How to avoid social media meltdowns

How to avoid social media meltdowns

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Rob Gray highlights some social media blunders and offers sound advice to avoid repeating the same mistakes

Social media can make or break a campaign. It can fuel a buzz or spread condemnation. In Brazil, beer brand Heineken brought a smile to people’s faces with a simple but visually smart idea: every time someone Liked its Facebook page, a guy in an office blew up a green balloon. As the Likes mounted up, so too did the balloons, providing enjoyable images to share online of the man being swamped as his office became a sea of inflated rubber.

A balloon, this time a red one, also features in one of the most successful viral marketing videos to date, Metro Trains’ ‘Dumb ways to die’ campaign. Using humour in the form of animated jelly-bean style people meeting their brutal end in a variety of brainless ways, described with unflinching jollity in an incredibly catchy song, the Melbourne transit company succeeded in turning a potentially dry public safety campaign into a social media smash. Rightly garlanded with awards internationally, ‘Dumb ways to die’ has been seen over 50 million times on YouTube, retweeted more than 100,000 times and drawn well over three million Likes on Facebook. It’s a shining example of the upside – a demonstration of what’s possible when messages are delivered in a tone that is spot-on for the target audience.

Sadly, there are as many examples of high profile social media marketing disasters as there are successes. Given the unpredictability of social media, this article may help you to avoid common pitfalls as well as adopt proactive and polite policy when faced with a social media crisis.

British supermarket chain Waitrose – which has a considerably more upmarket positioning than its rivals Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s and Morrisons – found itself the target of some humorous digs when asking the Twitterati to complete the sentence 'I shop at Waitrose because …'
Here are a few witty responses:

'I shop at Waitrose because Clarissa’s pony just will not eat Asda value straw.'
'I shop at Waitrose because, Darling, Harrods is too much of a trek mid-week.'
'I shop at Waitrose because their colour scheme matches my Range Rover.'
'I shop at Waitrose because I once heard a 6 yr old boy in the shop say ‘Daddy does Lego have a ‘t’ on the end like Merlot?’'
'I shop at Waitrose because if you buy a full tank of helicopter fuel you get 10% off champagne. It is a recession after all.'

The saving grace for Waitrose was that the tone of much of the badinage was good natured and polite – in keeping with the store’s own values and positioning, one might say – and may even have cemented its appeal among those middle-class shoppers attracted to the aspirational elements of the brand. On the downside, though, it completely detracted from the supermarket’s efforts at the time to appeal to a broader market by price-matching some of its products with rivals such as Tesco.

Waitrose took the mickey-taking on the chin, responding on Twitter: 'Thanks for all the genuine and funny #WaitroseReasons tweets. We always like to hear what you think and enjoyed reading most of them.'

Naturally, the campaign went viral, and while it may not have played out quite as Waitrose had hoped, as blunders go it was civilised and largely benign. Any egg on the face was probably of sufficient quality to meet the exacting standards of Waitrose brand ambassador Heston Blumental, Michelin-starred chef and esteemed molecular gastronomy innovator.

Similarly, Australian supermarket group Coles laid itself open to jibes in 2012 when using its @Coles Twitter handle to ask people to finish the sentence, 'In my house it’s a crime not to buy…' In a flash, knocking comments began to appear. One took issue with Coles’ treatment of its suppliers, completing the sentence with '…bread and milk at prices that allow primary producers to survive'. Within an hour, the supermarket had backtracked. A disarming follow-up tweet read: 'It’s a social media crime not to …finish a sentence yourself. Sorry guys that post was not meant for Twitter!'


  • A Walmart/Sheets Energy Strips promotion in the US asked consumers to Like their local Walmart on Facebook. The store with the most votes would receive a visit from rapper Pitbull. The promotion was hijacked by a prankster who organised a successful campaign to send the music star into ‘exile’ at a far-flung store. Pitbull took it in good spirit, duly making an appearance at the winning Walmart – on Kodiak Island, Alaska.
  • Australian jewellery brand Paspaley’s safety procedures were scrutinised by ABC’s investigative current affairs programme Four Corners following the death of 22-year-old pearl diver Jarrod Hampton. Comments on the subject of the tragedy were deleted from Paspaley’s Facebook page in the hours after the programme was broadcast, triggering a social media furore.
  • Nestlé Australia proudly announced the inaugural Instagram photo on its KitKat Facebook page: a picture of a person in a bear suit playing a drum kit with chocolate bars as sticks. The picture was hastily taken down again once people began remarking on its resemblance to Pedobear – a controversial cartoon bear drawing used as an online warning of child pornography. Bemused Aussie Nestlé execs confessed to never having heard of the Pedobear meme.
  • Mad Mex, an Australian chain of more than 30 Mexican restaurants, felt the force of negative comments on its Facebook page after posting a Photoshopped version of the cover artwork of Justin Bieber’s single One Time, labelling it the ‘Mexican edition’. The young Canadian pop singer’s head was replaced by an image presumably meant to represent a person of Mexican origin. Inexplicably the replacement head selected belonged to famous Filipino boxer Manny Pacquiao, leading to complaints of racial insensitivity. A knockout idea.
  • When British Gas announced a 10% rise in fuel bills in October 2013, the outraged reaction from hard-pressed consumers was entirely predictable. But the energy supplier turned up the heat on itself by scheduling a Q&A about the price hike with its customer services director, Bert Pijls, on Twitter for the same day. Over 16,000 Twitter users vented their fury using the #AskBG hashtag as their digital rallying point while Pijls sought to apportion blame for BG’s bigger bills on rising wholesale energy costs. Although BG was right to engage with its customers, timing the Q&A to take place so soon after people had been stung by the news fanned the flames of discontent and increased the temperature of the vitriol. 'Will you be sacrificing your social media team for fuel this winter?' sniped one consumer, his sentiment echoed by many.
  • Kellogg’s UK drew consumer wrath in November 2013 by tweeting '1 RT = 1 breakfast for a vulnerable child'. Botanist and BBC TV presenter James Wong was among the many to take umbrage at the flaky wording, observing: 'Anyone else find this kinda creepy? Like sayin, ‘help us advertise or kids go hungry’'. Others were far more forthright in their condemnation of the cereal company, which apologised for its ‘wrong use of words’ to promote its funding of school breakfast clubs in deprived areas.


  • Smartphones can be the cause of stupid mix-ups. Make sure no-one able to administer a corporate social media account ever confuses it with their private account.
  • Do not delete! Take criticism on the chin, responding where appropriate if correction or clarification is required. Material should only be removed if it is extremely offensive or inflammatory.
  • There is no need to respond to every bit of criticism. Not everyone on social media is credible or reasonable. Internet trolls are generally best ignored.
  • Be clear on who can and cannot create social media content for your brand, who needs to give approval and what type of content can be shared.
  • Open-ended posts, such as those asking people what they think of your brand or to complete a phrase, invite trouble.
  • Rudeness is unacceptable.
  • Be very careful if you are looking to exploit the news agenda/trending topics.
  • Make sure you are clear. Be unambiguous in what you say and don’t use any hashtags that could be misinterpreted.
  • Crowdsourcing insight from social media has potential but it is not an alternative to robust market research.
  • Tools such as Google Trends and Boardreader can provide useful insights into what people are saying online about your brand.
  • Put in place social media crisis management procedures that define what constitutes an issue and set out the escalation process if a crisis occurs. Who should respond – and how?

This article was taken from the June 2014 issue of Market Leader. Browse the archive here.

Author: The Marketing Society
Posted: 21 Jul 2014
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