SOCIAL MEDIA & SONIC: MORE THAN A MEME
When you think about social media accounts for major franchises and brands, both in the games industry and outside of it, you don’t really expect anything too extravagant. Usually it’s just bunch of promotional posts keeping people up to date on the latest products, announcements of special events, polls, competitions, and the odd post that shares a lucky fan’s artwork. It’s perfectly fine and it’s great for keeping up to date with your favourite brands, but rarely will anything excite you or surprise you or create any sort of major buzz.
And this applied to the social media accounts for Sonic the Hedgehog ever since social media on the Ｉnternet became a big part of brand marketing. Then June 2015 rolled around -at the speed of sound. It was at this time that the “keys” to the Sonic social media accounts switched hands. Kellie Parker, the previous Sonic Social Media Administrator who had been responsible for running the accounts for an impressive 7 years, left SEGA and in her place, Aaron Webber (also known as “RubyEclipse” on various SEGA, Sonic, and gaming forum communities) returned to SEGA. to pick up where Kellie left off. Webber had worked for the company in the past, but briefly left during 2014 He became the PR & Social Media Manager of the Sonic the Hedgehog brand. For a little while, there wasn’t really any noticeable difference in how the accounts were run. It was mostly the same promotional posts to keep people up to date on the latest products under the Sonic brand, and casual fans really wouldn’t have known that someone different had taken control of the account, unless they were informed of it. But after a few days into June, fans started seeing things like this all over the Sonic Social Media accounts.
— Sonic the Hedgehog (@sonic_hedgehog) June 10, 2015
After that, the rest is history. The Sonic social media accounts have gone on to get up to all sorts of antics. From banter with fans, posting memes, holding meme contests and cheekily calling out critics with unfair criticism towards the Sonic franchise. They even made fun of Mighty No. 9 quite directly on not one, but two occasions. Things like this happen regularly, and are essentially considered the norm for Sonic’s social media accounts these days.
In this article, I would like to discuss what this current direction for the Sonic social media could mean for the Sonic brand as a whole, and the role the social media accounts play in Sonic’s branding. Is it good for the franchise, or is it going to hurt its reputation with all of the “unprofessional” behaviour?
First off, let’s get one, undeniable fact out of the way…
More people are interested in Sonic now than they were before
There is a bit of a divide regarding the current direction of these social media accounts. Most people love or don’t mind it, but there are quite a few people who are skeptical about this approach to social media marketing, or outright think it’s bad for the franchise. Regardless of a person’s personal stance on the matter though, Aaron Webber has stated that the the numbers for the accounts “have doubled” since he started to implement his new approach to these accounts. That’s more people following these accounts and, while the memes and such keep people interested and are likely why many people follow the accounts, it also means more people are being exposed to the actual promotional posts regarding new Sonic games, events, and products. This is great, especially coming off the lukewarm reception of Sonic Lost World, the critical and commercial disaster of Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric, and the failure and eventual cancellation of Sonic Runners. Interest in Sonic was dying down as people started to feel the franchise was on another downward spiral since Lost World. While the current reputation and direction of the Sonic games themselves has yet to be proven, the social media accounts have created a sense of confidence in Sonic fans and non-Sonic fans (i.e people who like certain games but don’t really follow the series extensively, and might fall out of loop sometimes) through their bold attitude.
The social media accounts are helping to restore Sonic’s sense of “identity”
If you keep up with the Sonic franchise, no matter how big of a fan you are or the variety of games you like, there is something about the franchise that can be agreed upon. And that is, it has an identity crisis.
Being the huge, decade-spanning franchise that it is, the Sonic franchise has had many re-inventions and derivatives, both in terms of the gameplay of the games, the general tone and feel of the stories, and the personalities and portrayals of the characters. While things like the character designs don’t often undergo drastic changes, the drastic changes to everything else causes a lot of confusion as to what Sonic is all about (besides going fast). It also causes a divide among Sonic fans, greater than what you will see in most fandoms. A common criticism directed towards SEGA and Sonic Team, is that they “won’t just give Sonic fans what they want”. But this is incredibly hard to do when they have re-invented the franchise and character so many times, to the point where in the games alone, there are at least 5 “core” (i.e speaking of the major, main series installments and not spin-offs like racing games and what not) styles of Sonic gameplay, and there are so many ways in which the stories and characters have been handled. You have the simplistic yet adventurous, epic, and subtly told stories of the Classic games. The bombastic, action packed, cinematic spectacles of things like the Sonic Adventure games. And you have the Saturday morning cartoon feeling of more recent games like Sonic Colours. Then you have Sonic Boom, which was supposed to be a branch of the franchise aimed at younger kids, but it ended up feeling too similar to the last we saw of the main series (and I’d argue the Sonic Boom TV show has much more clever and witty writing than the last we saw of the main series games anyway, making it more suitable for the older Sonic fans). And that’s not even getting into other TV shows and things like the comics, or how the Sonic Boom games have a different tone than the TV show.
However, among all of this confusion, the Sonic social media exists as a sort of unifying force. A lot of the different versions of Sonic are given attention, through tributes and jokes. This seems to help Sonic fans find a place where they can go to for a good time no matter what their views on the franchise are, or what version of Sonic they like most. Helping this further is the fact that Aaron Webber’s aim with these social media accounts is to “make them feel like Sonic himself is the one posting on them”. And it certainly shows. Not only are his posts cocky and have an attitude like the Blue Blur himself, but they often make reference to lots of things within the Sonic universe, like Chaos Emeralds, Rings, and the like. This helps to restore a sense of the character’s identity in a time when even that is somewhat unclear. It also sets Sonic’s social media apart from say, Nintendo’s, which I feel harkens back to the days when Sonic was created as a cooler, more brash alternative to Nintendo’s mascot, Mario.
The Sonic social media is getting fans involved
As well as posting memes and having brash interactions with other brands, Sonic’s social media has been doing a good job of getting fans involved with the brand. Hidden in a lot of posts are clues that generally hint towards something. Even right now, there are posts that were confirmed to hint towards something or the other but we still haven’t seen what the meaning of these hints are. They are most commonly found in the tags of the Sonic Tumblr account’s posts. This gives fans something to do that involves Sonic and causes lots of speculation discussions to take place. In a way, it leads people to hype themselves up for the next Sonic game through their own wild theories and speculations.
And taking the “Sonic runs his own Twitter idea” to it’s most literal extreme, the Sonic Twitter recently had a Q&A with fans – with Sonic and Dr. Eggman (voiced by Roger Craig Smith and Mike Pollock respectively) themselves answering the questions. Fans got to ask all sorts of questions, and a handful were answered, including the (joke) reason behind why Dr. Eggman is not in Super Smash Bros. for Wii U/3DS. They also interacted with other brands like Assassin’s Creed, and they interacted with popular Sonic community figureheads like the YouTuber cobanermani456.
And on the note of references to Super Smash Bros, the Sonic Twitter has actually interacted with the Project M Twitter account a few times, including a rather heartfelt post directed to the Project M team when the team behind the popular mod for Super Smash Bros. Brawl had to disband and stop development of the project. This is an incredible display of respect from an official social media account towards a very dedicated group of fans during a rather upsetting time for the Super Smash Bros. community. Nintendo never commented on this or even made reference to Project M. While that is understandable, there’s still a beautiful irony in the fact the Sonic Twitter was so supportive of the team.
— Sonic the Hedgehog (@sonic_hedgehog) December 3, 2015
Perhaps the biggest things the Sonic social media has done though, is that they have literally provided jobs for various Sonic fans. The two most notable examples of this are GeneHF (a former Sonic Retro staff member), and Matt, the owner of Tails’ Channel on YouTube, who now works as Social Media Interns at SEGA, and now make some of the social media posts alongside the team at SEGA. Rafa Knight, a 3D artist of DeviantART fame, has made some unique 3D renders for some posts. Rafa Knight also creates cover art for the official Archie Sonic and Archie Mega Man comics (including one example that’s Super Smash Bros. themed). Aaron Webber has also noted that he works with a group of Sonic fan artists who can recreate Yuji Uekawa’s art style, and he uses these images for different posts. One example is in the tweet below, which features new artwork of Mighty the Armadillo in Uekawa’s art style.
Knuckles' Chaotix was released 21 years ago today in Japan. Here’s a remix of its game art to celebrate. pic.twitter.com/fEOgCxmNmx
— Sonic the Hedgehog (@sonic_hedgehog) April 21, 2016
The biggest project to come out of the Sonic social media’s efforts to get fans involved, is Big’s Big Fishing Adventure 3, a parody Sonic game developed by a team of fans alongside Aaron Webber, with official sanctioning and promotion from SEGA. This is particularly amazing because, outside of the game actually being pretty fun, it gives fans an extra game that they wouldn’t otherwise get, and it’s free too. It also uses aforementioned artwork created by fans, designed to replicate Yuji Uekawa’s art style.
Risks with the current direction of Sonic’s social media, and suggestions to possibly make it even better
While I love the current direction of the Sonic social media, feel that it’s incredibly beneficial for the brand as well as the Sonic community, and is just loads of fun to follow altogether, it does have a few risks associated with its current direction. So for the sake of being constructive, I thought I’d point those out, and also do my best to suggest some things the Sonic social media could do to become even more way past cool.
The most obvious risk: is that despite all of the efforts to bring fans together, have fun, and make them feel more comfortable with the brand, some fans invertly end up alienated. This can be due to multiple reasons. Some fans just really don’t get the meme humour, don’t find it funny or see it as “immature”, particularly those of a much older age group. Other fans also just don’t appreciate the self-deprecating humour. As much as most people agree on games like Sonic the Hedgehog (2006) and Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric being bad games, those games do actually have their fans. So to constantly see them being the butt end of a joke on Sonic social media, never really being referenced in a positive way, will rub some people who like them the wrong way. The same can be said for certain characters like Shadow and Knuckles, who are mostly only referenced through joking about their lowest points (like Knuckles’ increasingly diminishing intelligence, or Shadow’s “edginess” and curses from Shadow the Hedgehog). This will make fans of these characters feel like they are wrong to like them unironically, that it’s wrong to legitimately think they are cool characters that serve as formidable rivals to Sonic in the franchise.
Another major risk is that the posts that get competitive or brash towards other brands – most notably, the jabs thrown at Mighty No. 9 – can upset fans of those brands or the people who work on them. We have already observed this happening when an employee of Deep Silver (the team responsible for localising Mighty No. 9), got visibly annoyed by the joke that was made by the Sonic Twitter just after the release of Mighty No. 9. This once again, will alienate people away from the Sonic brand, as they feel like it doesn’t approve of something else they like.
More than anything though – the next two Sonic games have to be good games. Great, even. Sonic Boom: Fire & Ice has been receiving mostly positive impressions from game’s journalists so far based on its E3 demo, so that will hopefully be good enough for people to find it worthy purchase. However, they absolutely cannot afford the next Sonic game to be a bad game, or even a mediocre one. If it does turn out that way, then all of these brash interactions, the jabs at other rough games like Mighty No. 9, will blow up in their faces, and people just won’t be able to take Sonic seriously as a video game icon anymore.
As far as suggestions go for what they could do to make Sonic’s social media even better, the easiest thing they could do, is do a better job of referencing the good side of games and characters that are so often the butt of a joke these days. For example, Sonic the Hedgehog (2006) may be regarded as a bad game by many, but even people who don’t like the game tend to agree that the game has an awesome soundtrack. Why not pay tribute to that more? I often see songs like Escape From The City and Live & Learn referenced on the Sonic Twitter, so why not reference something like His World or All Hail Shadow on occasion, since those are pretty cool songs too? Or for characters, instead of making every post about Shadow a reference to his edginess or a “Damn 4th Chaos Emerald” reference, why not reference his heroics on occasion? For example, maybe for next year’s Earth Day, they could do something like this:
This is more or less what Aaron Webber aimed to do with Big the Cat, stating that “he’s this character nobody seemed to love, so I decided to be the guy who gives him some love”. So I think we could stand to see it with more characters. While characters like Shadow and Knuckles are still very popular, it seems to be more for ironic reasons these days, and the Sonic social media has only really embraced that side of the characters. The genuine side could use some love too, though.
When it comes to the interactions with other brands, it’s mostly been fine, but to save fans and employees working under other brands from getting annoyed, they could try making the jokes more clearly joking in tone. The Mighty No. 9 tweet in particular did come off as particularly blunt, so they should probably make their intent clearer in cases like that.
I also think that maybe there should be more announcements and community highlights and such on the Sonic social media. I know it wants to avoid being like every other brand’s social media. But just making jokes and memes the whole time can get boring in itself. While there won’t always be a new game to announce, there’s usually plenty of merchandise and deals coming out. They don’t really bring attention to all of it though. So I think they should try to integrate that into their plans just a little bit more. Highlighting particularly cool fan art, animations, and music more often, would also be appreciated by many fans.
Overall, there is a lot to like about the Sonic social media, and it’s doing a lot of good for the Sonic brand. While it’s a bit risky and there are other things it could do besides memes and jokes to become even better, it is in a good spot right now. Even social media for other brands has been trying to imitate Sonic’s success on social media, such as the Nintendo of America Twitter. Sonic’s social media is also clearly run by people who are just as big as Sonic fan as myself or anyone who might read this article, and they seem to know what they are doing. I just really hope the upcoming Sonic games live up to the sort of hype and expectations the social media is setting up. If they don’t, I feel like all of the hard work from Aaron Webber and his team will sort of backfire, especially things like the jabs at Mighty No. 9. Either way, I remain confident that what the Sonic social media is doing is great for the brand, and that the work done for them will leave a lasting mark on the Sonic brand.
Also, in case you want to check out Sonic’s social media accounts, which you totally should, here are the links for them:
Facebook: Sonic the Hedgehog
YouTube: Sonic the Hedgehog