Are Social Fails Good Business?
Sara Lingafelter Sep 19 2013
I seem to be unflinchingly attracted to disciplines where you rarely see a front-page story about a just-plain-good day.
I grew up in the equestrian world, a sport where the only television footage you see from the Olympics is of horses tumbling over jumps and riders falling all asunder. I’ve also been shaped by my years of rock climbing and mountaineering, where the feature stories aren’t about nice safe ascents of moderate-sized mountains from which everyone returned to their camp happy and tired with all of their fingers and toes.
It only makes sense that I wound up working in social media. In case we aren’t yet acquainted, I joined the team as Portent’s director of social media earlier this year and I’m completely stoked to be here.
This month in online marketing train wrecks
Good days in social do make headlines; but lately, watching the social industry at large, we’ve been seeing a whole lot of train wrecks. Before today, who was talking about Burlington Coat Factory?
Yes it is halfway to the week but since when. #coats
— Burlington Coat Fact (@BurlCoatFactory) September 18, 2013
Time will tell if that one’s a train wreck or something else, but at least that example is relatively harmless.
Yesterday morning, our Director of SEO Josh, sent me this story from PRWeek’s Tumblr about a dating site ad that had run on Facebook featuring a scraped photo of a 17-year-old who committed suicide in April after being cyber-bullied.
On 9/11, Esquire made a truly cringeworthy mistake in selecting an image to accompany a blog post blurb on their site. Their social response – telling their Twitter followers to “Relax, everybody” – was equally cringeworthy.
I have an entire folder of bookmarks named “Cringeworthy.” When I give this lecture in the class I teach, grown communication professionals’ jaws actually visually drop (I love that part) at some of the case studies that have happened, in the real world, to real brands (including some very big ones, advised by numerous fancypants agencies).
When fellow social practitioners share a link to the latest social media fail, my first response is usually, “I’m speechless.”
And yet, as a data-driven social media marketer, even I can’t ignore the volume of buzz that each of these “fails” generates on behalf of the offending brand.
Bad publicity is just bad publicity
Ian wrote a fantastic case study on social crisis management after a recent social fail by Adecco, a staffing agency that stole a blogger’s brand, concept and campaign for their own, then trademarked it, and got caught. Go read his case study, it’s well worth your time.
When we social shared the Adecco case study, one astute reader on Google+ called us to task for not mentioning the “there’s no such thing as bad publicity” element of that particular fail:
The discussion between Charlie and Ian continued, and you can read it, here. Ian’s point: “Bad publicity is definitely bad.” It pollutes your brand, and to make an oil spill analogy: there is no way to soak spilled petroleum out of your reputation.
Ian and I are in the same camp on that one. I’m a do-gooder. A Pollyanna. Really. I’m a non-practicing public interest lawyer and a harm-none Buddhist. And if it weren’t for finding a like-minded workplace with compatible ethics and values, I might be considering another line of work after starting to wonder if intentional bad publicity is going to be the next big social media tactic.
Sound dramatic? Read on.
At least this one was harmless. On a Saturday earlier this summer, I was teaching a class about social media at the University of Washington – probably about the ethics of online marketing, since this is how these things go. At the same time, Chipotle faked hacking their own Twitter account as a publicity stunt. And the tweets weren’t even funny, or interesting, or meaningful- conversation-provoking: They were just, plain, stupid.
Do I have a tweet?
— Chipotle (@ChipotleTweets) July 21, 2013
Glass house, throw stones. We do our best, everyday, as social practitioners, and some days aren’t our best days. But really. You go to the effort to fake-hack your own Twitter account, and that’s what you post?
To Chipotle’s credit, those tweets saw substantial engagement — retweets, replies, and mentions of their brand galore. But the buzz generated by trade scrutiny wasn’t what they were aiming for; and the whole thing left their target consumers scratching their heads in confusion.
And remember that point that Ian and I agree on? That bad publicity is definitely bad? Well – Kenneth Cole disagrees.
Earlier this month, Kenneth Cole made headlines (again) for making light of a possible US invasion of Syria, in order to sell footwear.
“Boots on the ground” or not, let’s not forget about sandals, pumps and loafers. #Footwear
— Kenneth Cole (@KennethCole) September 5, 2013
This isn’t the first time Cole’s Twitter account has triggered negative sentiment: in 2011, he came under fire for another international news gaffe. Initial speculation on the most recent incident was incredulous: Hadn’t Kenneth Cole (the brand, not necessarily the man) learned their lesson? How could they make the same mistake twice?
But one day after the most recent incident, AdWeek published a story taking a sneak peek at an upcoming magazine interview with Cole about the Egypt incident, in which Cole shares that his “gaffes” are good for business. The Egypt tweet and the organization’s crisis response correlated with a stock increase, a bump in e-commerce business, and 3,000 new followers on Twitter for the @kennethcole account.
Yup. At least according to Kenneth Cole’s assessment, and to borrow a headline from AdWeek, “being a jerk on Twitter” might be good for Kenneth Cole’s business. And since anger spreads faster on social media than any other emotion, I’m predicting we’ll be seeing more and more campaigns designed and executed to leverage the virality of anger, all under the belief that any publicity is good publicity in the new world order of social business.
If Kenneth Cole is right, and being utterly tasteless in social media is a plus, then we’re happy to be wrong.
Black-hat gains, white-hat style
Only, we’re right. You can execute high-performing social media without being cringeworthy.
We’re not turning a blind eye to the potential upsides of bad publicity for brands in terms of strict numbers: We can’t argue with the data. Bad publicity increases brand awareness (for better or worse), garners gobs of links, and gets people talking (to say the least).
But you can tap that outrage volcano with humor and sophistication and transparency and integrity, instead of bumbling provocation. As a social team, we’re adding black-hat brainstorming into our methodology. We’re not looking to garner negative attention of Cole-esque proportions. But we want to think of creative ways to achieve black-hat results with a white-hat approach. And often, that requires tapping into your organization’s values and being bold enough to share them with utter transparency, even if there is a risk of backlash.
One of our clients did just that on the day the U.S. Supreme court issued its same-sex marriage decisions earlier this June. They posted a photo to their Facebook page, with a simple hashtag indicating support for marriage equality. The first comment on the update challenged the brand.
The brand’s response? Confident transparency. No apology (or fauxpology, for that matter) – no softening language – just “We do know what it means.” With a smiley face, after that.
Follow that brand’s lead. Save your risk-taking for those opportunities to do the right thing by your brand, when it really matters.
And while letting your jerk flag fly might be the latest trending social tactic, we’re happy to sit this one out.