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Social media marketing fails

There are worse things for a marketer than being ignored

Kyle Murray is a professor of marketing and the director of the School of Retailing at the University of Alberta

Mar 27, 2017

by Kyle B. Murray

big part of marketing is getting attention. People are exposed to thousands of messages every day and breaking through all that noise is no easy task. Successfully engaging potential buyers takes creativity and a deep understanding of the customer. As challenging as that may be, it is the goal of many social and new media marketing campaigns. As proof positive, we look to the success of WestJet’s “Christmas Miracle” or Proctor & Gamble’s “Old Spice Man” and sing the praises of technology that allows us to communicate directly with the consumer.

McDonald’s #McDStories campaign went awry when the hashtag was swamped with negative comments

But, of course, not every attempt to break through all that noise ends well. In fact, big brand marketers regularly run aground on the rocky shores of new technology. Take, for example, the time that Daniel Korell used his phone to scan a QR code on a bottle of Heinz ketchup. That code was originally part of a promotion that offered personalized ketchup, but when Korell scanned the code he didn’t get his name on a bottle. Instead, he was directed to a porn site. It turns out that after the promotion ended, Heinz failed to renew the domain name. The company apologized and Korell was more bemused than offended. The error that Heinz made, however, is symptomatic of a general problem: Marketers do not appear to fully understand the risks of the technologies they are using.

Even the world’s most experienced and sophisticated brands have fallen prey to the siren call of social media. Coca-Cola had good intentions when it launched the “Make it Happy” campaign with a splashy Super Bowl commercial, designed to nudge the Internet towards a more positive tone. The company encouraged users to tag negative comments with #MakeItHappy and then it turned those negative comments into adorable ASCII images. In response, the now defunct website Gawker created a bot that tweeted out passages from Hitler’s Mein Kampf. When Coke’s website converted that text into cute images of dogs, cats and other characters, the company came under intense fire and was soon forced to discontinue the campaign.

Next example: McDonald’s serves millions of customers, and many of those customers have fond memories of time spent at McDonald’s. Following this logic, McDonald’s launched an online campaign asking people to share their #McDStories. Unfortunately for the company, that idea went wrong in a hurry as the hashtag was swamped by negative comments about the restaurant and its food. One of the kinder tweets read, “One time I walked into McDonalds and I could smell Type 2 diabetes floating in the air and I threw up #McDStories.”

The Coca-Cola and McDonald’s stories illustrate the dangers marketers can face even when they are trying to have a positive conversation. Other companies have brought the ire of the Internet on themselves when they use language and express opinions that many people find offensive. Kenneth Cole has on a regular basis used inflammatory tweets to gain attention, including such gems as “Black Pants Down – Our new looks are more slimming than a Somali diet!” and, when riots broke out in Egypt during the Arab spring of 2011, “Millions are in an uproar in #Cairo. Rumour is they heard our new spring collection is available online.” Meanwhile, Bud Light is spending a lot of money and effort on its #UpforWhatever campaign, even as it generates backlash from stunts like encouraging people to pinch others who are not “up for whatever” on St. Patrick’s Day. Undeterred, Bud Light went on to release a batch of bottles with labels that read, “The perfect beer for removing ‘no’ from your vocabulary for the night.”

Coming up with a great marketing idea and then implementing it in a way that grabs attention in an overcrowded marketplace is undoubtedly challenging. Campaigns like “Christmas Miracle” and “Old Spice Man” are difficult to replicate or even sustain. And it is probably a little naïve to believe that the online trolls and opportunists are going to go away anytime soon. But I do hope that more marketers will aim for the kind of success that WestJet had in 2016 with its “Fort McMurray Strong” Christmas message and that fewer will take the easy way out.

If the moral high ground is not incentive enough, consider the damage that can be done by a single poorly thought out social media post. For example, I suspect DiGiorno Pizza wished it had stayed off Twitter on Sept. 8, 2014. At the time, people were sharing stories of domestic abuse under the hashtag #WhyIStayed. Late that evening DiGiorno Pizza saw the hashtag trending and jumped on the bandwagon with “#WhyIStayed You had pizza.” Although they quickly realized their mistake and apologized, the brand damage was swift and substantial.

Clearly, there are worse things for a marketer than being ignored.

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