Corporate Eye

Lessons from Social Media Mistakes

I hope you’re enjoying our series of occasional guest posts; I know I am. It’s always interesting to hear a fresh perspective. This post is from Jamie Davies.

Three Case Studies Big Business Can Learn From

If you follow all the popular media outlets online, then you might have recently seen the controversy over the video that founder Robert Parsons posted on his personal blog last March. In the video, Parsons goes on an elephant hunt in Zimbabwe, kills a ‘problem’ bull elephant, and then videos the villagers graphically slaughtering it for meat the following morning, all while zooming in on the logo on many of the villagers baseball caps.

Naturally, the blogosphere exploded when a senior editor, Cord Jefferson, of GOOD Magazine covered the story, criticizing Parsons for “shameless branding.” Since then, coverage has gone viral, as major media outlets, such as The Huffington Post, have linked back to Parson’s video on his personal site. Jefferson later published an article offering tips to clients who are interested in severing their ties with the company due to this blunder.

Although Parsons prides himself on being a ‘maverick’ when it comes to managing his social media presence and his business, his example is definitely one that big business wants to avoid at all costs.

Keep Your Personal Life Private

In fact, from his example we can learn the first lesson of social media for big business: compartmentalize your social media presence. This lesson should apply to all levels of the business, from the lowest level of employees up to the CEO of the company. Yes, in some cases it will be important for upper-level employees and company leaders to show their personal lives in order to help brand the company; however, even these ‘personal sides’ are highly produced within the company. So, if you’re not a part of that project, then it’s best to filter personal details and be aware of how they can create a stir if they are not carefully thought out.

Action Tip: how much information is too much information? Drawing the line between personal and professional is difficult, but preparing guidelines in advance would help define the boundary – which will depend on the corporate brand. Thought put into how to keep the two distinct, operationally, is advisable. For example, if an individual is running two separate Twitter accounts, one personal, one professional, then using different tools for each one might help avoid off-brand tweets.

Be Aware of the Consequences of Your Actions

Last summer, UK furniture dealer Habitat tweeted a series of messages that linked certain discounts and specials to various hashtags, which would have been fine if the hashtags hadn’t been completely unrelated. The most egregious example of this hashtag spamming occurred when Habitat tweeted regarding the Iranian elections: “#Mousavi Join the database for free to win a £1000 gift card”. In response to the scandal, Habitat removed the tweets and apologized long after the transgression. Tiphereth Gloria of Social Meda Today wrote that Habitat’s policies are “typical of a traditional, push marking, corporate PR approach. Admit nothing, apologize for nothing, do not engage in conversation, advertise, advertise, advertise.” It’s this traditional approach that big businesses need to move away from; they must show that they understand how their social media actions affect others, and they have to be willing to follow up.

Action Tip: this is a training issue: mistakes such as this can come from lack of experience in the medium. Establishing an agreed list of acceptable hashtags for corporate tweets could reduce this kind of mistake. The list would need to be regularly reviewed and updated; things move fast.

Appreciate Your Audience

Social media is, at its core, a communicative vehicle, which means there is someone who creates a message and someone who receives that message. All problems with communication can be linked to one of those three things: speaker, message, audience. Because of this, it’s important that social media managers at big businesses do everything they can to make sure they understand the expectations of their audience and how their message will affect their audience.

Unfortunately, the people at Groupon who tried to make a Super Bowl ad go viral did not fully appreciate their audience. The New York Times blog reported in February of 2011 on the satirical Public Service Announcement that caused quite a stir on Twitter minutes later. The video seemed to make light of Tibetan refugees. The idea behind the video was to drive traffic to the Groupon site, where consumers could not only save money but also make charitable donations.

But they got it wrong. It wasn’t clear that Groupon was mocking old Public Service Announcements and themselves and that, in fact, the campaign did have a charitable side. And, it wasn’t until a huge uproar occurred online that Groupon apologized, removed the offending ad, and tried to make amends.

From this case we can learn that social media managers and marketers at big businesses must use all the resources at their disposal to learn as much as they can about their audience. Yes, the Super Bowl audience tends to appreciate a lot of humorous ads, but at the same time, the Super Bowl draws viewers who are not often aware of current trends in social media, so they might not have been familiar with the funky brand image that Groupon had already cultivated up to that point.

Action Tip:
videos can be expensive to create, but even more expensive if they are wrongly targeted. A small focus group involving key members of the target audience before launch could have given a clue as to the likely reaction – or at least been a support if the real-life response differed from that of the focus group. Having a few key influencers ‘on your team’ and signed-up to the message can be a big help.


From all three cases, we see that doing the following matters in case of a message gone wrong:

  • admit the error in the social space where the error was made (for example, Dominos CEO responded on YouTube to the YouTube video of his staff and their ‘prank’)
  • apologize – make a genuine apology, and contact directly those who have complained
  • take corrective action – contact key influencers in the target audience, asking them for feedback on how to make amends, and be seen to use the feedback.

This guest contribution was submitted by Jamie Davis, who specializes in writing about Masters degrees.

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