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How Merriam-Webster Personifies a Dictionary on Social Media
Featuring an interview with John Sabine, Social Director for Merriam-Webster.
There’s no better word to describe Merriam-Webster’s Twitter presence than “delightful”. The word, for those who don’t know, is an adjective and means “highly pleasing”.
The dictionary’s unique brand of smart humor mixed with extreme timeliness makes for an engaging and vibrant feed. The account takes any perceptions people may have about dictionaries (boring, devoid of personality, dusty) and proves them all wrong.
For today’s newsletter, I chatted with John Sabine, Social Director for Merriam-Webster about why brand accounts should “feel alive”, making content YOU would enjoy, how “the humor should match the brand”, and more. Let’s get into it!
Rachel Karten: First can you tell me about your current role and any previous social (or not!) roles you've had?
John Sabine: I am the Social Director for Merriam-Webster and previously I have been the community manager for Velveeta, Claussen Pickles, Heinz Ketchup, Oscar Mayer, and Chuck E. Cheese. Prior to MW I was a Creative for the LinkedIn account.
RK: I love that you have a background in comedy. Why do you think so many comedians also work in social?
JS: I can’t speak for others but for me, it is because I don’t have any actual skills. But besides that, it is probably because we can think of copy quickly and know how to read a room. I really do believe that reading the room on social is an incredibly valuable skill.
RK: Merriam-Webster's social—particularly Twitter—is so good. How would you describe the strategy?
JS: First, of all, thank you so much! Personally, I was a fan of Merriam-Webster social for years prior to working for them. I always felt they knew exactly who they are and didn’t try to be something they weren’t. Broadly speaking, our strategy is to celebrate and amplify a love of the English language and hopefully provide a little knowledge and clarity.
RK: The reply strategy is particularly impressive. How do you decide what to engage with? Loved the Padma reply.
JS: I think a brand account needs to feel alive and should be more than just a bulletin board. Replies are a way to create an actual connection and also make the day more fun. Brands have more liberty to sound like a person when they are connecting one on one.
At my previous job, I needed approval for organic posts but didn’t need approval for replies so I really embraced it. I am a big Top Chef fan so when I saw the Padma Tweet saying she was leaving the show, I replied how I think a dictionary would reply. Also, would die for Padma Lakshmi.
RK: So many people think a humorous brand on social means roasts and "unhinged" posts. Merriam-Webster proves smart humor works too. How would you describe the brand's use of humor on social?
JS: Well, we are a dictionary. We’re the opposite of unhinged. Dictionaries are super hinged. It takes an incredible amount of thought, effort, and scholarship to edit a dictionary so it would feel inauthentic to be careless or crazy. I believe the humor should match the brand.
When I ran Velveeta Cheese, we were more unhinged because it was synthetic and the color was loud and even the name felt like a scream, it’s “Velveet-AHHH!” so I think leaning into chaotic humor made sense. People have enough on their plates they don’t need the dictionary trying to be unhinged.
We’d like to think we respect the intelligence of our followers without taking ourselves too seriously. We try not to worry about doing hard jokes for the sake of humor. We might use humor to connect or to share an interesting etymology but the humor is usually in service of something bigger. Also, let’s be honest….we are a personification of a dictionary, and that alone is pretty funny. Sometimes you just have to acknowledge and enjoy your absurd reality.
RK: What are three posts you're proud of and why?
I like how clear this response is and other brands just did the same thing with a different word. It felt good to zig when everyone else was zagging while still remaining true to the brand voice.
I love this one so much because people keep adding it to their bookmarks. Like it’s a joke that keeps going. I’ll check it once a month and there will be like 500 more bookmarks. It really is the best of Twitter. I hope it never ends.
This thread was so wholesome and interesting. People were sharing these incredible words from their language. Just a thread where strangers from very different backgrounds were sharing in a positive way.
RK: Okay, I have to bring up something we've previously chatted about. Basically comparing brand social to the planet Jupiter? Talk to me about this theory.
JS: Alright but please feel free to not post this if it sounds too stupid. Basically, it feels like before social media, brands lived on an Earth-like planet with seasons and everything. You make your back-to-school campaign, then Christmas, maybe do a St. Patrick’s Day. Also, you could pick and choose where you would show up. Let’s buy ads in this magazine and during this primetime block to reach this artist etc.
Social has no seasons. You can still do your back-to-school post or planned St Patrick’s Day post but those don’t really take off. Also, you can’t control what people see before and after your post. One person could see a kitten before your Ritz Cracker Tweet, another could see something truly awful—its chaos.
Jupiter doesn’t have seasons, she only has storms. So for social, brands need to jump onto storms (trending agile opportunities) or create a new storm (sharable community-building content). Does this make any sense? I am probably wrong and haven’t *really* thought it through but I think I believe it.
RK: I love that so much and it makes total sense. What's a social media hot take you have?
JS: Brands need to stop saying “bestie” and ending every post with an emoji. It’s become an epidemic. We can do better.
RK: What's one social media tip you'd give to someone starting out in the field?
JS: Find your own personal strategy. What works on social changes so rapidly that you’re better off finding your style and strategy than trying to follow someone else’s. We all have tastes—make stuff YOU would enjoy.
RK: Any final words?
JS: Thank you so much for letting me talk about this stuff! I am a big fan so it was an honest-to-goodness thrill.
In this week’s Logged On for paid subscribers we talked about five things that ruin your Instagram reach, brand-safe memes, Pike Place Fish Market tok, and more! Someone in the Link in Bio Discord even said this was “one of the best ones ever” with “so many good little nuggets.” So do with that what you will!
Speaking of, I have to bring up the Link in Bio Discord! It’s filled with 500 social media professionals and is just so helpful. Conversations range from cringe brand posts to helpful tips for building a social media portfolio. You can learn more about joining here. Here’s what a paid subscriber said about the perks:
“Supporting because you give actual, useful insights into social media that so much of senior management doesn't understand. It helps me build stronger cases for decisions and social strategy. Plus all your interviews have been wonderful!”
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See you all next week!