How to avoid Twitter disaster

by Jim Coleman in News

The Drum recently carried the following article from me, commenting on social media backlashes, and how they could have been avoided. They’ve been kind enough to let us reproduce it in full below:

Recently we’ve seen a catalogue of Twitter disasters, whether it’s an ill-conceived hashtag campaign or brand attempting to use social media to capitalise on a major natural disaster. To the outside observer, it seems almost inconceivable that these multinational, blue chip brands with huge marketing departments and even bigger budgets could make such huge mistakes. So, why does it happen, and how can brands avoid being next in the long line of Twits?

Firstly, there’s a danger for those who work in-house in brands to be short-sighted in their view of what people think about their business. People who work closely with a brand naturally develop the tendency towards becoming a ‘brand ambassador’ and often fail to see how others could feel differently about their company. This is why brands which manage social media activity in-house can be prone to a social media fail, due to lack of objectivity; those who work with agencies have access to an objective and hopefully experienced opinion before taking their ideas to the court of public opinion.

#WaitroseReasons is a perfect example of social media short-sightedness. The campaign made the classic Twitter mistake of ‘finish the sentence’ – giving those who fancy themselves as a bit of a comedian or people with a grudge against the supermarket the perfect opportunity to give it a good mocking. And of course, the accompanying hashtag gave everyone the perfect tool to track the responses as the fun and games unfolded.

Let’s get one thing straight – Waitrose did screw up. The outcome of the campaign was certainly not what they were hoping for, but they were lucky that it didn’t turn out too badly for them. Most of the responses were fairly tongue-in-cheek and didn’t do the brand any lasting damage, apart from to highlight its social media naivety. In contrast, take the McDonalds’ #McDstories disaster, where the restaurant launched the promotional hashtag for people to use to share their McDonalds’ experiences. For a brand that has suffered for years at the hands of critics and where public opinion has been polarised for years, it’s incredible that no-one in the marketing team realised they would be instantly savaged by activists the moment the campaign hit the Twittersphere.

On the flip side to the short-sighted, naive campaigns, there are the brands which use social media to deliberately court controversy. American Apparel has been slated recently for using hurricane Sandy as a platform to launch a 20% off promotion – for those who are ‘bored during the storm’. This was more than naive – it was a cheap shot, but at the same time, completely in-line with AA’s previous marketing activities, which have always been risqué. The approach gave AA notoriety and attention, and I would wager that this campaign was probably not the social media fail been touted as, but more of a deliberate and carefully planned execution by AA to show off its anti-establishment attitude. AA almost has the confident nonchalance to pull it off too – especially compared to brands like the less ‘cool’ GAP, which tried a similar Sandy-related campaign but pulled it very quickly, or Kenneth Cole’s #Cairo gaff.

This catalogue of near misses and complete implosions is clear evidence that internally, Twitter still isn’t being given enough serious consideration. Social media, like all marketing activity, should be managed in-line with the business as a whole. It’s crucially important that the right hand is talking to the left, or you leave yourself open to badly timed, potentially damaging campaigns. Take Australian airline Qantas, which launched a Twitter campaign asking people to describe their ‘dream luxury in-flight experience’ slap bang in the middle of a labour dispute. No doubt this campaign was planned in advance and jumped through the usual hoops, but clearly the Qantas marketing department was completely oblivious to the major issues going on elsewhere in the company. To avoid this, it’s essential that all businesses using social platforms are joined up in all communications across the board, possibly in the form of a social council – a group of people who sit across all departments and are aware of all major business issues – to ensure that communications are in line with the overall business objectives.

However, all this said, brands are learning. The gaffs are increasingly becoming few and far between as people realise that Twitter is a pretty powerful channel that can have a profound effect on the consumer’s view of a brand. And I think I’ll carry on shopping at Waitrose, because my wife’s chihuahua just can’t stand the taste of Aldi’s steaks.

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  • Alice Ralph

    My favourite is the hashtag for the new Susan Boyle album release… #susanalbumparty

  • Rob

    Except the Susan Boyle one is more along the AA lines of an intentional ploy to gain attention…rather than an accident

  • http://twitter.com/VMADigital Tony Stewart

    Great article. It has to be said that even with a ‘social council’, it can be difficult to know what all the activities of a large business are at any one time, and aligning this to your messaging… certainly when social media is such a quick moving and immediate form of sharing. But if nothing else, these gaffs give us something to talk about, #susanalbumparty a current fave of mine!

  • Lala

    hellofrmsg Hah

  • http://www.deaddinosaur.co.uk Chris Norton

    I love this story – it really is the gift that keeps on giving. I suppose we can be as careful as possible with every social media campaign we deliver for our clients but at the end of the day if you have an aggreived customer who wants to point fun at you on Twitter or Google+ or worse still their influential blog there is only so much we can do to limit the damage. I am currently writing a chapter in a social media book for the CIPR on Online Crisis Management and I have been analysing campaigns on everything from the amusing to the truly terrible crises that hurt financial results.

    It would be nice to get your thoughts on a few things if you are interested. Nice article though I enjoyed it – reminded me of some of the truly awful mistakes that still go on from day to day.