Elon Musk and the rise of the social executive

What can marketers learn from Elon Musk's rabid following on Twitter? Columnist Chris Kerns dives into his Twitter feed to discover key tactics from his social activity.

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Photo by Flickr user Steve Jurvetson and used here via the Creative Commons license.

Photo by Flickr user Steve Jurvetson and used here via the Creative Commons license

Anyone paying attention to the technology world over the past few years can tell you that Elon Musk is… different. He thinks differently from most CEOs — most notably leveraging his fortune to build an electric car company that no one said would work, and two other companies at the same time. He talks differently from most CEOs, diving deep into theories on humanity and gushing about science fiction more than discussing balance sheets.

But the best measure of how he’s different is how he acts, and there’s no better place to see that in action than on Twitter.

On Twitter, Musk (@elonmusk) is an anomaly. He not only has more followers than his own car company (@TeslaMotors), but he also has more followers than @Ford, @Chevrolet and @Chryslercombined.


His personal account gets mentioned on Twitter more often than any American car company and sees more engagement than any of them. All without the help of ad budgets and teams of social media strategists.

So what is Musk doing on social media that marketers can learn from? How has he continued to build a base of followers who hang on his every word?

I mined his Twitter feed over the past year to find out and found three strategies from his social activity that we can all learn from.

Elon Musk social tactic #1: Make your channel a must-follow

Many CEOs use their social feeds to echo press releases and share the same safe content that spreads the word but surprises no one. While these tactics are great for managing risk, they can feel sterile and foreign in a social environment.

As you could probably guess, Mr. Musk heads in the other direction.

By sharing news on Twitter before it’s available from any other source, he makes his Twitter account a required follow for technology fans and anyone else interested in the Tesla Motors, Space X and SolarCity brands.

New features, updates on pre-orders and future corporate plans come straight from his Twitter account and out to the masses, with no press releases filtering down his tone or voice.

In addition to exclusive news, Musk has found a great rhythm on Twitter. He creates content frequently, every once in a while diving into “tweetstorms” that leave fans scrambling to record and dissect each note. Can you imagine your customer base doing the same for a boring press release? Neither can I.

Elon Musk social tactic #2: Know the platform, leverage the platform

I’ve seen it happen too many times — a CEO decides he or she needs to be hip and jumps onto a platform without first understanding the parlance, culture and norms of that world. What usually results is a stiff, out-of-place message that is ripe for ridicule.

How does Musk avoid that trap? By taking advantage of what makes Twitter work.

Go visual
His content patterns show that not only does he understand his audience, but he understands the norms of the platform. While most of his tweets (over 85 percent in the past month) have been just text, he also leverages imagery to post exclusive pictures, GIFs and videos of new technology and achievements.

Understand the connected landscape
Musk is also a frequent visitor to Reddit, where technology addicts and geeks tend to congregate, and where there also happens to be a healthy discussion around all things Tesla, sustainable energy, and Space X.

Use the platform features to make a point
It’s one thing express your opinions on social media, but sometimes actions are heard louder than words.

When Fortune magazine began publishing negative articles on Tesla — articles that Musk believed were part of a larger smear campaign — he didn’t just talk about it, he blocked Fortune from following him. Point taken, Mr. Musk.

Elon Musk social tactic #3: Be human

One of the great things about Musk’s Twitter feed is the sense of personality that comes through with almost every message. Because he is a social media regular, you don’t just get product announcements and industry news; you get a sense of the man behind the account.

Human is more than just business
CEOs take note: Social media is about sharing the events in one’s life, and Musk uses Twitter to do exactly that. He’s been known to tweet pictures of dogs snuggling, jokes about his own procrastination, and let his fans in on what he’s doing behind the scenes.

Human is funny
Not only does Musk talk about his plans for world domination, he also brings a light-hearted approach to his social posts. He’s smart enough to build rocket ships but also recognizes that he can have fun with the public’s perception of him.

Humans actually talk to each other
Musk has been known to give away unreported product details to Twitter users when they ask for them. He has a long history of pinging people back with answers, something that would usually be ignored or at best handled by a corporate account. And it’s not just influencers, either; this user that Musk responded to has only 30 Twitter followers.

The social CEO mixes vision with transparency

It’s rare to find a top executive who is both effective and approachable, but social media allows for those two traits to co-exist — or at least to create the appearance of both.

While it’s not a requirement for today’s leaders to broadcast different pieces of their lives, the absence of this skill — or even worse, the inability to project a human face — may stop being an anomaly in the near future.

Leaders that avoid social media are missing out on a big opportunity to not only connect with their tribes, but to change the way we think about people at the top. A social following can keep a CEO honest, sure — but it can also reveal his or her humanity, at a time when a company’s brand is increasingly formed not in a board room, but with every post, every reply and every mention. Even if he might be an alien.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily MarTech. Staff authors are listed here.

About the author

Chris Kerns
Chris Kerns has spent more than a decade defining digital strategy and sits at the forefront of extracting insights from digital data. He is the VP of Research & Insights at Spredfast, a social software platform that empowers enterprise organizations to connect with consumers in an increasingly social world. His research has appeared in The New York Times, Forbes, USA Today and the The Wall Street Journal, among other publications. He is also the author of Trendology, the first book to dive into the advantage brands can build using a data-driven approach to real-time marketing.

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