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February 13, 2012

Emmett Dulaney: When Twitter backfires

ANDERSON, Ind. — Twitter, that innocuous social media tool that lets users send out 140 character snippets to their followers, is being used more and more as a marketing tool. Companies are turning to it to send out promotional messages to the masses at rates cheaper than other mediums allow. When they do so, they often don’t want only their followers to see the curt messages so they choose to promote their tweets — which basically means they pay to have those associated with a particular hashtag seen more often (as one would expect with any form of advertising) by having them come up as “trending” topics.

One big difference between advertising in social media markets and traditional markets, however, is that the message you send out can be commented on, added to and so on. When this works well, users can become evangelists for your product. When this fails, however, it can lead to a huge black eye, as McDonald’s recently discovered.

For a marketing campaign, McDonald’s started two new topic groups in Twitter and promoted them both: #MeetTheFarmers (the “#” is pronounced “hashtag”), and #McDstories. The first was focused on the tales of the farmers who produce the food that ends up in McDonalds and mirrored the promotion they are doing elsewhere — television commercials, and so on. The second was intended to be used for those heart-tugging customer testimonials of how great and comforting a place McDonalds is. That is not what was posted.

What appeared alongside those was a litany of negative posts. One individual talked of finding a fingernail in their sandwich and another spoke of chipping a molar. One person claimed to have gotten food poisoning while yet another wondered why PETA could ever be upset at McDonald’s since what they use isn’t actual meat anyway. And so it went.

What surprises me most isn’t that this kind of negative backlash would occur, but rather that McDonald’s would presume it wouldn’t. Not too many months prior to the McDonald’s campaign, Wendy’s took to the Twitter-sphere with #HeresTheBeef and encountered pretty much the same thing along with some obscene references to where it is. Subway and Taco Bell had their share of misfortune with Twitter as well.

According to a number of sources, the cost of promoting a trend on Twitter is $120,000 per day. While that can be cheaper than a television or print campaign, it is still a great deal of money to spend for a promotion in which disgruntled customers are given a forum to share their missives with the world at your expense. McDonald’s, to their credit, pulled the campaign shortly after the malice began and the number of posts to that hashtag dropped off almost immediately. Before they — or any company — jump on another social media bandwagon, though, they will hopefully do due diligence and think through what they are trying to accomplish and what could so easily backfire on them. I’m #justsaying.

Columns from Anderson University’s Falls School of Business usually appear Tuesdays. Today’s columnist is Emmett Dulaney, who teaches marketing and entrepreneurship.

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