The past couple of years, businesses have flocked to social media to promote their products and connect with their customers. With people spending an ever-increasing amount of time in social networks, it only makes sense, since businesses want to be in the same place where their target market can be easily reached.
As a result, social media has grown into one of the largest marketing venues available.
With social media’s rise as a viable place for marketing, it’s also become ripe for misuse. For most individuals, committing social media mistakes will be fine. Most people use the platform to connect with friends and share content, so messing up can be shook off the same way you would in the real world when hanging out with people you know.
For big brands and large businesses, however, even the slightest foibles can turn into a PR nightmare that can damage profits and hurt a company’s reputation for years to come. Suffice to say, the rules aren’t the same when you’re trying to do business in social media.
Here are some of the six things you should absolutely avoid when social networking
1. Be insensitive or ignorant of current events
Remember that in social media, you’re posting in a public forum, so people expect you to be sensitive to prevailing sentiments. As such, always think twice about whether a tweet you’re sending can be misconstrued in light of current events.
Back in 2012, on the day of the Aurora, Colorado shooting which left 12 people dead, the NRA sent out a tweet that read, “Good morning, shooters. Happy Friday! Weekend plans?”
While the message itself seemed innocent and friendly, many people, whose minds were still fresh in shock by the horrible events in Colorado, took it out of context, calling the tweet “insensitive” to the events that had gone down a mere hours before. The tweet was eventually taken down later in the day, with a spokesperson explaining that the individual in charge of the account at the time was unaware of the events in Colorado, so wasn’t privy as to how the message could have been taken out of the intended context.
Same thing happened to Epicurious who sent out a pair of downright insensitive and oblivious content marketing tweets in the aftermath of the Boston tragedy. One read, “Boston, our hearts are with you. Here’s a bowl of breakfast energy we could all use to start today,” and linked to a recipe. They soon realised the mistake and issued an apology tweet to follow but the damage had already been done!
Our food tweets this morning were, frankly, insensitive. Our deepest, sincere apologies.
— epicurious (@epicurious) April 16, 2013
Takeaway: Make sure the person manning your social media accounts reads the news and knows how to gauge prevailing public sentiment.
2. Discuss private things publicly
Don’t discuss private matters publicly. Social media is a public platform and your conversations will be open for the whole world to see.
T-Mobile, for instance, was outed as buying links for SEO via a public Twitter conversation between T-Mobile’s help account on Twitter (@TMobileHelp) and a user from whose website they have bought links from. It was there, in plain sight, for all the world to see, essentially giving away the fact that the company buys links for SEO purposes. The good news for T-Mobile? Other than SEOs, search engines, and people in a similar profession, most people don’t really care if they buy links.
Now, imagine if the topic discussed was a little more sensitive that concerned a larger demographic of users…
Takeaway: Social media isn’t the place to discuss things best kept under wraps.
3. Make bad things worse
Sometimes, companies react to things in a way that just digs them in a hole.
This happened to Applebee’s early last year, when an employee snapped a photo of a note left by a customer and uploaded it to Facebook. In the note, the customer refused to leave the server a tip, self-righteously citing her work as a pastor as a reason for depriving the service worker of her extra tip. The story went viral and people lambasted the stingy pastor. No harm on Applebee’s right? Well, that would be too perfect.
In response to the story, Applebee’s decided to immediately fire the employee who uploaded the photo, causing an uproar that blew up into a far bigger nightmare than anyone could have anticipated. Facebook groups centered on the theme of “boycott Applebee’s” sprung up like mushrooms, with the conversation spilling out to Twitter and other social networks.
Applebee’s tried to keep it professional by citing how the employee violated the rules by posting the note and compromising the customer’s privacy. Problem is, Applebee’s itself just posted a customer’s happy note just two weeks prior on their own Facebook account, complete with the person’s name signed on the bottom. It quickly turned into a firestorm of rage.
And it got worse, with Applebee’s continuing to stick to its guns and people continuing to hound them. Eventually, the Applebee’s Facebook account began arguing with users, replying directly to individual comments with attempts to explain and justify what happened. But, alas, it could not work – the mob was in full force and they cannot be appeased.
It got even messier hours later when Applebee’s decided to hide an entire status update on the matter with over 20,000 comments. When people started complaining about the thread being deleted, they denied deleting anything (well, they didn’t, since they simply hid it). At any rate, the mess went far bigger than anyone would have anticipated and continued to be talked about through the rest of the year.
Takeaway: Be careful how you react to social media chatter. Sometimes, your actions can make things worse. In Applebee’s case – much, much worse.
4. Post pictures for humor without considering the photo’s backstory
Sure, users can get away repurposing photos for their own amusement all the time on social media. But when you’re a company trying to use the platform as a way to market to customers, you better make sure every image you upload is properly vetted. Social media is a place where people are easily outraged and you don’t want to be at the business end of that ire.
Home Depot learned this the hard way when they posted a photo of three drummers on College Gameday, with the caption, “Which drummer is not like the others?” It was meant to be funny since one of the drummers was a guy in a gorilla costume. Except it was also misconstrued as racist because the other two people in the photo happened to be black. The internet being the internet, outrage ensued.
A similar thing happened with the London Luton Airport, who posted a picture of a plane that slid off a runway on Facebook, with the caption, “Because we are such a super airport, this is what we prevent you from when it snows.” Problem is, the photo came from a 2005 accident that left a 6-year old boy dead. Again, the internet was up in arms.
Takeaway: Always double-check if there’s a way an image can be interpreted negatively before uploading.
5. Talk negatively about competitors
While people can badmouth companies all they want on social media, the same courtesy doesn’t extend to businesses intent on using it as a marketing platform.
EasyJet learned this the hard way back in 2011, when they decided to make fun of British Airways’ latest marketing campaign. The airline, basically, took BA’s new slogan, “To Fly. To Serve,” and adjusted it for their own ad campaign, “To Fly. To Save.” They uploaded a poster of the ad on Facebook, which highlighted the slogan while expanding on their selling point and very subtly putting down competition. What was intended to be a witty play on EasyJet’s part ended up turning people on Facebook off, with users sounding off and calling the company “bitchy,” “sleazy,” and “jealous.”
Takeaway: Don’t be snarky and don’t badmouth competitors.
6. Launch a hashtag campaign carelessly
Hashtag campaigns have seen many marketing successes on Twitter. However, hashtags are always a double-edged sword, as the snarky people of social media can easily turn it around on you. Remember: a hashtag isn’t yours to use as you please, so always have a backup plan for when a hashtag gets hijacked by the community at large for their own purposes.
This happened to McDonald’s a couple of years back, with their #McDStories hashtag, which was meant to share farmer stories that reflected positively on the company. However, legitimate #McDStories ended up falling by the wayside as users seized control of the hashtag and used it to discuss McDonalds service problems, employee complaints, and food quality issues. Originally paid for as a promoted trend, McDonalds put a quick stop to the additional promotion mere hours after it launched.
Same thing happened with the NYPD earlier this year, who tried to encourage people to share their experiences with the NYPD using the hashtag #myNYPD. Well, people did. Except instead of positive stories, the hashtag ended up being used in tweets filled with images of police brutality and negative encounters with NYPD officers. The NYPD handled the whole thing like a pro, though, accepting people’s decision to use the hashtag negatively (also citing that those were old photos being republished), all while continuing to use it themselves for positive messaging. Eventually, the mania died down and the hashtag continues to be used today, mostly in the context of positive stories about the NYPD.
Takeaway: Always have a plan on how to handle a campaign that goes sideways.
Chances are, many more companies will make blunders that will hurt their brand and ruin some goodwill in social media. It’s a relatively new platform, after all, so we all learn as we go. However, learning from other companies’ previous mistakes will help us minimize the chances of committing the same errors, so let the missteps of the past inform your marketing campaigns going forward.
Do you have other blunder stories to share? or has your company made a mistake that my readers will learn from? Please share the story with us in the comments below.