Four Twitter Lessons Brands Can Learn from the Taliban

Lessons can be found in the most unlikely places.

The Taliban posted their first English-language tweet last month, finding time amidst their multi-front insurgency in Afghanistan to make progress on their social media strategy.

The most obvious lesson: this should be a wake-up call to various brands and organizations who don’t seem to have time to figure out social media. If the Taliban can do it, you can do it! But then I got to thinking: what else can the average Westerner learn from their Twitter feed? Because surprisingly, for a draconian, fundamentalist group that outlawed all technology during their rule in Afghanistan, they actually do a few things on Twitter really well.

So here’s the top four lessons brands and campaigns in the West can learn from them:

1. How to Be Part of the Conversation

The Taliban ruled in Afghanistan before Twitter was invented, but if it was around, it’s a fair bet they’d be against it. After all, they banned photography and the Internet, so it might be the only place in the world that Instagram would be hard-pressed to find traction.

Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid

But around 2009, they came up upon a simple realization that every campaign has to learn: you’re being defined by your community whether you like it or not, and the choice is whether you do something about it. Their spokeman puts it well:

“We did it because we know Twitter is a popular social network in the West, and we want to make our voice heard. They used to hear only one-sided news about us from the invaders, but now they can know the reality.”

This is a hard lesson especially for non-profits and politicians to learn. In politics there is an old maxim: “Don’t talk unless you can improve the silence.” This conservative attitude is a bad fit for the social networking world, where attitudes are steeled by an organic back-and-forth of diverse opinions. If you don’t express your opinion, often mainstream attitudes shift against you or ignore you, making the biggest pitfall not saying the wrong thing, but saying nothing.

2. How to Take Risks and Learn from Mistakes

Closely connected to the problem of not contributing is the problem of not experimenting – they both come from the same fear of making mistakes. In fact, many of the biggest brands have basically inactive twitter accounts, don’t follow people, don’t produce editorial content, don’t engage people directly because they’re all afraid they’ll do something wrong.

For these brands, there is good news and bad news. The bad news is this fear is real – they will almost definitely mess up and do something unfortunate in trying to figure out social media. But the good is that the impact of messing up in a medium like Twitter can often be far less dire than in the real world, where people take mistakes more seriously. The culture of social networking universe can be, in many ways, more fluid, forgiving, and flexible.

So the Taliban learned when the decided to experiment with their follower list. While many brands never follow anybody because of the fear of seemingly endorsing anything, in their first week the Taliban followed a bunch of accounts with the word Afghan in them, among them a military advisor to the Afghan Army, an educational project that teaches carpet weaving and a mini-children’s circus based in Kabul. People noticed it, made fun of them for it, and they unfollowed those people. Now, they culled all but four accounts that more closely align with their identity, and nobody who comes upon them now will ever know the difference.

An image from the Afghan Children's Circus' website, one of the accounts mistakenly followed by the Taliban.

The lesson here is that much more important to people than whether you make perfect decisions is whether you understand your mistakes and get better over time. The social networking world is a highly dynamic and fast-paced community, so be bold, take risks, and get better when you mess up. On Twitter you’ll be remembered for what you did last week, not your worst week.

3. How to Be Yourself

One of the toughest problems a lot of brands have is finding their voice. Ironically, it’s this voice that sets you apart on a forum like Twitter, where there are so many sources for information, content and opinions. Your editorial perspective, tone and personality is often what makes people listen, because it makes you more feel more authentic.

Admittedly, the Taliban could do far more in the way of producing editorial content – their Twitter is a stream of news propaganda with a list of overinflated casualties they allegedly inflicted on NATO or that coalition forces allegedly inflicted on Afghan civilians. But what makes these reports stand out is the colorful language used:

Tweeting with personality (e.g. disdain): 6 Afghan-NATO cowards killed, 5 more wounded

6 Cowards killed. 2 puppets dead. These kind of pronouncements, though deeply offensive, come so clearly from a place of earnest and unabashed authenticity. And those are the kind of statements that get retweeted and shared, because they carry their emotional resonance and personality with them. So don’t go calling your next follower a puppet, but do tweet with passion, excitement, and personality.

4. How to Focus on What You Do Best

One of the most curious parts of Twitter is that when you tweet something, people respond; and so it was immediately fascinating to see what kind of reactions would be produced on Twitter by one of the most universally recognized sources of evil. One response of particular interest was that of the NATO coalition forces in Afghanistan, who tweeted,

ISAF responded to Taliban's new feed, "What's that? Taliban's tweeting in English? Lies are lies no matter the language."

To all their detractors, the Taliban said nothing. Rather than engage these myriad of responses, the Taliban focuses on its own community of followers, building and spreading its alternative version of current events. This is wise: engaging their opponents on the veracity of their claims is a distraction from their mission and isn’t especially relevant to their community. They stumbled upon one of the most powerful weapons of social media – the worst thing you can do to someone in an online community is ignore them.

In their own way, brands sometimes struggle to stay focused, and get caught up in intense confrontations with competitors or detractors. It’s important to be able to separate customer care from combat, and focus on the former. Even though you see tons of negative mentions of your brand or organizations, usually your followers will only notice it when you respond to it. So pick your battles wisely and don’t fight them if they distract or detract from your core goals.

Moral of the Story

Lessons can be found in most unlikely places. And if one of the most strictly conservative extremist groups in the world can see the value in a Western technology, and even leverage it as a tool for promoting their individuality, taking risks, and engaging in an open discourse, then hopefully some of our more conservative brands and causes can figure it out as well.

  • J.P. Freire

    Looking forward to when you explain how the Nazis really had a solid messaging platform.

    •!/adamsfallen Adam

      too obvious.

  • Jesse Thomas – JESS3


    •!/adamsfallen Adam

      Thanks Jesse – feel free to share with your giant celebrity-laden new media guru twitter following ;).

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