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5 ways brands fail in social media

5 ways brands fail in social media Drew Hubbard

Social media is young and remains undefined in many ways. Even the most successful early adopters of Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, blogging, etc., had a few stumbles along the way before they hit their strides.

The following failures are examples of common mistakes made by many brands in social media. As best practices are more widely adopted across industries and individual organizations, mistakes like these will become less commonplace. But one thing is for certain: Large brands that still refuse to adopt a social media strategy are embarrassing themselves. It can be scary, but even a less-than-perfect social media strategy is essential.

The good news is that the world of social media moves so quickly that a mistake (even a big one) will likely be quickly forgotten. Now let's talk about five different ways that brands mess things up, again and again, in social media.

Waiting too long to respond or not responding at all

Why it's bad: One of the first conversations a social media marketing consultant has with a client usually starts with, "You don't control online discussions about your brand. People are talking about you whether you want them to or not." The conversation is already out there, and one of the smartest things a brand can do is to learn how to be a part of it. If there is big news or a scandal, people expect the brand to respond with a comment. If the brand waits too long to chime-in, or worse, doesn't say anything at all, people begin to speculate and create their own truths.

The culprit: Tiger Woods. Is everybody wearing their irony hats? Good. Check out this Oct. 14 update from Tiger's official Facebook page:

Oops. For the uninitiated (including people who don't stand in grocery store checkout lines), Tiger wrecked his car in late November, which for some reason fanned the flames of a tabloid rumor about one or more extramarital affairs. Tiger waited until Dec. 2, which is an eternity in internet gossip time, to write a vague response on his official website that only served to create more rumors.

The solution: It's still probably not too late for Tiger to issue a statement that would put many rumors to rest and help mitigate some of the damage that has been done to his brand (only time will tell what Nike thinks of all of this). It's hard to argue that his credibility as a spokesperson, at least in the short term, has been thrashed. But considering that his celebrity grew from some actual talent, the Tiger Woods brand will likely come out of this scandal relatively undamaged.

Using social media only to push your own marketing agenda

Why it's bad: The entire purpose of social media is to interact with other people out there on the big old web. When a brand uses Twitter, for example, to do nothing more than inform you of its latest advertisements, then the conversation is one-sided and boring. Twitter should encourage discussion, which is pretty hard to do when every update says something like, "Check out our new line of Dwayne-Johnson-designed handbags! 20% off through Sunday!" There is nothing wrong with sharing coupons or other deals with your followers -- in fact, this is one of the reasons that people follow brands on Twitter. But it's much better if the offer is exclusive to those followers. If so, you are rewarding that coterie for taking the time to follow you.

Remember to bring the proverbial bottle of wine to the party. Encourage conversation and engage these folks who clearly support your brand enough to have sought you out in the first place. Offer behind-the-scenes photos, videos, or even gossip. Eventually, your followers might largely drive the conversations themselves, which can be a great thing.

The culprit: Gucci. As of right now, Gucci has a little more than 3,500 followers. It's is not a huge amount, but it's a great start. The brand's updates are infrequent, but when it does tweet it is always about Gucci. This one-sided, repetitive behavior gets old fast, even for devoted fans of the brand.

The solution: Gucci needs to update more often, at least a few times per day. When it updates, it should involve its followers as frequently as possible. A great way to do this is to ask questions. Another way would be to ask for photos. After all, people love Gucci bags, so why not request photos of people with their handbags?

Incentivize people's participation. Perhaps Gucci could run a contest once per week. For example, it could ask, "What is the strangest thing you ever used your handbag for? Funniest answer in the next hour wins a $20 gift card." Remember to leave a little room for retweets (don't use the full 140 characters).

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Abandoned profiles:

Why it's bad: What's worse than no social media presence at all? Profiles that were created and then forgotten. According to a June 2009 TechCrunch article that quotes a Purewire study, 80 percent of all Twitter accounts have fewer than 10 followers and 30 percent have zero followers. One quarter don't follow anyone else.

These numbers show that people have a habit of creating Twitter accounts and then not using them -- including brands. One reason for this Twitter-drive-by phenomenon is to ensure that nobody steals your username, which subsequently becomes your vanity URL (For example, Dwayne Johnson's Twitter username is "The_Rock_." Therefore his vanity URL is twitter.com/The_Rock_). Brands are worried that other people might squat on what they see as their rightful usernames. It's a fair concern, because I can tell you from agency experience that Twitter can be hard to reach. Right now the service seems to be the pretty girl that can get away with not returning my phone calls. (I'm not bitter.)

If somebody steals a client's vanity URL on Facebook, YouTube, or MySpace, it's not terribly difficult to get it back. But on Twitter it's a different story. If a brand sets up a Twitter account and doesn't intend to start providing updates right away, it should at the very least customize the background and color palate to something other than the default, and then leave a message as the first and only (for now) update that says, "We're getting around to this Twitter thing eventually," or something along those lines.

The culprit: Time Warner. The official Time Warner corporate Twitter account isn't much better than Time Warner Cares, with only 750 followers and 115 updates since April, but the Time Warner Cares Twitter account is just sitting there twiddling its thumbs.

What's more embarrassing is that the company clearly set out to mimic one of the best uses of Twitter ever, Comcast's @ComcastCares account. But apparently around the eighth or ninth mouse click, whoever was creating the account said, "Phew! Forget it. This Twitter thing is too hard."

The solution: The clear answer is to start regularly updating the account and using Twitter in one or more of the many ways that others have found it to be useful. At a minimum, Time Warner needs to create a new custom background, change the default color scheme, and then write an update that informs its clientele of its intentions. Something like, "Time Warner Cares on Twitter is coming soon. In the meantime, please find us at www.website.com."

Forgetting that a little guy's voice can be just as loud as yours

Why it's bad: From a consumer advocacy standpoint, it's not bad, it's great. But if you are a brand, you have to be more careful than ever about customer service. One person who has a bad experience has the potential to reach millions. When a brand makes a mistake, it is usually better off spending the time and money to fix the mistake early.

Anecdotally, I can tell you that some of the strongest brand advocates or "influencers" once had a bad experience with the brand, but the bad experience was quickly addressed and fixed. This "we'll make it better" attitude has the potential to create strong positive sentiment in social media.

The culprits: Whirlpool. Heather B. Armstrong, aka "Dooce," writes a popular parenting blog that has an associated Twitter account, which as of today has more than 1.5 million followers. Armstrong purchased a high-end Maytag (owned by Whirlpool) washing machine that promptly broke. After several frustrating encounters with Maytag's customer service, Dooce asked her Twitter followers to boycott Maytag appliances. Whirlpool caught wind of the situation and quickly dispatched a repairman to fix the washer. Unfortunately, this behavior tells the consumer that unless you are a celebrity blogger, you probably won't get any attention from Whirlpool.

United Airlines. The airline breaks guitars. Haven't you heard? In early 2008, Dave Carroll flew United from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to Omaha, Neb. After looking out the window of the plane and seeing the baggage handlers violently flinging guitar cases about, Carroll complained to the flight attendants, who met his report with indifference.

Sure enough, when he eventually received his checked luggage, he found his $3,500 Taylor acoustic guitar had been smashed. You can read the whole story, in Dave Carroll's words, here. Carroll and his band, Sons of Maxwell, wrote a song and produced a video about the incident. It was only after the video went super-viral (can I trademark that term?) that United seriously addressed Dave Carroll's complaints.

And in case you haven't seen the video, it's pretty funny:

The solution: It's easy to say that the way to solve these problems is to have good customer service in the first place. But as we all know, people are going to have bad experiences regardless of how attentive a brand is to the needs of their customers. Therefore, the best way to prevent a social media fiasco is to actively monitor social media. Tools like Radian6, SM2, and Nielsen's BuzzMetrics can help brands watch online conversations and monitor them for potentially damaging conversations.

At the same time, conversations can be watched for praises of the brand. I would encourage brands to reward unsolicited praise by thanking their customers (while everybody is watching of course) and perhaps sending them a gift card or some other token.

Failure to moderate

Why it's bad: One of the greatest things about social media is that everybody has a voice. The conversation is no longer a one-way street with the brand broadcasting to its customers. Nowadays, consumers can bond directly with a brand, ask it questions, and become part of the decision-making process that drives a brand's development.

The problem, of course, is that what makes social media great can be the same thing that makes it frustrating; everybody has a voice. People are going to say some nasty things about you and your brand if you let them. It's going to happen, and the sooner a brand embraces this eventuality, the better. The solution to this problem is moderation. If somebody writes something potentially damaging on your Facebook wall, @replies on Twitter, or leaves a comment on your blog, you have some options. If it's spam, just delete it and/or block the Twitter user and report them as a spammer.

But in nearly every other situation, it's probably best to leave the feedback intact. If the comment is factually incorrect, provide a correction. If it is a complaint, offer to provide a resolution. Remember that if one person has posted a question or a complaint, it's likely that many others who haven't yet posted feel the same way. One warning: Don't get in flame wars, and don't engage in conversations about morality or religion unless you absolutely have to. Unwinnable arguments are not worth pursuing.

The culprit: WPMI-TV, a local news station in Alabama, decided to buy billboard space that featured the network's local news team alongside its Twitter feed. The idea, presumably, was to provide up-to-the-second news information, but things went south when a recent tweet unfortunately matched with the image on the billboard.

The image was confirmed as legitimate by Mashable, and the news station's general manager and news director were suspended.

The solution: This funny and unfortunate error probably couldn't have been prevented. I have to admit that even if I were the guy running the Twitter updates and I knew full well what the billboard looked like, I would have never put two and two together on that one, which makes me feel bad for the suspended news director. Was that really anybody's fault? The lesson is that social media is out there for everybody to see, so be careful what you say.

A misidentified failure

It seems that every time I hear about or read a discussion about brands in social media, the Motrin example comes up. In late 2008, Motrin posted some videos on its website that implied that carrying a baby around on your hip or in a Baby Bjorn could potentially cause aches and pains.

The ads were intended to be funny with lines like, "If I look tired and crazy, people will understand why." Just like a hiker should never get between a mother bear and her cubs, a brand should apparently never get between a mommy blogger and her cubs.

The backlash was swift and far-reaching when an army of mommy bloggers decided that the notion of a baby being a "burden" was inappropriate. Motrin quickly took down the videos and apologized, but the bloggers wouldn't let it go, and this is why it's a bad example of a brand supposedly failing in social media. The fail was on the part of the mommy bloggers who overreacted and couldn't let it go, not Motrin.


Awareness of social media surroundings likely could have prevented all of the aforementioned failures. Brands need to add social media awareness and training at every level. Does your company have a social media policy? If not, I would recommend getting to work on one. Your employees are going to talk about your brand too, and it is vital to have some guidelines in place about what is and isn't allowed.

For example, do your employees have brand-specific social media profiles, or does all interaction happen on their personal profiles? Get creative and try to imagine problem scenarios, and have an intervention plan for if and when you experience a social media crisis. Above all, remember that social media can be messy, just like real life. If you make a mistake, quickly admit it, and make things right as soon as possible. People will understand.

Drew Hubbard is director of promotions and social media at The Search Agency.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia at @iMediaTweet.

Drew is mainly a dad, but he's also a social media and content marketing guy. Originally from Kansas City and a graduate of The University of Missouri, Drew will gladly discuss the vast, natural beauty of the Show Me State. Drew and his wife,...

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