Following the legitimate hacking of two companies' Twitter accounts this spring, a string of copycats have jumped on the bandwagon with fake attacks. First, MTV and BET pretended to take over each other's Twitter accounts in February, and in July, Chipotle tricked users into thinking hackers had broken into its Twitter account with a string of nonsensical messages.
If blogs and online media coverage are any indication, the ploy worked. Chipotle representative Chris Arnold has declared the company's stunt a win, saying the fake hack "was definitely thought out" as part of Chipotle's 20th anniversary promotion. On the day Chipotle posted 20 "hacked" tweets, the company added 4,000 new followers to its Twitter account -- significantly more than its typical daily average of 250.
But I find Chipotle's attitude cavalier. A fake Twitter hack might provide an immediate swell in followers, but the surge erodes when the buzz ends and the new followers move on. Unlike disingenuous publicity stunts, legitimate promotions don't jeopardize the trust of loyal customers. Suffice it to say, most people don't like being tricked.
A risky ploy with uncertain results
Chipotle's antics show they still have a lot to learn about how to use social media.
First, further examination shows its fake hack was more of a hit-and-miss than a flat-out win. To gauge the overall impact of the trick, I entered the words "Chipotle," "Twitter," "fake," and "hack" into a social media monitoring software program. The hundreds of comments from around the Web were evenly divided between strongly negative and positive reactions, with a small number of neutral commenters.
The idea that "any publicity is good publicity" certainly isn't new, but it doesn't hold true in many situations -- including this one. The most immediate benefit to Chipotle seems to be the minority of commenters who said just hearing about the trick made them want a burrito bowl. Those people are likely regular Chipotle customers. But the biting negative comments show some customers were turned off by the trick.
Secondly, Chipotle has no way of knowing how the stunt has affected its most loyal customers. With that in mind, I conducted some primary research by polling 18- to 24-year-olds that have eaten at Chipotle two to three times per week for the past several years.
Of those I polled, very few had heard of the fake Twitter hack or the 20th anniversary campaign. Furthermore, none of the responses from Millennials showed any change in the participants' attitudes toward Chipotle -- even after they learned about the fake hacking.
It seems Chipotle has missed its loyal audience with the fake Twitter hack and might have alienated some patrons. The opportunity to regain the trust from the latter group could be lost.
Staying true to your objectives
If you're still not convinced, let me give you some reasons why other companies shouldn't pull the same stunt as Chipotle, BET, and MTV.
It conflicts with your long-term goals.
Pulling a prank to get attention is a dicey move when customers insist on excellent customer experiences and transparency from companies. Social media should be used to create genuine connections with customers and build trust. Fake hacks are anything but authentic and lying to your customers -- even as a harmless joke -- is clearly counterproductive to that goal.
An increase in Twitter followers or shares doesn't necessarily translate to sales or value.
The sudden swell of followers is a meager metric since it's just a snapshot of a moment in time. Followers don't mean much to your marketing campaign if those people don't eventually become customers. Chipotle's 4,000 new followers and the number of retweets of fake updates don't merit celebration. The new followers jumped on the bandwagon because of an ephemeral pop-culture buzz -- not because of genuine interest in Chipotle's products.
The results are unpredictable.
Chipotle, MTV, and BET have no way of knowing which of their brand loyalists may be offended, feel duped, or are alienated by these pranks. Marketing endeavors that cause your customers to feel foolish are reckless bids for success.
A better way to connect with consumers
When it comes to marketing through social media, it's a much better idea to stick with best practices by tying business objectives to social media initiatives. Cheap tricks fail when it comes to establishing trust that leads to long-term, meaningful relationships with customers.
Chipotle's fake hacking certainly can't be considered a scandal, but marketers should be questioning the company's judgment regarding its use of social media for marketing. The short-term increase in followers and attention wasn't worth the risk of betraying the trust of loyal customers or the potential for tarnishing the brand. This type of trickery just doesn't translate when it comes to social.
Stephen Monaco is a marketing consultant and social business strategist.
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