CANNES — Targeting niche conversations, getting tone of voice right and not being afraid to get emotional are among the top tips for brands who want to crack social media engagement, according to analysis of more than 1,800 Cannes Lions entries over the past five years.

The results of the analysis, by Twitter and creative intelligence firm Contagious, were revealed at the Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity this week, in a talk entitled “Conversations that shape culture: the participation playbook,” led by Twitter’s head of global brand strategy Alex Josephson and Contagious head of trends Katrina Stirton Dodd.

Dodd said: “We’re a decade and a half into the social media age and we still seem to think that brand engagement is down to dumb luck. But participation is too important to leave to chance. Marketing is so much more fun, interesting and powerful when we do it with people rather than at them.”

Twitter and Contagious have identified six pillars “to make brands worth talking about for the right reasons,” the first of which was “communication beats consumption.” Dodd said: “People will share something if helps them express themselves, and content falls into three categories that promote sharing: informational content, where a brand knows something you don’t; identity-based content, which is about shared values, who you are or showing you get who someone else is, and emotional content, which makes you feel something and creates empathy.”

Another recommendation was to go beyond big, predictable moments like public holidays and engage with people on Twitter around niche conversations and areas of genuine passion.

Dodds said: “Marketers should be looking for cultural conversations that are gathering impetus, and brands need to be super-attuned to popular culture. But get the timing wrong and you risk looking like you’re jumping on a bandwagon. Staffing for that level of nuance is critical, because it might merit a droll response, or a new product line, so don’t palm social listening off on your intern.”

Tone of voice on Twitter was also described as “absolutely everything” by Josephson, who said: “You have to speak the language of your audience, and we’ve all seen brands getting this wrong. The trick is not to sound more like Wendy’s; it’s about sounding more like yourself. The trick is to have really firm guardrails about what you can and can’t do, and then give teams complete freedom to be self-deprecating and fearless, even in your most vulnerable moments.”

And, reflecting on Cannes and the importance of measuring social media effectiveness, Dodds said: “This is the dark heart of our industry: we are here to celebrate creativity, and we need it so much because the truth is no-one cares about brands. According to the Havas Meaningful Brands survey, 77% of brands could disappear and no-one would care. Indifference is the enemy for brands. Cannes case studies are the spiritual home of hyperbolic metrics, but we need to look beyond impressions: easy to count is not the same as worth counting.”

Josephson added: “How are you going to define success? If all you’re thinking about are mundane media metrics you’re not thinking bold enough. Conversations that shape culture rarely appear out of thin air.”

Nike, Burger King, Wendy’s, REI and House of Pancakes were included in examples of brands whose social media campaigns had embraced the six principles to the extent that they had had a measurable effect on the bottom line.