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Balletta: Lessons From McDonald's McFail Campaign - How to Prevent Social Media Bashtags

Nick Balletta|CEO of TalkPoint
Tuesday, 31 Jan 2012 | 10:22 AM ET

By now, most of you have heard the marketing horror stories of the infamous McDonald’s Twitterdebacle. (Read story here)

McDonald's Meal
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McDonald's Meal

It continues to amaze me that some of the greatest minds in marketing continue trying to “make the shoe fit.”

The genesis of social media, and the initial excitement, was that it created an online forum for raw, immediate, visceral expression.

However, it is counterintuitive for these marketing executives to think they can channel that spontaneity into their well thought out, focus-group tested, messaging campaigns. With the attempt at spontaneity, often comes some backlash, and organizations need to do their homework before a social media campaign begins.

Tip: Have a “Plan B”- Arrange for a social media contingency plan at the beginning of your campaign should your initiative not go as expected. Be prepared to quickly change course (e.g. pull the campaign, adjust the terms of participation, etc.) should the social elements of the plan result in a more “socially awkward” situation.

McDonald’s strategy with #MeetTheFarmers and #McDStories was to promote the company’s use of fresh produce from farmers and engage customers to share positive experiences with McDonald’s food. I’m sure McDonald’s did not intend to create a large online complaint department including posts about illness, weight gain, chipped teeth and fingernails in food. Unfortunately, people like to complain more than compliment. In my experience (not scientific), it’s about a 10 to one ratio of complaints to compliments. When was the last time you phoned the cable or electric company when all was going well just to tell them “great job”? The converse is also true: one “ah shoot” wipes out about 10 “atta boys.”

Tip: Play devil’s advocate – Before introducing a social media campaign, consider the potential pitfalls and look for gaps in your strategy. Are any hashtags, handles or terms too vague? Do they lend themselves to damaging reactions or postings?

So, why use Twitter?

The reason McDonald’s chose to utilize social media is because it’s a great way for organizations to connect with its customers, garner feedback and give its audience a “voice.” But, will the intended audience always utilize social media to use this voice? Unfortunately, the answer is no. People who like McDonald’s might not post their fondness for the brand on Twitter or Facebook. Those who like McDonald’s will always like it even if they don’t admit it. I’ve never heard someone attending a cocktail party on the Upper East Side of Manhattan mention they were excited about the resurgence of the McRib. Yet deep down, maybe they are—I know I am!

Tip: Consider the public perception of your brand – What are your brand’s strengths? Weaknesses? Who is the social media user that may be participating? What are they likely to post? Ensure that the social media campaign is not an open door for the public to post grievances with your company or highlight the weaknesses. If you think that a social media initiative may result in more negative feedback than a discussion of your organization’s assets, you may need to tailor your social media outreach to better reach your intended audience.

Social media, both for internal corporate consumption and for external marketing, has its place. It’s a useful forum to engage customers, and McDonald’s has probably run several Twitter campaigns that its agencies and marketing professionals deemed a success. I’m sure they can even cite statistics on the campaigns in question that overwhelmingly point to more positive feedback than negative.

Organizations just need to properly plan on the front end or they must be prepared for the media to focus on the “ah shoots” of its social media campaign. The “ah shoots” get all the attention.

Perhaps McDonald’s should take advantage of this coverage. Own it! Create a hashtag called #McDComplaints and make this a repository for all the activists and haters. Spoof yourself before SNL does. In the meantime, don’t give up on social media and keep up the good work; we’re all still “lovin’ it!”

Nick Balletta is CEO of TalkPoint, an industry leader in global communications technology. With more than 25 years of experience in media and technology, he is a pioneer in the field of unified communications and interactive webcasting.

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