You should never watermark your social content

Don't let your vanity ruin performance
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Romolotavani/Getty Images

· 4 min read

So, you’re a social media professional. You trade your blood, sweat, and client-feedback-inspired tears to make creative content you’re proud of. For many of us, that’s the fulfillment we’re looking for: Work we can excitedly point to and say, “I made that!”

Because so many social pros are judged by owned metrics (the direct engagements on a brand’s social media post), there’s a natural inclination to exclusively think in those metrics. Naturally, some might even worry about their content getting ripped and stolen curated by other users, brands, editorial outlets, etc. That’s where you see watermarking come into play—the act of tossing a brand logo on top of a social asset.

Here’s the thing, though: If you’re a brand, you should never watermark your social content. Instead, you should actually want everyone to steal your content.

Here’s what I mean.

What is watermarking?

You’re probably familiar with the opaque, gray bar found on Getty Images photos when they’re not free to use. That’s a watermark. In that case, it’s added to keep people from using those photos without purchasing them, since that’s Getty’s business.

Watermarking pops up on social content now and then as well. Social media pros quote a few reasons why they like to watermark their content: brand attribution, proof of creator, wanting no one to steal it.

Take this Instagram post from the Sixers. Their two star-players, James Harden and Joel Embiid, in front of a media wall with Sixers logos everywhere—but see that transparent 76ers logo in the upper right corner? That’s a watermark. And I think it’s unnecessary.

You should never watermark brand social media content

If a brand’s paying to make organic social media content, whether that’s via a social media manager, a creative team, or an ad agency, it’s asking for promotional content. If you’re making content to promote a brand, you should want that content to get as many eyeballs on it as humanly possible, not just your current followers.

You should want people to steal your content. It’s free, organic reach.

Let’s stick with the Sixers example. If I’m creating content for the team, a huge percent of what I post will feature players in uniform with that lovely team name slapped on the front of each jersey. That means the 76ers brand is loud and proud—no need for another logo in another place on the asset.

If Joel Embiid dunks on someone, I want everyone online to see that. Sure, it was I, the social media manager toiling behind the scenes, who made that content. But I also want that ridiculously awesome clip to spread like wildfire as easily as possible, winding up on the House of Highlights Instagram, in Bleacher Report’s Twitter, ripped on random fans’ Facebooks. Every single view is good for the team, and that level of reach can’t always happen organically by being protective with your original post.

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“B-B-But you can’t track engagement on stolen content!”

You sure can’t! But that’s part of the point, and it doesn’t mean it’s not valuable! It’s earned media at its best—free promotion. If you cut a social media clip for a pro sports team that’s so great it’s curated all around the web, that’s a win for both you and the brand. I recommend collecting the ones you see, and emailing your boss excitedly when a major outlet picks it up. You’re now bringing in even more value than organic social normally does.

The watermarking asterisks

Now, when your content is the product, watermarking might make a lot of sense.

Editorial outlets have an understandable argument for watermarking, too. Continuing with the pro sports example, take outlets like ESPN, The Ringer, Bleacher Report, etc. Readers, viewers, subscribers, and followers are what pay the bills. The content is the product, and a significant portion of their content features pro sports footage with their hired talent’s analysis. Unless the talking head is a huge name, a new viewer may not recognize who’s responsible for the content if it’s been ripped and published elsewhere on the web. The same goes for work from professional photographers.

Paid social also has a fair reason to consider watermarks. When you put content in front of eyeballs that weren’t expecting it, I can understand a desire for extra branding. I personally think it’s still obtrusive and immediately makes content feel like an ad (the cardinal sin), but I get that brand awareness is a primary metric. If someone quick-scrolls past the paid social, at least they saw the watermarked logo for a few seconds.

Those are pretty specific examples, though. Most of the time, the content is not the product. And when content is just that—content—it can be good to let your content wander and get some fresh air outside of the owned channels.

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