The Social Club: Merriam-Webster Chief Digital Officer Lisa Schneider
The Social Club is Contently’s new Q&A series. Every month, social media editor Tallie Gabriel will talk with the people behind the most creative, notable, and successful social media accounts.
If you follow Merriam-Webster on Twitter, you may be a language nerd like me. Or maybe you took notice during the 2016 election, when the dictionary not only became relevant, but edgy and funny, all because of its digital presence. The rise in popularity came when the Trump campaign tried to convince the public that “alternative fact” and “unpresidented” were legitimate words and phrases, but Merriam-Webster wasn’t having it.
Merriam-Webster has taken on the task of making people care about words again, and it’s working. A big reason why is chief digital officer Lisa Schneider and her team. Schneider and I recently spoke on the phone to talk social media missions, strange DM requests, and the heated debate of whether or not a hot dog is a sandwich.
How would you describe the mission statement for Merriam-Webster’s social presence?
I would say we are smart, and funny, and unexpected. We’ve been called sassy, and we’re fine with that as long as people understand that it’s layered on top of seriousness. We don’t make decisions about what goes into the dictionary. We follow the evidence and report on it.
So I think it’s that combination of really geeking out on something and digging into it in a way that can be funny or surprising or entertaining—but also having that really solid foundation.
Our mission statement is in two parts: Number one is to propagate our irrational love of the English language. And two is to help people understand language better so they can better understand and communicate with the world around them.
What was your vision for the social media presence?
When I joined Merriam-Webster, the social media presence was pretty staid and boring. It was regular and predictable. We posted a Word of the Day without illustration or commentary. There was no interactivity.
But internally, I was having so much fun at work. We would have these great conversations about language in the office, and I would just go like, “Oh my God, I love my job, I love my job! This is the fun part. Why don’t we just pull the curtain back?” So the vision was we just draw back the curtain on the fabulousness that is every single day in the office.
What do you think Merriam-Webster does differently than your competitors? Do you think you are more fun or more engaging than other linguistic social accounts?
Our voice works because it’s not a branding effort. It’s who we really are. It’s dynamic. What you’re hearing is people’s voices as we have conversations in the office. Our current social media manager is this guy called Adam. A lot of the posts are his original work, but a lot of it comes from conversations that we have at Slack or in the office or pulled out of the articles that the team is writing.
I think the idea is that these people fundamentally care about language. This is not a hired gun who’s doing this.
Are you worried that social media in general is detracting from people’s grammar and vocabulary skills, especially younger generations’?
That’s how language works, right? Here’s the surprising thing: People always say to me, “Oh, no, now I have to watch what I say around you. I have to make sure that everything’s correct.” And I have actually become much less judgmental since working at the dictionary.
I’m not an editor or a lexicographer, but I’m definitely a word nerd, I majored in English, I was the copyeditor of my high school newspaper, and I wrote to William Safire when I was a child, asking him to address a pet peeve of mine in his On Language column in The New York Times Sunday Magazine.
I was quite judgy. Then I learned from the lexicographers that we’re here to report on how language evolves. The one constant in language is change, and we’re here to observe and record and report on those changes. So the lexicographers’ knee-jerk reaction is not, “Oh my God, I can’t believe you said that.” Their knee-jerk reaction is, “Oh, hmm, that’s interesting. Let me make a note of that. Maybe I’m going to see that again.”
Have you found that Twitter is more conducive to your brand since it traditionally cares more about words and is popular among journalists and media? And along that note, have you had challenges with any other social networks?
The short answer is yes. I think Twitter definitely was the platform that was the most conducive to our brand, and people do care about language. It is a good environment for what we do. We do have a few ideas in the works for Instagram, and we’ll continue working with other platforms as well. But I think Twitter still is the place where people enjoy us a lot.
Is your social strategy tied to actually selling dictionaries or just increasing brand awareness?
We are an established company. We don’t have VC funding, and we don’t have a run rate of money to burn through. If you come to our website, that’s great. If you buy a dictionary, that’s great. Print is still a profitable business for us. If you download our app, that’s great. If you do all three, that’s also great. We’ve actually had people tweet back at us, “Oh my God, I love you. I’m going to go out and buy your dictionary. I’m going to go out and download your app.” And we’re like, “Yes, please do that.”
So yes, absolutely, we need to drive traffic to our product, so that’s part of the effort. But not everything we do is directly tied to that. If your approach to social is, “Oh, here’s an article. Please click on it, and go to my website,” that’s like the boring person at the party who only talks about themselves. So we will post things that are just interesting or make a funny statement. We really enjoy when other people enjoy geeking out about language with us.
What were the most challenging and unexpected parts about developing Merriam-Webster’s social presence?
The most unexpected part was how it took off. This was a little bit of a passion project to say, “Hey, we’re having so much fun in the office, let’s show people who we really are and let them engage in this fun with us.” Then things just really took off. It’s like catching lightning in a bottle.
One of the cool features that we have is called “Words We’re Watching.” I mentioned that we follow the evidence, so there might be a word that people are using, but we haven’t entered it yet in the dictionary. It has to meet our criteria for entry, but we have an eye on it. Sometimes we’ll talk about that as well. We wrote something about the word “doggo.” Fifty or so people ended up tweeting us back pictures of their dogs. And I’m like, “Okay, you know what? Let’s be honest. Twitter can also be a dark place, and if we can get people to tweet dog pictures, that’s really good.” That’s a valuable thing in the world in this day and age.
The challenging part is when people don’t listen. When they deliberately mischaracterize or misunderstand what we do. People always ask me, “Can you get a word into the dictionary?” I cannot get a word into the dictionary. That’s not how it works.
What other brand and publisher social accounts are you inspired by?
Sesame Street! I love it. What is the strangest DM or Twitter mention that Merriam-Webster has received?
The strangest and also somewhat regular DM we get is, “Can you put a picture of my significant other or my friend or my mother or whatever next to this word?” Sometimes they’re sweet, and sometimes they say, “Oh, I want this person’s picture next to ‘aggravating.'”
Is there a word that you personally wish would be added to the dictionary?
Two years ago, my son came home. He was telling a story about a boy in his class, and then he said, “And he wasn’t being very shareful.” Then he stopped and looked at me, and I kind of cocked my head and looked at him, and we’re both like, “Oh, hmm.” And he goes, “That’s not right, is it?” He was in second grade at the time. And I don’t why that’s not a word. Because if you are taking care, then you’re careful. Right? And if you’re helping someone or are inclined to help, then you’re helpful. And so it makes perfect sense that if you are sharing or inclined to share that you are shareful, but yet that is not a word. So I think “shareful” should be a word.
That’s lovely. Maybe I’ll start using it in my life.
Well, that’s how words get entered, right? People start using them. If people use them, then we’re going to make it happen. We can make “shareful” happen.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.Image by Pexels/Creative Commons Zero