When big brands using social media get it wrong

Why do big brands want to be in the social media space?

A number of stories have caught my eye recently about how major commercial brands are starting to using social media – often through a campaign led by an advertising agency.  Naturally, as social media becomes the panacea to heal all customer engagement ills, big brands see it as a new channel to market and a method to add value.

Many bid brands are forgetting that social media is important and valuable because it connects us to communities and objects of interest, whether that’s a group for local creatives or an international online support group for an illness you suffer from.  People don’t go onto Facebook or Twitter to consume and engage with advertising offers – they go there to share pictures of the family and that outrageous work Christmas party, or to learn and get informed about work and life in general by their peers.  Any brand engagement is by change rather than design.  Unlike television advertising, the culture of consuming messages alongside content isn’t yet that ingrained.

That’s not to say consumer-led marketing doesn’t work in the social media space: E-Consultancy rounded up the best and worst social media campaigns of 2009, the winning team including the fun loving Meerkats, combining engaging and witty TV advertising with similar banter online, and Zappos whose commitment to great customer service through Twitter was thought to be a major factor in their cool $900M aquisition by online incumbent Amazon.

At a grassroots level, many smaller businesses are engaging in B2B and B2C dialogues with peers, suppliers, customers and interested onlookers and – although generally less headline worthy and end revenue focused – it’s proving a healthy way of growing leads. Rural Herefordshire firm Wiggly Worms recently scooped £25K from Dell for their innovative use of content rich and fun video, podcasts and wikis to engaged a community of interest around their product: wormeries.    As ripe an example of a global microbrand succeeding from social media as there can be.

Yes the nay-sayers will (rightly) question if there’s money in it (and for the big investment of time, as a small business, you need to make damn sure there is) and say it’s too hard to measure. Remember that it’s early, experimental days and different tactics and methods are being experimented with in the alchemical lab of the internet where lessons can be learnt.

So how do the big commercial brands adapt to the social space?  Successfully, they have extended other online marketing tools like the video viral – whether user-generated or professionally filmed – manna to heaven in the re-tweet, link baiting online culture. Social media marketing agency Nudge have shown increased engagement with consumer brands like Tango from creating online gaming and apps on Facebook.

Where this material works, it creates content – or  allows people to create their own content – that can be woven into people’s lives, allowing them to share the message, laugh or interaction.  If you make your content engaging and easily findable and shareable – through function like social bookmarking buttons, Facebook Connect, email opt-in and RSS – then people will want to share it and pass the love on.  No bribes necessary.

And, if newspaper headlines are to be believed, with the increase in two-tier customer services in favour of the online whinger over the letter writer through open networks like Twitter – big brands have potentially the most to lose by getting it wrong in social spaces.

2009: The worst big brand social media stories

What happens when brands misjudge, or even fake, engagement?  2009 has delivered some serious abuses of the social space by big players.

Advertising giants Saatchi & Saatchi beat off social media specialists to win a pitch for Toyota in Australia.  Their lack lustre idea (presumably taken from a 2006 advertising manual) to host a viral film-making contest saw no entries submitted, followed by an attempt to gee up numbers in an embarrassingly call-to-action email to production companies, followed by the creation of a slick viral which offended many for its overt sexism and overtones of incest (!).

Incest + big brand + online communities = major FAIL.

Read the full story with offending videos here. Had Saatchi learnt nothing from the 2006 Chevy Tahoe ‘remix our ad’ farce, which led to satirical films uploaded by environmental activists?

Habitat relegated their social media delivery to an intern, who allegedly abused Twitter by trying to ‘trend’ their message upwards by linking to unrelated subjects – including the Iran election.

Undemocratic violent abuses + big brand + online communities = major, major FAIL.

I nearly choked into my online bank statement with the headlines about First Direct launching a social media campaign to bring ‘transparency’ to online conversations, when in reality the site carefully filtered in favour of positive comments and only allowed SMS length messages.  An online forum, moderated by a Customer Service Manager, where all message could be viewed and scrutinised, would probably have given them this accountability, for a fraction of the cost.

Disturbingly, this week news broke that health insurance companies campaigning against American healthcare reform tapped into the growing appetite for social gaming on Facebook and covertly traded virtual currency for those support of their campaign, updating users Facebook status with activist message in a dirty tactic dubbed ‘astroturfing‘. Immoral but not illegal.

Cohersion into rejecting healthcare reform which would save thousands of lives vs bubblicious social gaming?  Major, unethical FAIL.

Why do bid brands and ad agencies often get it wrong?

With access to such large budgets and clever marketing strategists, why are bid brands heading so off-topic? Rishad Tobaccowala advised advertising agencies trying to embrace the social web that “the future does not fit in the containers of the past.”  Legacy systems of scoping, selling and measuring audiences worked well for the likes of Messers Saatchi & co in the broadcast era, the billboard era and the web 1.0 era of ‘brochureware’ publishing.

We still co-exist with all of these media; just as TV didn’t replace radio and the web hasn’t replaced TV, we live in an era of polyphonic media.  Where big media marketing works best in the space of ‘push’ (cinema, TV online) social media operates most effectively in the  ‘pull’ – smaller bite-size message and content shared person-to-person in one-to-one and one-to-many interactions and micro publications.

Key characteristics of a successful online engagement

What these 2009 case studies show is that certain characteristics of a meaningful online engagement are often missing in big brand campaign:

  • Personalisation - brands often fail to have a human behind the campaign and create an individual voice; it’s the human interaction which leads to deeper engagement and a will to share or promote.
  • Authenticity - many of these campaign claim to empower contributors but in reality fail to engage or accurately portray the true views of those users. They are faking the engagement.

When campaigns work they are:

  • Clever/ funny - using creativity as a means for engagement and humour to stimulate the viral effect
  • Addictive - they create ways of returning to new content or game play, giving longevity to the brand engagement
  • Professional - they create content or a platform to share content in that a regular internet user would find difficult to create

When it goes really wrong: T-Mobile’s campaign and my chat with Josh

This week I experienced my own ’15 comments of fame’ relating to a supposed grassroots campaign, blantantly orchestrated by a major telecoms brand.  Charlie Brooker - despite being a deadly cynic – often strikes the nail head-on with his commentary on all things media-related in his Guardian column and blog.  His recent column on ‘loser generated content’ lambasts TV commercials that try and ‘crowdsource’ (often fake) engagement – in a strange phenomena of the old media aping the new to appear more relevant.

On the subject of the irritating chirpy Josh from the T-Mobile adverts, who encourages us all through his YouTube channel, Twitter, and MySpace to change your life by joining his super-group – because of T-Mobile’s ‘free texts for life’ (not the free emails for life of the internet then) Brooker snarls:

“It’s so clumsily contrived it wouldn’t fool a hen, yet we’re meant to welcome this “supergroup” as an authentic grassroots musical phenomenon. On MySpace, Josh (or whoever’s controlling him) claims, “It’s a shame so many cynics think this band is completely manufactured.”

The ‘quote’ was taken from my ‘conversation’ on Josh’s ‘My Space’ channel as my electro-diva (and bitchy with it) alter ego Miss Hypnotique in which I’d critiqued his song and subsequently received a reply from someone claiming to be Josh (and claiming to be hurt by my comments). I found it strange that they even kept my comments on the site, let alone replied, but that’s where the mystery of who, or what, is Josh Ward begins to unfold.

The comments by myself and a few others, not offensive, but conversational of whether he was ‘for real’ or not, have now been removed form the site, however, brand owners should learn that they cannot re-write internet history – once content and conversations has been unleashed they exists forever in cache heaven.  I carried out a simple cache search using Google which showed the most recently archived page from a week before.


Sadly, my more recent wittier (and bitchier) response wasn’t archived (broadly, it concerned authenticity in the context of pop music and advertising), but you can see how I’ve quickly recreated the ‘moderated’ content that Brooker referenced.

NB: Another simple search shows that the projects is not as ‘grassroots’ as the campaign professes: the song was not ‘crowd sourced’ from Josh’s MySpace friends but actually commissioned by upcoming band The Lightyears by T-Mobile.

Although Josh’s online presence is being relatively carefully moderated to weed out unsavoury and off-topic messages, the ‘offsite’ disquiet continues with this Facebook Group I really really REALLY hate the T-Mobile guy (Josh Ward) and my own Facebook post attracted some 15 comments, some of whom transfered the conversation back to Josh’s MySpace channel including an iconic (now deleted) comment by a lecturer and musician friend: “bland indie is the new Stock, Aitken & Waterman”.

Where did T-Mobile go wrong?

I straw-polled a few people about the ads, all found them (and Josh) immensely irritating but assumed it was fake. It’s just an advert, right?  So as someone so tech savvy (indeed someone who in a previous life commissioned online PR people to ‘seed’ fake characters in message forums for record labels before it was banned) why did I respond so negatively?  For me it was all about authenticity.  As a musician I believe strongly that engagement with fans should be authentic; fans are hard earned.  Playing music isn’t a whimsical pastime to sell other more high ticket consumer electronic products, it’s a way of thinking and being, and musicians in all genres are committed and passionate about what they do. And Josh’s song seriously sucked.

Many of the rings of respect in the social media chain were broken here, and I personally feel cheated by T-Mobile’s actions.

  • Fake authenticity - I’m being told I was really ‘talking’ to Josh, and I felt a little bad, like everyone has their thing in music  and maybe he was put out – but that engagement is, to an extent at least, fake and T-Mobile are toying with my sentiment and emotional response to their campaign – whether postiive or negative in engagement – by my deeper interaction.  That Josh asked his audience to attend recordings, send in music files and help him write his song when clearly this wasn’t the project’s intention is dishonest and insults a potential customer.  However un-educated you may think your audience segment is, never insult people’s intelligence with misinformation.  The personalisation was successful in making the engagement seem real – but the authenticity of the response mitigated the time invested.
  • Moderating in moderation – Moderation is a sticky point.  On my own artist channels online, I often take out bad comments.  YouTube is a trash dump of mindless abuse, and as a non-pro I’m too precious to take the knocks.  Comments on Josh’s MySpace message board saying things like “I hate you and I want to kill you” (!!) however bizarre, are better removed than engaged with.  But the site’s moderator chose to engage and respond to me, then to cut out this dialogue.  Better to make the decision to close comments or pre-moderate, or close off threads as they become un-productive to your cause. If someone wants to rationalise a point,  let them make their point and respond as you see fit (better still, if it’s working, let your community spring to your defence).  This approach just makes T-Mobile look like cowardly turn-coats.
  • Crowd sourcing without substance - whilst some of the players in Josh’s band would have had a lot of fun on the day, like X-Factor, the methodology was wrong by exploiting the enthusiasm of talent when the gain output was not in the content they contributed to but their presence for the cameras as ‘free extras’ (no doubt underpined by more costly and able professional musicians).
  • But is Josh for real?

Clearly there’s an actor behind the agent, and it’s possible there are enough ‘wannabees’ that Josh could be a real guy who really loves music and was lured by the advertising buck.  But the classic clean response to the social media space and real-time moderation suggests professional campaigners at work, many hands typing to make light work for the ever popular Josh.

Pop music and advertising have always formed a healthy marriage, long may it continue, but this project blurred the line by making the advert the music, rather than using advertising to seek out great music.

If Josh is ‘for real’ then T-Mobile are exploitative fools and have potentially ruined an aspirational young chap’s life in the short term.

(Oxford University interview:
Professor: “So how did you spend your gap year Mr Ward?
Josh:  “I travelled the nation forming an awesome super-group because I had free texts for life.”
Professor: “Ah yes, you’re that *censored* guy from the T-Mobile ads.  We’ll let you know Mr Ward” )

The outcome of a successful ad campaign is more brand affinity, awareness, and ultimately sales.  Have T-Mobile endeared me to them through this campaign?  They have lost what little love I had left for their brand; I’m cancelling my contract forthwith.  False charges for overseas calls I didn’t make and terrible customer service (which they charge me for too) are probably the tipping point, but all things contribute, and these are just some of the things T-Mobile could have allocated resource and budget to use social media to improve upon. But their false authenticity to me shows I need to walk with my feet and align this significant monthly spend to a company with more honest brand values.

In summary, major brands should consider how to engage in the social media space, but plan a strategy that complements the overall marketing and digital strategy which places engagement and authenticity at its heart.  Otherwise, no number of ‘free text for life’ is going to win back lost hearts and minds.

    Above: a strange meme to come out of it all c/o Jim O’Shea

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