3 Social Media Engagement Lessons from Elmo’s Viral X Post

“How are you doing?”

It’s one of the most loaded questions we hear nowadays. We often find ourselves at a crossroads, unsure whether we should respond with a polite but generic “I’m well, how about you?” or be truthful about our current state. Amid economic pressures, political turmoil, global conflicts, family matters, and personal burnout, many people worldwide are understandably stressed. Yet, despite the palpable weight of these challenges, deflection is the cultural norm.

While the discomfort of deviating from the social script keeps face-to-face conversations rolling, the digital realm offers a unique refuge. You’ve probably felt the effects of this social science phenomenon yourself – whether it’s the sense of anonymity, the asynchronous nature of commenting on a social media post, or the lack of interpersonal conflict risk, self-disclosure becomes easier when we’re behind a screen.

Overall, social media users are embracing this freedom from inhibition. Facebook is a touchpoint for millions of long-distance friends and families. Instagram Reels have become a portrait of the human experience. TikTok influencers have gotten real with their experiences with brands, while Snapchat has become the “keep-it-real” kingdom of the digital realm. More brands are even embracing authenticity in their corporate strategies, leveraging user-generated content as a core tactic for social commerce.

Still, when beloved red puppet and Sesame Street icon Elmo posted a simple wellness check on his X profile, we were shocked when the post turned into a global trauma dump, garnering over 20,000 comments, nearly 160,000 likes, and over 60,000 shares.

A screenshot of a Tweet from Elmo reads, "Elmo is just checking in! How is everybody doing?"

Elmo and his team published this innocent check-in to his X followers on January 29, blissfully unaware of the global trauma dump and mental health advocacy movement that would ensue.

Numerous brands, including Dunkin Donuts, Shake Shack, and Oreo, joined the conversation by expressing their cravings for iced coffee and sweet treats. However, as more users joined the thread, the conversation shifted towards existential crises, job dissatisfaction, and venting about ex-partners. People also used witty memes and blunt one-liners alluding to impending doom. Only a small group of followers seemed to be doing just fine.

It didn’t take long for Elmo’s post to invite comments expressing feelings of hardship and existential dread.

Interestingly, it’s not out of character for Elmo to check in on his friends on social media. He often uses X to engage with his fellow Sesame Street friends, fostering friendly banter with adorably positive sentiment. This viral spiral, though, was the first of its caliber for Elmo’s account. The little guy and his team probably had no idea the innocuous check-in could spiral into a global outpouring of personal struggles. Yet, they handled it phenomenally.

As a global tech PR agency trusted by a diverse mix of brands and thought leaders, we understand the profound impact of effective engagement on a brand’s online presence and reputation. By unraveling Elmo’s viral tweet, we uncover three lessons to help brands and thought leaders navigate and maximize the ever-changing landscape of social media engagement.

Lesson #1: You Can’t Control Interpretation

Elmo’s check-in on social media was incredibly tame, but it sparked a global conversation around emotional well-being. This demonstrates how even the simplest message can resonate with audiences and lead to left-field outcomes. When this happens, it’s important to be prepared to respond to unexpected reactions.

Elmo’s viral tweet ignited a firestorm of emotions among the online community. People eagerly shared their thoughts, feelings, and personal experiences, driven by their desire to be heard and understood. This is a poignant reminder to brands that actively listening to their audience is vital for understanding their precise needs. Social listening allows you to hear raw, authentic feedback from your audience. Analyzing the feedback in the transaction can help brands respond in a way that aligns with audience needs and paves a path for upcoming engagements and campaigns.

Lesson #2: Chain Reactions Travel Fast

Most social media algorithms – X, TikTok, Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn – prioritize engagement-based content. We saw this when Elmo’s viral tweet traveled everywhere, captivating individuals, brands, and newsrooms. The community nurtured by the Elmo and Sesame Street X accounts kept the conversation going for weeks, with the engagement-driven algorithm inviting more people to read and share the thread.

An X post from Domino's Pizza UK is screenshotted. The caption reads, "totally fine" while the image shows a conveyer built of pizzas in flames, a stack of pizzas scattered across the floor, and a worker in distress amidst the wreckage.

The Domino’s Pizza UK social media team responded in alignment with the sentiment of the dark humor comments.

Elmo’s viral tweet also prompted engagement from major brands such as NASA, Xbox, and Spotify. Many of these brands made a statement that resonated with their respective audiences by publicly aligning themselves with the movement, whether validating consumers’ responses with similarly dark-humored replies or giving kudos to Elmo’s advocacy for mental health support. Even the President of the United States jumped in to show his support for the movement. Viral content lends incredible potential for collaboration, community, and influence. Brands should be prepared to harness the power of engagement-driven chain reactions to expand their reach and achieve their objectives with their next high-performance post.

Lesson #3: Your Response Matters

Viral social media posts are rarely engineered as such, but with the right approach, they can be harnessed. The response of Elmo’s management team demonstrated not only exceptional active listening but also active response. The team was prepared for the unexpected: As soon as the post gained traction, we saw Elmo’s friends – Cookie Monster and Snuffalupugus – jump in to respond to their favorite red monster, echoing support and interest in promoting emotional well-being. Meanwhile, the official Sesame Street X account jumped in to support users, posting links to the Sesame Workshop’s mental health and nonprofit website.

A re-post of Elmo's response shared from President Biden reads, "I know how hard it is some days to sweep the clouds away and get to sunnier days.Our friend Elmo is right: We have to be there for each other, offer our help to a neighbor in need, and above all else, ask for help when we need it. Even though it's hard, you're never alone."

President Biden took the opportunity to share Elmo’s post nationally, promoting his advocacy for mental health support.

In the days following, Elmo followed up with a post providing positive reinforcement for the audience, aligning Sesame Street’s values of emotional well-being with Elmo’s persona. He assured the audience that he was glad they shared their feelings and committed to checking in again soon – laying the foundation for future engagements for the account followers to look forward to seeing. He also took to the screen to reinforce his response on the Today Show, covering his bases to ensure he closed the loop. The thorough approach, spearheaded by Sesame Workshop social media manager Christina Vittas and the brand’s marketing team, demonstrates how evaluating cross-channel communication tactics can enhance a message’s reach and reinforce positive sentiment to larger audiences.

The viral post by Elmo serves as an insightful case study, providing a tangible look at the unpredictable yet powerful nuances of social media engagement. By recognizing the power of interpretation, actively listening, engaging with the audience, effectively leveraging chain reactions, and responding thoughtfully, brands can navigate the ever-evolving landscape of online engagement and build stronger connections with their target audiences.

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Is your brand looking to jump into trending social media conversations but unsure where to start? We can help! Contact us to discuss social media engagement strategies that can help your content break through the noise.

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