Are Social Fails Good Business?


This isn't how we want to make the first page of Mashable.

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?

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.



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.


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.

This is how I'd like to see our clients land on the front page of Mashable.

This is how I'd like to see our clients land on the front page of Mashable.

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.


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  1. I’ve always heard that any news is good news. I don’t always believe that’s true unless you don’t care what kind of view the public has over your business.

  2. I love this blog, Sara, and truly could not agree more. For me, it is about honesty, authenticity, and integrity. Social media ought to reflect for a company what they believe, what they think, and how they role. At times a humorous or self-effacing angle can be endearing, such as our recent “photo naming contest” feature our firm’s principles pondering a pile of horse dung , and it can be simply potent like the hashtag example you list above. But showing up exactly as your products or services are administered, and in integrity just as you would wish yourself and your employees to BE in public, is a good match for social media presence. Provoking social media activity for no purpose other than attention is, to me, equivalent to streaking in a public place–a temporary effort to be seen, and then forgotten. Thanks for your stance!

  3. Spot on, Sara. Everyone’s out for a quick buck, but like we’ve learned with black-hat SEO tactics and algorithm updates, you get what you pay for. There are no long-term benefits for short-term strategy.

    1. Yay! Thanks for the comment, Lauren, and for the shares too! I so enjoy having kindred spirits in this business!

  4. Great post Sara. I took particular note of the Chipotle trip up on Twitter and I wonder if they aren’t unintentionally setting themselves up for a fall with their latest YouTube ad: In it, they make a touchingly beautiful statement that certainly seems (to me) to indicate they are going all-in on the locavore, small farm sourced brand position. If they can pull it off, more power to ’em, but there are few subjects that attract more fanaticism, varied interpretation and misinformation than food and diet. The foodanistas are going to be watching Chipotle through a microscope and will eagerly pounce on anything they interpret as the least bit untrue to The Cause. That’s a tough row to hoe (sorry) for a national restaurant chain.

    1. Bruce – I’ve been watching that one closely as well, in part because it’s gained traction among my non-social-professional-friends. Seems to be resonating, so far. We’ll see how it plays out…

  5. A balanced and insightful post Sara. I’ve always wondered whether bad publicity was actually good (in the long run) for awareness. I never want bad publicity for my business (if I can help it) but I realise that bad publicity usually is a result of well-meaning publicity stunts/efforts gone wrong.
    Sure, I’ll not advocate an intentionally aggravating “Kenneth Cole” style publicity stunt, but coming up with “high-performing social media without being cringeworthy” is hard, and often risky. Risky because the beauty and curse of social media is that you can’t predict with a degree of accuracy how people will react. And once the reaction occurs, it’s too late to recall your campaign.
    So the real question is, should we run high-risk campaigns with potentially high rewards? And, if it flops, will that necessarily be bad for business or can a classy recovery be engineered to make up for it in style? How do you predict this with a degree of accuracy to confidently run the high-risk campaign?

    1. Hey, Zach – thank you for joining the discussion!
      My take is that the question to ask yourself when evaluating risk is: Are we operating in a way that deep down, authentically, reflects our brand? (That pre-supposes that you’ve done some work on brand definition — what it stands for, what its values and goals are, who its friends are, who its family is, who it would be if it were a person, etc., so that you can actually evaluate and answer that question with something more than just a gut feeling — although that will do, if that’s all you’ve got.) If the potentially risky campaign really truly reflects your brand, then I’d add a +1 to the go side of the go / no-go equation. Then I’d run the campaign by a carefully chosen internal review team including:

      1. corporate counsel (or your next closest internal resource — most organizations have at least one “rule follower” who can’t give legal advice but can spot some of the red flags that the rule-breakers won’t even consider. The question to ask, if red flags are thrown: “What can we do to mitigate that risk?” The point is to have the conversation about the risks presented and mitigate the ones that need to be mitigated, so that you’ve planned out the possible pathways you can, in advance. Once you hit “go,” there will be plenty of pathways you didn’t anticipate or mitigate, but at least you’ll have the palm-forehead-what-were-they-thinking-ones covered.
      2. a die-hard user advocate. If you don’t have a UX team, try customer service or social media (and for that matter, make sure social is involved early and often in all end-user-facing projects, since we live and die by understanding our audiences up close and personal). The user’s perspective is often oddly absent from project reviews, in favor of attention to what the brand wants to communicate or achieve.

      And a few other people, including a skilled copyeditor (add to the list of things-that-suck: errors in a major launch, that take attention away from the finished product), a millennial, a curmudgeonly spouse who’s under an NDA, and other internal key stakeholders. You can take or leave the feedback you get, but it’s better to get it, evaluate it, and then make carefully considered decisions about how to proceed, than to push a project through without that diligence.
      If the campaign is an authentic reflection of your brand, then if things go off the rails a classy recovery should be able to be architectable. Partly, because your people may join the conversation in your defense / in support of your viewpoint. And partly, because you’ll have nothing to hide, nothing to fauxpologize for, and you can navigate any fall-out with total transparency and confidence. That’s the kind of “risky” project I’m totally stoked to work on.
      This risk assessment isn’t about creating “safe” or risk-free campaigns: it’s about knowing your brand, knowing who your people are, and crafting messages and experiences that will fuel their stoke. I’m a big fan of Erika Napoletano’s book, “The Power of Unpopular,” if you’d like a little more reading on that point.
      Awesome questions. I might have to dig back in for another blog post!

      1. Sara – thanks for the reply. Did not expect such a quick and in-depth response to my questions!
        We just went through a re-alignment of our marketing values, goals, brand etc at ReferralCandy and the core of what you said especially resonates with me – “it’s about knowing your brand, knowing who your people are, and crafting messages and experiences that will fuel their stoke”.
        Through your reply, it sounds like you have been through the process of evaluating risky campaigns many times and reviewing it for potential pitfalls. Yes, I’d love to see a more structured blog post on this. In the meantime I’ll check out ‘The Power of Unpopular’ as well. Thanks for your thoughts!

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