastodon's design and functions are very similar to Twitter. In keeping with the name, a mammoth instead of a bird adorns the logo, and posts are trumpeted instead of tweeted. The main difference lies in the radical open-source principle: Mastodon is not a closed platform, but a loose association of several providers who all operate their own Mastodon server.

The experiment:

The question of whether to toot rather than tweet in the future prompted Festland to test the alternative. At the agency set up its own Mastodon server shortly after Musk's Twitter purchase. In the weeks that followed, Mastodon was added as a channel in Festland's content flow.

It soon became clear that the hype around Mastodon was dying down and the protest against Twitter was dying down - although Elon Musk continued to irritate users and advertising partners with confused decisions. But the Mastodon experiment made it clearer how the relationship between companies and social media works.

Low entry, high exit hurdles

The business model of Twitter, Meta, TikTok & Co. is crystal clear and tough: community for data. Without having to build their own platform, brands can tap into the big social media platforms as a channel and benefit from their reach, free of charge as owned media or (thanks to the cost-per-click model) cost-effectively as paid media.

The flip side of the coin: The larger a brand's content archive and community on a medium, the greater the barriers to exit. A current example is Switzerland Tourism: In January 2023, MySwitzerland discontinued its German-language Twitter channel with over 45,000 followers. Only a few hundred of them accepted the invitation to switch to the English-language channel.

But is one really at the mercy of big tech media? From the observations made by Festland on Mastodon, three virtues can be derived for emancipating oneself from the power of the platforms.

Virtue 1: Dare to experiment

The world of social media is evolving - and that's a good thing. As a brand, you can't close yourself off to this change. If you remain open to innovation and experiment with new types of media, you reduce your risk of being surprised, if not overtaken, by developments.

It's also nice that digital innovations are no longer rocket science. It generates little effort and is fun to explore new options. It took the Festland code team just two hours to set up their own Mastodon server. Running the Mastodon channel is even less effort. Because the same posts also appear on LinkedIn and Twitter, the additional publishing takes less than two minutes.

Virtue 2: Be patient

 Being curious does not mean acting hastily. Even if the dynamic development of the digital world creates a perceived pressure to implement innovations quickly and to constantly question decisions, there is no reason to switch hastily from experimenting to investing.

As a brand, you don't have to be a first mover to be successful in the digital world - even as a smart follower, you have every chance of participating in the media change. And you are protected from betting on the wrong horse. Just think of the Clubhouse app, for example, whose star burned out in 2020 faster than it had risen.

But patience does not mean doing nothing - experimentation pays off. The know-how gained through trial and error makes it possible to make more solid decisions and shorten the time-to-market of innovations. Those who are curious train their agility in change. If Mastodon should one day gain strong relevance, it will be easy for Festland to permanently anchor the test channel in content marketing.

Virtue 3: Show attitude

For all the convenience and reach that social media have: They are not an end in themselves. A presence on a channel only makes sense if and as long as this presence is in line with the brand's purpose, reaches the relevant stakeholders, and the content marketing is linked to clear strategic goals. There must also be a healthy balance between the achievement of objectives and the effort required for publication.

This strategy match has not only a commercial but also an ethical component. If, as in the case of Twitter, the corporate governance of a platform gets into trouble, this alone can be a reason to invest less time and money in a medium. Even if this means foregoing visibility and reach.

More articles on the topic