I always enjoy reading about the latest marketing and social media failures, perhaps in an attempt to learn from these companies, and in hopes that I will never made these mistakes myself.  As of late, it seems the use of hashtag has been landing companies in some hot water.  While their use of the hashtag was probably intended to create open dialogue, many have created too open of a dialogue and have resulted in embarrassment.  This blog will discuss social media marketing failures involving the hashtag, and how those companies could have avoided them.

Many companies have started to use the hashtag to invoke honest conversation about the public opinion of their company and products, inviting questions and comments from consumers, and asking them to share their stories.  Inviting this sort of open-ended interaction with the public can often result in backlash, as companies like SeaWorld and McDonalds, and non-profits such as Florida State, have found.

In early 2015, SeaWorld, in an effort to gain some positive PR after the release of the 2013 documentary, Blackfish, created the #AskSeaWorld Twitter campaign.  This campaign was designed to encourage people to ask SeaWorld about the treatment and care of their Killer Whales, however what it actually did was allow people to openly criticize SeaWorld’s ethics, and encourage involvement from PETA and other animal rights activists.  The campaign did not encourage questions the way it thought it would, instead SeaWorld was faced with a slew of negative comments and sarcastic questions from users.  Some of the questions asked by followers included “Are your tanks filled with Orca tears?”, “If you were a killer whale, would you rather live in an ocean with your family, or in a tank alone?” and “How does it feel to have your business collapse the dorsal fin of an Orca in a tiny tank?”  Needless to say, the campaign did not work the way SeaWorld had planned, and many were critical of the campaign itself, openly asking what in the world SeaWorld was thinking.

SeaWorld responded to the campaign by criticizing the people asking the questions, and accused trolls, PETA and animal rights activists of hijacking their hashtag.  SeaWorld’s response further upset people who felt like their questions were legitimate, and that they were brushed off, or blocked, due to the nature of the question.  SeaWorld’s stock has continued to drop, and the number of visitors are dropping quarterly.  SeaWorld never should have started this campaign in the first place, why anyone in their marketing department thought this way a good idea is beyond me, they should have expected negative comments and questions pertaining to the treatment of their animals.  However, they should have addressed the public’s concerns, and should have made a concerted effort to answer the tough questions.  This was an opportunity for SeaWorld to improve relationships with their consumers and work together on a way to improve the conditions and treatment of their animals, but instead they choose to attack and distance themselves even more.

In 2012, McDonalds ran a Twitter campaign called #McDStories.  McDonalds believed this was a way to engage their consumers by allowing them to tell memorable and heartfelt stories about their experiences at McDonalds, but it backfired.  Instead Twitter users talked about their miserable experiences at McDonalds, and criticized the company’s treatment of animals, their poor quality food and their low, unfair wages.  Tweets ranged from “McDonalds scalds baby chicks alive for nuggets” to “One time I walked into a McDonalds and could smell the Type 2 Diabetes in the air and I threw up”.

In the end McDonalds realized the error of their ways and removed the Twitter campaign, as these unappetizing stories have a tendency to hurt business rather than help it.  The unfortunate thing about the internet is that your mistakes live even when you try to delete them, and this mistake left a bad taste in the mouths of consumers.  Just like SeaWorld, McDonalds should have known better than to attempt a campaign like this.  It is unwise for controversial companies to encourage this open dialogue, because odds are it will not work in their favor.  McDonalds should be working on how to improve their business, and perhaps should have asked their followers what they were looking for from their brand in order to do so.

Corporations are not the only ones that run poor social media campaigns, non-profits and government agencies have also missed the mark.  In 2013, Florida State started an #AskJameis Twitter campaign in order to solicit questions about their football team.  What they ended up with was a lot of questions about Jameis Winston’s off-field antics which included rape accusations and theft.  Followers also questioned the ethics of Florida State, and the competency of the Tallahassee Police Department.  Questions like “After getting away with a high profile rape and theft, what crime will you commit to complete your triple crown”, “You went 13-0 on the football field and 2-0 in the court system.  What is your overall record”, and “How many stiff-arms did you throw to get out of the store without paying for crab legs”, were asked.

This is another case of a campaign that allowed too much freedom in the way of dialogue.  Social media marketers should know better than to run a social media campaign around a controversial person or product because it will draw focus on the negative.  Florida State should have gotten rid of Winston all together, but that’s an entirely different topic of discussion.  If Florida State wants to market their school via social media to encourage attendance, they might try focusing on their more non-controversial programs like the campus, or the classes they offer.

We live in a time where mistakes spread quickly and damage is done fast.  Social media marketers should be conscious of their brand’s image in the public eye, and should not poke the proverbial bear (the public).  Though I think dialogue between a company and its consumers is wonderful, and has the potential for great outcomes, that door should be opened carefully.  If a company has any controversy surrounding it, it is not wise to encourage the public to voice their thoughts because odds are they will, and I doubt it will be with the positive feedback that the company was looking for.





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