A Different Perspective On Social Media & Content Marketing: Sensemaking

Aug 12, 2021 | Culture, Marketing

Sunday evening, I downloaded TikTok and made an account.

I know, I know. I said I wouldn’t do it… but I did.

I have zero plans to post to TikTok, but I’ve been increasingly curious about the creators posting personal-meets-educational content. I was also super curious about the eerily prescient TikTok algorithm after the latest episode of ReplyAll.

I watched a 2-part TikTok on the account @doctor.darien (aka #tiktokmedschool) about diagnosing a patient reluctant to describe his chest pain. I watched a writing coach teach on story structure and writing techniques. And I watched some TikToks about styling more voluminous ponytails.

I’ll admit it: TikTok sucked me in pretty quickly.

It wasn’t long before TikTok started serving me videos about ADHD. These were wonderful! Earnest, charming, educational, and I’m sure extremely valuable on many levels to someone with ADHD. But I don’t have ADHD. 

Now, I’ve been around ye olde internet long enough to know that if I kept watching these ADHD TikToks to the end, the algorithm was just going to keep sharing more on the same theme. So I did what any social media savvy person would do and gave the algorithm some different data by searching the hashtag #actuallyautistic. 

And woah.

I saw a host of young women sharing their autistic experience, and I felt that same wave of resonance that I did when I started reading the stories of autistic women.

Now, I’ll be the first one to say that there’s a lot of crap on TikTok. There’s a lot of crap everywhere online. I had to swipe through a fair number of videos of middle-aged women drinking large amounts of alcohol. 

“Everybody says that there is no censorship on the internet, or at least only in part. But that is not true. Online censorship is applied through the excess of banal content that distracts people from serious or collective issues.”

— Jenny Odell, How To Do Nothing

But what struck me scrolling through TikTok on Sunday evening was how much content is being created today as a practice of sensemaking.

“Sensemaking involves coming up with a plausible understanding—a map—of a shifting world; testing this map with others through data collection, action, and conversation; and then refining, or abandoning, the map depending on how credible it is.” 

Deborah Ancona, MIT Sloan School of Management

A hashtag community like #actuallyautistic (which can also be found on Twitter and Instagram) creates a sort of diffused framework that makes sense of both the internal and external worlds through an autistic lens.

This kind of content turns an inward mental model into a community experience, making everyone’s mental models stronger.

Of course, sensemaking isn’t limited to neurodivergent communities, nor is it limited to TikTok. 

In an ever-changing world, we’re making sense of inputs, information, and experiences all the time. Today, our online communities, social media platforms, and apps give us a way to engage in a sort of collaborative sensemaking project.

And I would go so far as to propose that sensemaking—both as an individual pursuit and a collective project—is one of the most valuable functions of social media.

I’ve been thinking a lot about sensemaking lately. I’ve started to learn how my sensemaking processes differ from many other people’s processes. Sensemaking is something I have to work hard at, and it is something I consider a significant strength of mine. 

And maybe it’s not fair to say that my sensemaking process is different so much as my process is active & conscious. If I pay attention to that process, I can pretty easily share it with others. I’ve noticed that much of the success I’ve had with social media and content marketing over the years has been through sensemaking.

If I can turn my mental model for how a business model works, why we get stuck on planning, or how to price an offer into a tool that others can use, I can create really valuable content that grows my audience and builds my brand. And that about sums up my content strategy for this year. Whether it’s a 4000-word explainer on marketing strategy or business models or a short personal essay, my goal is to make sense of something every time I post or send an email. 

And just as we see more people (especially Gen Z) using a vast array of social media tools to make sense of the world and their experience of it, I’ve been trying to incorporate more tools into how I do it, too. 

Illustrations, diagrams, podcast editing techniques, different formats for conversations, curating outside resources, etc., all help me share my mental models with you. And in sharing my mental models, we can make them stronger together so that they benefit you, too.

Sensemaking is a 3-step, iterative process.

The first step of sensemaking is collecting information to broaden your perspective.

We have the most access to information that confirms our worldview. But to truly make sense of what’s going on, we need to seek out information that gives us a wider lens.

That starts with seeking out perspectives and experiences that are different from our own. It continues with investigating the systems that are influencing the information we have.

No information exists in a vacuum. Not even the most vacuous Instagram post or TikTok video. There are always layers of information and multiple systems at play.

When I produce a podcast episode or write an article, I’m trying to examine the cultural, psychological, and emotional systems that intersect with my idea.

Every piece of content or idea you engage is an opportunity to look for connections and interrogate the systems that influenced it.

The more you train yourself to do that, the more you’ll start to create a scaffolding for seeing depth and context in the world around you. You’ll begin to see unexpected connections between ideas and have a more robust understanding of perspectives that aren’t your own.

The second step of sensemaking is creating a framework for understanding.

Your framework is a mental model for understanding the many variables at play in any situation. It gives you a way to figure out how you want to arrange yourself in the environment around you.

In this step, it’s tempting to apply old stories or assumptions to new situations or information. But to truly understand something, we need to look at the situation with a fresh perspective.

Your framework might do many things. It could help you process an order of importance. It might make connections between ideas more explicit. It could create some “if this, then that” kind of programming to help you respond more effectively with less work.

Once you have your initial framework, you can use personal stories, metaphors, or historical context to use your new understanding more fluently.

The final step of sensemaking is using & refining your framework.

Sensemaking isn’t a once & done process—especially when we’re talking about making sense of the present moment.

We should expect to refine our framework for understanding over and over again. We get the information we need to do that by acting on our new mental model—which means opening up our curated collection of ideas & interpretation to others.

What comes most naturally for me is sharing a new framework by writing an article, posting to social media, or producing a podcast episode. Creating and sharing content gives me a way to test out the idea with others.

For you, using your framework might look like a completely different kind of experiment or process. What you do to use or share your framework doesn’t so much matter as that you remain open to new information and adaptation of what you believe to be true.

I guarantee you that something is happening in your customer’s world that doesn’t make sense.

It might even be something that you take for granted or seems obvious to you. Or it might be something that you’re working hard to make sense of yourself.

By giving voice—and maybe a diagram—to your mental model, you can do a great service for them and for you, too!

The more we commit to making sense, the more we’ll be able to thrive in a world that often doesn’t.


Host of What Works

Tara is a podcaster, small business community leader, strategist, and speaker. She’s been helping small business owners build stronger businesses for over a decade.  

Tara McMullin, What Works Weekly Newsletter

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