Princess Diana's death in a weekend car crash occurred in pre-digital 1997. Back in the office the following Monday morning, we were aghast when we saw a full-page ad in a magazine delivered by morning mail. Touting a traveling exhibition of her royal gowns, the banner headline read "A Dress to Di For."
In the context of the events of the past 24 hours, the ad was tasteless. Ghastly. Jaw-dropping. And there wasn't a damned thing the advertiser could have done to have lessened the ad's unintended impact. It was print, after all.
Digital changed that, of course. One of digital advertising's first value propositions was (and remains) the ability to optimize, tweak, modify, and adapt ad messaging, creative, and even placement on the fly.
The rise of social media and content marketing has added an order of magnitude -- more messaging into marketing pipelines, much of it pumped out to audiences in real time. Yet with major brand advertisers (and not a few of the more prolific social media profiles out there), this messaging isn't as real time as you might think. It's pre-programmed and is automatically pushed out at predetermined intervals to help brands remain relevant and topical.
It's no secret that a variety of applications to automate marketing messages on social media platforms exist. They optimize messaging and ensure they're sent at the best possible time.
But what happens when the best possible time suddenly becomes the worst possible time? When the princess central to the campaign dies in a grisly accident? When it's September 11, or a natural disaster? Who pulls the switch on the suddenly inappropriate campaign, or tweets, or brand page updates?
Asking around, I didn't find as many answers as I did finger pointing. The makers of the automation technology that can be populated with tweets and updates for later publication point out their users can go into their accounts at any time and hit the off switch. The VP of global advertising strategy for one of the world's top five consumer brands told me last week, "We have pre-programmed messages that go out on Facebook. [In the case of catastrophic news], Facebook would have to shut down the brand pages. Building [a brand] on a global media platform the size and scale of Facebook comes with real problems."
That's a lot of trust in Facebook, particularly on the part of a much, much bigger brand.
Traditional media outlets have always had adjacency clauses in their advertising contracts so ads don't appear next to stories of tragedy and disaster (a major reason why, in the wake of September 11, The New York Times ran news on the disaster and recovery for a full year in a separate, ad-free section in the print edition). Online has corollaries. Negative keyword matching in contextual search ads can, for example, keep an airline's ads off of stories about plane crashes.
In the not-too-distant future, we're going to see the development of similar fail-safe tools in social media marketing platforms, but perhaps not until a major brand or two are humiliated by a lighthearted message that's suddenly twisted into something tragically inappropriate in the wake of a tsunami, a Katrina, an earthquake, or a Fukushima.
It will happen. You know it will.
In the meantime, a disaster preparedness plan is in order. If tweets and updates are locked and loaded in an automatic update queue, who's minding the store and charged with the responsibility for making real-time decisions regarding marketing messaging (hint: probably not the intern). Who's their back-up? What's the plan for night, weekend, and holiday monitoring?
Think all this is onerous? It is. It's easier to craft a bunch of messages, throw them in the queue, and know they'll be disseminated while the team is working on the next batch.
Making the time to make a plan and put it in place is annoying, sure. But it sure beats being the marketer who's remembered for "A Dress to Di For."
Rebecca Lieb is an analyst, digital advertising/media, for Altimeter Group.
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