How to avoid social network marketing disasters

Like a loaded gun in the hands of a three-year-old

More and advertisers — from local Richmond ambulance-chasing personal-injury lawyers to worldwide brands– have succumbed to the dogma that all it takes to win big-time in the marketplace is a blog, a Facebook page and a Twitter feed. Back in March, we highlighted two national examples of how misguided this belief can be — the 2010 Pepsi social media campaign that rocketed their brand all the way from second in its category to third, and the Burger King social media campaign that produced a 2.5% sales decline while McDonald’s sales grew 4.4%.

Pepsi and BK were lucky. They just lost sales. A social media campaign made international headlines this week because it cost the advertiser not only sales, but also its reputation.

Watch what you say

The first reason for this and similar debacles was the advertisers didn’t realize that the audience they were reaching was, basically, everybody.     “[W]ith every person on the planet who has an Internet connection now armed with the power to freely publish information one to many across sites on the web,” writes Emma Barnett in the (UKTelegraph,“…companies have never been more held to ransom by the customers.”

QUANTAS airlines learned this the expensive way.

Coming off a bitter lockout and a string of safety failures that grounded their whole fleet and stranded passengers around the world, the Australian international carrier decided that what they needed was a Twitter promotion asking consumers to tweet back their idea of a “dream luxury flight experience” using the hashtag QuantasLuxury.

It wasn’t.

The first tweeted response, from one Axel Bruns, said his dream luxury experience would be, “Planes that arrive intact and on time…” It went downhill from there. Stephen Dann said his QANTAS luxury experience would be “Flights that leave on schedule because Management doesn’t arbitrarily shut down the airline.”

And when you say it

Jeremy Sear tweeted a “Quick note to corporate Australia: when you’re in the middle of crushing your workforce, don’t start a Twitter promotion.”

That’s simple common sense. But when you consider who’s actually doing the Twitter promotions and how blinkered their mindsets, you’ll see that common sense is all too uncommon. As kiwi_kali tweeted, “Somewhere in Quantas HQ a middle manager is yelling at a Gen Y social media ‘expert’ to make it all stop. LOL”

And that’s the root of the problem

Don’t leave it to “experts”

Especially in small markets like Richmond, many advertisers too small to have in-house advertising or marketing departments turn to vendors who claim expert technical knowledge of the software and the Internet. “It’s too true that often company executives, desperate to show that they have a digital strategy, think that forgoing spending money on [an] actual properly planned digital advertising campaign, and instead opting for free and poorly thought-out staff plugs on Twitter, is the way forward,” Barnett cautions. As a result, she adds, “it is frequently the case that the people in charge of ‘social media’…are also very young and inexperienced at traditional marketing — because all things digital are perceived as a young person’s area.”

This perception proved costly to Habitat, the British furniture retail chain.

The high cost of tunnel vision

In 2009, when the Green Revolution in Iran was still going strong. some social media “expert” at Habitat checked out the top ten trending topics and mindlessly decided to paste the top hashtags — including “Iran” and “Mousavi” — into promotional tweets.

Never mind that events of far more geopolitical significance than furniture sales taking place. Never mind that people in Iran and worldwide were using social networking to share information and eyewitness accounts. link to news reports and coordinate protests against the recent rigged election results. They’re top topics, so let’s use them.

And use them they did, pasting them into hashtags without even knowing what the hashtags referred to, with tweets like: HabitatUK: #MOUSAVI Join the database for free to win a gift card.

The backlash was almost as violent as Ahmadinejad’s crackdown, causing Habitat to post that “We were totally shocked when we discovered what happened and are very sorry for the offence [sic] that has been caused.”

Alex Burmaster, Nielsen Online communications director, pointed out the one basic truth that Habitat’s social media “experts,” focused like a laser on top rankings instead of the outside world, failed to grasp. “Advertising in social media can be like gatecrashing a party,” he noted. “People who use social media are much less tolerant to have their conversations interrupted by advertisers.”

This suggests that you’d do better trusting your social media marketing to people with a knowledge base dating back to the early days of commercial radio of ways to interrupt people’s media use without alienating them.

Social media marketing is marketing

“Social media has often not been the best way for companies to communicate their brand message,” Barnett says with typical British understatement. “It is good  for responding to customers, but any marketing, even on social sites, needs the same level of thought, crisis management and craftsmanship as a traditional advertising campaign. [emphasis added]”

It makes sense to let social media “experts” do the button-pushing and other back-end stuff for your campaign. But unless you’re suicidal, it makes absolutely no sense to put them in charge of your marketing strategy and content.

For that, you should trust the marketing experts instead of the “experts.”