As social media specialists, nothing frustrates us more than seeing a company that clearly needs the help in that area make a massive blunder in the social media space. Social media, by the technology’s very nature, is the worst place a company can make a mistake, because that mistake will spread, like a virus, across media and the rest of Internet, until it’s everywhere and there’s no escaping it. It’s also the easiest place to worsen a problem, especially if a single rogue admin says the wrong thing in response to the initial blunder, creating a new blunder, and a new round of negative attention. The infamous “Dell Incident” in 2005 comes to mind, but it certainly isn’t alone, and it certainly wasn’t the last. Here are some of the worst from the past few years.
2005 – Dell Ignores the Internet
This one is the granddaddy of them all. There were certainly social media foul-ups before this one, but none were so visible, or spiraled out of control so quickly, likely a result of the landscape drastically changing at the time. A well-known blogger, Jeff Jarvis, wrote a very critical blog post about Dell after a bad customer service experience in 2005.
First, Dell didn’t respond. Bad idea, the flames were fanned. Eventually, in searches on Google, searching for “Dell” brought up Jarvis’ name and his blog entry immediately. His blog and the lack of response triggered an avalanche of other negative blogs, as if everyone had been waiting for someone to kick it off. It was an unmitigated disaster, and seriously hurt the brand for a time. Dell eventually completely changed its customer service culture, and completely changed the way they addressed social media, especially their very foolish “look, don’t touch” policy in regards to online feedback, thanks to this one blog. And, in 2007, Jarvis thanked them for the efforts and the turnaround.
2006 – Wal-Mart Secretly Funds a Pro-Wal-Mart Blog
Using social media to say good things about yourself comes off as arrogant at best, if you didn’t hide that it was you saying the good things, and horribly underhanded and even creepy at worst, if you did hide that it was you saying those things. In 2006, suffering from a string of bad press and a few very critical documentaries, Wal-Mart decided it needed to bolster its public image. They decided to do this by paying a couple to drive around the country in their new RV to different Wal-Marts, where you can park for free, blogging about the people they met. “Wal-Marting Across America” was the result, and it didn’t take long for the Internet gestalt to notice that the couple liked Wal-Mart way, way too much.
As in, they seemed to never stop talking about it or how wonderful it was. You can see where this is going. Eventually, every tidbit analyzed by the Internet backlash machine revealed that the funding for the trip and every blog post had come directly from Wal-Mart’s own PR department. This was in the midst of an already terrible year for Wal-Mart, where 8% of their sales were estimated to have been lost to negative press. This didn’t help.
2006 – General Motors Asks People to Make Their Own Commercials
When GM revamped the design of the Chevy Tahoe in 2006, they decided to celebrate the new design with a viral marketing campaign introduced on an episode of “The Apprentice.” They created an area of their official site where users had access to several promotional clips of the new car in action, with simple editing options letting them position clips, shorten them, put music to them, and, alarmingly, put their own custom text on them. The Internet being the Internet, many of the entries were not exactly positive, featuring text over the cars like “don’t buy me” and “destroying the environment!”
Many of the videos went viral, and completely drowned out any of the positive commercials that had been created. And, worst of all, afraid of an even larger backlash, GM left the videos up on the site alongside the positives, creating a situation where a series of extremely negative videos blasting their own products were hosted on their own site, seemingly with their endorsement.
2011 – Nestle Gets Into a Public Argument with Greenpeace
If you’re online, you’re going to get negative feedback eventually. It’s the nature of being visible. The negative has to be embraced along with the good, and responded to respectfully and carefully. This is not an example of doing that. In 2011, Greenepace launched a campaign against Nestle for getting palm oil from suppliers they felt were destroying the ecosystems they extracted the oil from. They created a logo that played off the KitKat candy logo, and a viral video, placed on YouTube, that parodied the candy. Nestle responded by immediately demanding the video be taken down for copyright infringement, and YouTube complied. Greenpeace responded by reposting the video on Vimeo, then letting the entire Internet know what had happened. Instantly, Nestle had cast themselves as a villain, and appeared to be attempting to suppress the information. Nestle’s Facebook page began to drown in negative comments, and the page admin handled this in… Not the best way.
Predictably, this caught the attention of the mainstream media, and the whole thing went international. What had been a small campaign with a niche audience became the most talked about thing online, with constant Tweets, Facebook posts and TWO DOZEN reposts on YouTube of the original video. Nestle could do nothing to stop it.
2011 – Kenneth Cole Makes Light of the Arab Spring
This one fits squarely into the “avoid sensitive subjects at all costs in marketing” school. As the Arab Spring spread across the Middle East in 2010 and into 2011, and protests erupted all over Cairo, Egypt, Kenneth Cole decided to try to leverage the very public and viral story for their own benefit.
Predictably, the Internet didn’t respond positively, with Kenneth Cole cast as capricious profiteers, trying to make light of a situation that was very, very serious and very, very deadly. At one point, there were 1,500 negative responses appearing per hour. Kenneth Cole was forced to personally apologize on behalf of his company, and was clearly dearly embarrassed.
There are a lot more incidents like this, but we’ll stop here for now. The lessons to be learned are many and important: first, always be cautious in social media, and never respond in anger, or without forethought. Secondly, always pay attention to what is being said about you online, because if you don’t say something about it, everyone else will. Thirdly, transparency is key in social media. And finally, always think a new promotion or marketing idea through before you do it, especially if there’s a chance it could backfire horribly. Food for thought!