United Airlines will probably be able to weather the storm over its recent mistreatment of a passenger because it’s such a big corporation. Your startup, on the other hand, can’t afford to be disliked. Your product may be great, your work culture excellent, and your consumers happy, but nothing kills the vibe like a marketing misstep—or several.
That much is obvious, and so is this second point: Your startup can’t afford to remain a business no one’s heard of. You need to publicize your wins. Did you sign a big client? Was your CEO recognized next to an A-lister? The world needs to know, and the easiest, fastest, cheapest way to spread good news is through social media. But what’s less obvious is that you should do it by bragging. Anything that smacks of false modesty could whip up the internet’s wrath faster than a patronizing Pepsi commercial. Here’s why, and how to do it right.
The Humblebrag Is Hereby Deceased
“Humblebragging” entered the popular lexicon around a decade ago and was added to the Urban Dictionary in 2011, where the top entry reads, “Subtly letting others [k]now about how fantastic your life is while undercutting it with a bit of self-effacing humor or ‘woe is me’ gloss.”
So by now you probably don’t need to be reminded that there’s a difference between bragging and humblebragging, and that it’s shamefully apparent on social media. But what we do need reminding of in 2017 is that the inauthenticity behind (but not limited to) the humblebrag is more toxic than ever. It’s what got Pepsi skewered, and as the pressure ramps up on businesses to add something of social value in addition to just adding to their bottom lines, the perils of sounding tone deaf are plentiful, frequently political, and hard to avoid.
One reason why is because social media is where advertisers and activists uneasily coexist at an especially fraught moment. Another is because of the way the human brain evolved to communicate. “The further you get from unmediated face time,” one psychologist pointed out for Fast Company recently, “the more likely it becomes that a conversation will go off track.”
So it doesn’t surprise Molly Reynolds, founder of an entrepreneurship community called The Unicorn in the Room, that “there is often a disconnect between who people are in real life and who they are in social media. If you’re speaking in person,” she points out, “you have context, tone, and intent; you don’t have that on social media. Because your only communication tool is the written word, you need to be extra careful about how you phrase your accomplishments.”
Harvard Business School researchers happen to agree. In a recent empirical study of self-presentation on social media, they find that the lines get blurred especially quickly whenever a person or business takes to social media for self-promotion. The study’s authors also examine the differences between good, old-fashioned bragging and two distinct types of humblebrag, one complaint-based and the other rooted in humility. What researchers found was that complaint-based humblebrags are more prevalent on social media but less effective than humility-based ones. However, both approaches to humblebragging actually make you less likable and competent in the eyes of your audience.
So it might sound odd to suggest straightforward bragging, but in context, it’s often the better marketing strategy than trying (and failing) to sound low key about your accomplishments.
Go Ahead And Boast On Twitter
For James Aschehoug, cofounder of a nascent social network called Uriji Jami, “humblebragging comes across as not being fully dedicated and even to a certain extent as unassuming. Entrepreneurs should be ready to go all out and brag, rather than fly at half-mast.” He recognizes the risks of sounding arrogant prematurely, but claims they’re far outweighed by those of the reverse approach. “Yes, you will annoy some of your friends and family,” says Aschehoug, “but that’s the price you need to be prepared to pay.”
One component of the Harvard study tested this contention in what researchers called a “dictator game.” In it, one participant, the dictator, receives a fixed amount of money, then has to decide how to allocate it between themselves and a second player, the recipient. In one version of the game, recipients were told to make their case to the dictator, either by regular bragging or through one of the two humblebragging tactics.
The dictators were significantly less generous with the humblebraggers. As a startup, you need to think of everyone you reach on social media as sitting on the dictator’s side of the table—they’re the people you need to impress and win over. So go ahead and boast. It will sound more authentic, even if you’re a brand-new company and don’t have much to show for yourself yet.
Take Zomato. Ever heard of it? Maybe not yet in the U.S., but the restaurant discovery app, now in 23 countries, is a highly valued Indian startup that last year was pointed to as proof of a looming tech bubble in that region (where analysts also noted that Flipkart’s valuation was slashed twice in 2016). Founder Deepinder Goyal took to social media and the company’s blog to punch back, and roughly a year later remains an unapologetic champion of Zomato’s success. Goyal boasted a few weeks ago that the app hit No. 20 on India’s iOS App Store with “no cheap tricks,” then followed that up days later noting it reached No. 5 in the UAE—adding that that put Zomato “ahead of Facebook.”
— Deepinder Goyal (@deepigoyal) February 28, 2017
That’s a brag, and one worth mentioning. Zomato has 971,000 followers on Twitter. You do the math.