For all the praise that brand advertisers have for social media, they must be aware that it's very much a double-edged sword. And for all the free marketing, advertising and brand promotion via Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, and other platforms used to help build an identity and relationship with your customers, it can just as quickly turn on you and your brand.
Social media disasters occur for a number of reasons, the first being that your company probably messed up. It may not have been intentional, but something, somewhere down the line, went wrong enough for someone to complain and was wrong enough for others to vocalizing that complaint en masse. One mistake is all it takes for social media to turn against your brand.
No one is perfect and you can't expect to please everyone all the time, so the best trick is to be prepared for how to handle things if your company finds itself under attack in the social realm. Here are three examples of companies who were attacked by social media and how they handled, or should have handled the situation. Learn from their mistakes or successes so you can stay on social media's good side.
1. Ann Taylor
This past July, LOFT, a brand owned by Ann Taylor Inc., posted photos on its Facebook page of a tall, blonde model wearing LOFT's new silk cargo pants, with a click-to-buy link in the captions.
What happened next is a perfect example of how social media can suddenly turn on you, even when you've done nothing "wrong," or seemingly out of the ordinary. Fans of the brand complained that while the pants looked good on the model, they weren't so flattering on anyone who wasn't 5'10 and stick thin.
Fans requested that LOFT prove their pants could look good on "real women." And they did. The following day, the company posted photos to Facebook again, this time with their own staff posing in the pants. The "real women" came from different company departments and ranged from a size 2 to size 12, and in height from 5'3" to 5'10".
What to Learn from Ann Taylor
This is a perfect example of how to turn a possible threat via social media into an opportunity. Ann Taylor had the good sense to stop the attack before it escalated. Here customers had a direct and valid complaint about a product and how it was featured. The company did the best thing possible, they stayed calm and listened to the comments. They took the comments into consideration and came up with a constructive resolution.
By responding to Fan requests to post photos of women of different sizes wearing the pants, the company proved that they really do listen and care about their customer concerns, and they were able to back up the product. It's a double win for Ann Taylor as they actually gained customer support, while avoiding a potential disaster.
2. Southwest Airlines
This past February, Southwest Airlines kicked director Kevin Smith off a flight from San Francisco headed to Los Angeles for being too fat. Smith had apparently failed the armrest test, meaning that because he couldn't fit between the two armrests, he would have to purchase an extra seat. Since he was flying standby and the plane was full, there were no extra seats for him to purchase and he was asked to get off the plane, and was offered a $100 voucher by the airline, but the incident was far from over.
While it's somewhat refreshing that Southwest provides the same customer service to all their customers regardless of their level of fame, it might not have been the best idea to tick off someone who is very vocal on Twitter and has 1.6 million followers.
Smith countered that he wasn't large enough to be the safety risk Southwest claimed he was, and he tweeted up a storm that caused a social media disaster. According to Position², a search and social media marketing firm, in a span of six days, the incident generated 3,043 blog mentions, 5,133 forum posts and 15,528 tweets.
For their part, Southwest was quick to respond -- 16 minutes after Smith's first tweet regarding the incident, they tweeted: "@ThatKevinSmith hey Kevin! I'm so sorry for your experience tonight! Hopefully we can make things right, please follow so we may DM!"
Of course, it didn't stop there as Smith continued rant-tweeting about six tweets for every one response from the airline. The tweets finally stopped as Southwest posted the whole story, including a briefing of a later conversation with Smith, explaining to others what had happened on the plane, and the company's explanation for why it happened, which included an apology.
What to Learn from Too Fat to Fly
Southwest had a plan, which is something that is necessary if you want to avoid being burned by social media. They monitored their online presence, quickly identified a problem brewing, and responded in a quick and friendly manner.
Because of this, many of the responses on their own blog were sympathetic to the company's side of the incident. Not only did the company apologize, but they offered a refund as they had clearly embarrassed a customer. But they also made sure to take the opportunity to restate their police of requiring larger customers to purchase two seats, so as to make people understand why the incident occurred in the first place.
Make sure your company is alert and monitoring your presence on social media sites, and make sure you are ready with a plan to remedy the situation. Here, responding quickly saved the company a lot of time and effort later.
3. Pretzel Crisps
Most recently Pretzel Crisps launched an ad campaign in New York City with four slogans, including "You can never be too thin." The campaign launched in early August with that slogan gracing bus shelters and ad stands and caught the attention of the blogosphere after a photo was posted online.
The photo was re-posted to the women's blog Jezebel and was followed by condemning posts, tweets, and videos from other bloggers. In fact, I was one of the people who vocalized a problem with this particular campaign. The slogan the company picked is a "thinspiration" motto used by the pro-anorexic community, and was called "irresponsible" and accused of promoting unhealthy weight loss.
The company responded first on Twitter to offended tweeters with replies of, "Thin just happens to be a good word to describe the shape of our product." As outrage escalated the VP of Marketing participated in interviews with bloggers and explained, that they were a small company and simply wanted to launch an ad that would grab people's attention. As bloggers continued to post, a video made its rounds of one New Yorker's protest calling the ads a "disgrace" and listing facts about eating disorders.
The same day, Pretzel Crisps sent out an e-mail to bloggers thanking them for their feedback, as well as tweeting, "We didn't intend to advocate unhealthy weight loss with our ads. Thanks to all for the feedback. The ads will be taken down asap."
The blogosphere rejoiced feeling that they actually accomplished something, only to learn that the company replaced the offending ad with another play on a pro-anorexic slogan, "Tastes as good as skinny feels," from the initial campaign.
Further outrage from bloggers was met this time with the brush off: "While dialoging with some of the bloggers, I mentioned that ‘you can never be too thin' was just one of four tag lines that we had running throughout the city...The only one that people commented on was the ‘too thin' ad. So we removed them and replaced them with one of the other three."
The ultimate fallout from the campaign is still yet to be seen, and many blog commenters agree that it was probably the company's goal to anger people and get the free publicity. But is free publicity really worth tweets like, "Congratulations; you have ruined your product for me forever with your pro-ana ad slogans. It's too bad--I loved you," and "How can you people sleep at night? No matter how you may try to justify it, you are promoting eating disorders."
What To Learn From Pretzelgate 2010
For all intents and purposes, Pretzel Crisps did a great job of responding to a social media attack on their product. They directly and individually responded to complaints over Twitter, and made themselves available for interviews.
The company offered their reasoning, and then listened to the reaction of the blogosphere. They took responsibility, they apologized, and they swiftly took action to fix the problem.
And then they messed up: they lied. They lied and they refused to understand why their other ad was just as offensive as the one that had been taken down. The company claimed they didn't receive any negative reaction towards the other campaign slogans, which simply wasn't true.
If you want to maintain integrity, you need to be honest and transparent, and if you're not, your customers won't want anything to do with you. Honestly is the best policy. Your company needs to be open and take cues from its customers, and know when it's time to quit.
These three case studies illustrate how your brands should (or should not) handle a social media crisis. Let us know which tips you've learned along the way in the comments below.
Image courtesy of iStockphoto, KLH49