Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Stop Asking for Trouble in Social Media--Lessons from #McDstories to #myNYPD

There is no sign that marketers live in their own bubbles of self interest quite like their eagerness to invite self-inflicted brand damage via hashtag and other User Generated Content (UGC) campaigns. There are right and wrong ways to unleash advocacy, and given the availability of so many examples of wrong ways, it is inexcusable for brands to repeat these mistakes (but many still will, just as the New York Police Department did yesterday).

It is easy to see how brand self-pity and self-interest can overcome caution and logic, leading to disaster. "Our detractors are too loud," goes the complaint. "But people love us," comes the retort. "All we need to do is ask people to tell others how great we are," is the idea offered with the best of intentions. Thus, the stage is set for a social media embarrassment.

The latest example comes from the New York Police Department. (In this case, the fault lies not with marketers but with Public Relations and Community Outreach professionals). The NYPD launched a hashtag campaign asking people to post photos of themselves and police officers tagged with #myNYPD.

The results were easy to foresee for anyone who has been paying attention to similar programs in the past. Along with some positive and supportive tweets (such as one from my friend, Charlie Isaacs) came a lot of attention-getting negative ones, like the 2012 photo of an officer shooting a dog as its owner lay nearby suffering a seizure.

Cops have tough jobs and do a lot of good, but someone at the NYPD should have known better. No matter what your organization is or does, asking people to talk about how terrific you are in social media is likely to generate a louder negative response than a positive one. Those who hijack branded hashtag and UGC programs run the gamut from true detractors who have had a bad experience to trolls who never miss a chance to have fun at the expense of an organization's reputation. Yesterday, it took just three hours to go from naive NYPD tweet to Twitter backlash to articles on sites like the NY Daily News, Washington Post, Mail Online and New York Magazine.

I am sure the NYPD regrets its hashtag request, but at least it can take comfort in the company it keeps. Much savvier and more highly compensated communication professionals have been tripped up by the same hubris and shortsightedness.

In 2012, it took just an hour for McDonald's to change course with its #McDStories hashtag program after the disastrous and predictable results.

In November, an embarrassed JP Morgan admitted its #AskJPM hashtag was a mistake. "#Badidea! Back to the drawing board!," its representative emailed the media.

A month earlier, British Gas stumbled in the exact same way with its #AskBG hashtag.

Celebrities are not immune from the dangers of asking for (and receiving) harsh questions and feedback in social media. Last year, R. Kelly invited fans to #AskRKelly, and the star can't have been happy with the outcome, as detractors referenced Kelly's past accusations of child pornography and rape.

Other notable brands have been tripped up in the same way. Walgreens used the #ILoveWalgreens hashtag and paid tweets in its 2012 battle with Express Scripts and ended up looking more desperate for the effort. In 2011, Qantas Airlines tried to drum up customer support with a #QantasLuxury hashtag contest and quickly regretted doing so just a month after grounding its fleet and stranding thousands of travelers due to labor issues. In 2009, Skittles turned over its home page to social media feeds, resulting in a string of off-brand and offensive tweets featured on the brand site. That same year, Starbucks launched a UGC campaign to encourage fans to post photos, but the brand lost control when union organizers and a documentary filmmaker encouraged people to post critical content with the #top3percent and #starbucks hashtags.

The grandaddy of brand social media hijackings may be the 2006 Chevy Tahoe debacle. Props to the automaker for experimenting so early and so boldly, but they ended up learning a painful lesson about UGC. The brand launched a website for customers to create their own ads using brand video clips. Problem is, Chevy also permitted users to enter their own text. Before long, the most popular videos were ones critical of the gas-guzzling vehicle, with taglines such as "Like this snowy wilderness? Better get your fill of it now. Then say hello to global warming."

So, why do so many smart people at large brands get tripped up in the same way time and again? Vanity, brand myopia and social media inexperience. It seems some marketers and social media professionals can get careless and caught up in their own brand goals, leaving them unaware of the checkered history these sorts of programs have had in social media.

How can your brand avoid these sorts of mistakes. Some brief tips include:

  • Don't make it about your brand; make it about your customers. Do not ask for positive tweets--earn them with positive product and service experiences.  As for questions, you do not need to ask for them and give your detractors a soapbox; you will get questions anyway without encouragement simply by being present and ready to respond to customer needs in social channels. If you want to encourage questions and educate consumers, do so in your own private community versus the uncontrollable and anonymous Twitter network.
  • Don't just focus on your promoters; keep the detractors in mind, also. It is too easy for marketers to get so wrapped up in the mistaken belief everyone has warm feelings toward the brand that they overlook the other side of the advocacy spectrum. Don't just think of the actions of your promoters and loyal customers; also consider how your detractors may use and misuse your hashtag campaigns and other social media marketing programs.
  • Moderate! We all recognize that authenticity is important nowadays, but that does not mean your brand must be so open that it harms itself. Build and host programs so that your brand can retain a level of control. (Hint: Twitter hashtag campaigns do not permit any control.) To be sure, moderation has risks, but with careful planning, brands can balance the authentic voice of the customer and appropriate brand protection.
  • Be honest with yourself about your brand's position in consumers' minds. Lots of brands talk about advocacy but few brands are so mission-driven, purpose-oriented or committed to the customer that they produce a large number of true advocates. Remember that advocacy does not come from a social media or ad campaign--it comes from who you are, what your brand stands for and its willingness to put customers ahead of profits. Start by creating advocates honestly before you try to unleash advocacy with a social media program. 
The NYPD had the right against self-incrimination, but it waived that right when it waded into social media with a dangerous and pleading hashtag request. Likewise, your brand may think it wants its customers to testify in social media, but make sure you do your due diligence before putting detractors on the stand. 


Unknown said...

Good points. We are a mid-size brand that sells luxury real estate at auctions and someone just hijacked our brand name hashtag #conciergeauctions. Just a couple Instagrams of selfies, but just annoying at this point. We will keep this in mind as we grow our social following.

Keith Winters
Social Media Manager
Concierge Auctions

Hi said...

Mr. Ray,

Thank you for your discussion regarding the recent NYPD Twitter campaign. As a student studying new media, I found your assessment of past social media marketing failures and tips to be quite enlightening. In regard to your discussion of past campaigns, I wonder if this particular campaign backlash differs in any way due to the fact that it came from government institution. Putting the exposure of police brutality aside, is there an inherent problem in government putting programs and campaigns on social media? Would you recommend that such organizations should stay away from online interaction, or is it their responsibility, being a part of this new media, to accept this kind of backlash? I am curious because I would argue that the government, virtually more than anyone else, has the responsibility to ethically navigate the fine lines of social media, which must be a difficult task. Not only do they have a societal expectation to be politically correct at all times, but they are also faced with the necessity of garnering public support. In the post, you claim that the reason brands fall into this trap has to do with “Vanity, brand myopia and social media inexperience.” Clearly, the NYPD campaign, allegedly rooted from the suggestion of a fellow detective, suffered from the latter. However, if they had better experience, what would be an example of an appropriate Twitter campaign, if any?

Mel Robbins, from CNN makes a somewhat obvious but helpful point, that on “On Facebook, you can delete individual comments that do not contribute to your overall social goal. On Twitter, the users are in control.” So, can this issue be reduced to platform problem? For government social media, whose reputation, people seem especially eager to tarnish, perhaps their goals are better served on a platform where public commentary is not as vital. Of course, this view would go against the concept of tenants like democracy, which the government is expected to uphold. Furthermore, these programs are meant to increase collaboration, as stated by New York Police commissioner Bill Bratton. In a New York Times article, Bill Bratton is quoted explaining that his quest to integrate social media comes out of a question of “how to utilize [social media] that in a way to get [the NYPD] message out more significantly without having to rely on the media to tell [their] story?” While this message seems, not unexpectedly, contrived, the goal is noble nonetheless. Furthermore, Bratton also exlains he welcomes the responses, good and bad, furthering that “if anything, [he] welcomes the extra attention.” Looking at it from an ‘any press is good press’ standpoint, I feel as though he understands the trope these organizations must deal with on social media. In your tips section, you mention that it is better to " be honest with yourself about your brand's position in consumers' minds." What Twitter users seemed to immediately spot is the somewhat disingenuous sentiments that the campaign put forth. However, I would argue that if they had chosen to put forth a less contrived program, they would have received a less hostile response altogether. Ultimately, no one can control the unexpected backlash Twitter users may have, and that does not seem to be the NYPD's aim anyway. Rather, it seems that they would have had an even slightly better outcome had they had chosen to have more honest, genuine conversations.

Augie Ray said...

I do not tend to believe that the issue was essentially related to the NYPD being governmental. After all, as the other examples show, these sorts of programs can blow up on brands of all sorts.

As for Facebook being a more controllable platform, that is true to an extent, but brands that heavily censor critical comments on their page can quickly run into other sorts of problems. Just because you can delete user comments on a brand Facebook page does not mean the brand should or that doing so can be done without reputation issues.

IN the end, as you point out, the NYPD handled it quite well and treated the blowback as an opportunity to listen. Of course, they really didn't have much choice in the matter, did they? :)

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