13 ways social media can backfire (and what to do)

Your hashtag gets hijacked, an employee goes rogue, and other social media horror stories.


Social media brings every marketer’s worst fears to the fore. It’s no surprise, since social media provides every consumer with his or her own megaphone to let others know about an organization’s smallest flaws.

Here are 13 ways your organization, product or brand can be unlucky, either intentionally or unintentionally, through the use of social media:

1. A lot of followers unlike your Facebook page. While this can happen for a variety of reasons, the top reason followers unlike companies is because they only liked them to receive a special promotion. They leave after they receive it.

2. You only receive spam comments. This can happen when you don’t promote your social media presence, or when no one’s interested in it. It can happen to your blog if you haven’t posted in a while, or don’t have a social media tribe. Here’s how to get a massive amount of comments.

3. You get a lot of negative mentions. This isn’t subtle. Your prospects, customers and the public believe you’re doing something wrong or illegal. Before you respond, examine what people are saying and why they’re upset. Once you understand the issue, show you listened and fix it.

Cook Source faced this problem on its Facebook page after its editor plagiarized a blogger’s content. Instead of admitting the wrongdoing, the editor fought back. This eventually caused the magazine to fold.

4. You argue with customers about their complaints. You’ll never win by trying to out shout a customer. Where appropriate, respond concisely on the platform the customer used to complain and, if possible, privately reach out to the customer to make good. Use this opportunity to show you’re responsive to your customers.

5. A video about your firm goes viral for the wrong reasons. Videos of Dominos employees adding personal ingredients to a pizza went viral. To Domino’s credit, senior management took this incident seriously and tried to respond via the same social media channels. Here are Pete Blackshaw’s commentary and ReadWriteWeb’s analysis.

6. Employees’ personal communication blunders are on social media. When this happens, you’ve got an Anthony Weiner moment. To mitigate the problem, the guilty party should admit the wrongdoing as soon as possible. Take a lesson from the congressman and stay away from all inappropriate media involvement, social and otherwise.

7. The spotlight is on a rogue employee. Think of JetBlue flight attendant Steve Slater’s emergency exit. In most cases, this is beyond an organization’s control. It can happen without social media. In a social media world, an employee like Slater can attract a large audience in a short period of time. With a number of legal and regulatory organizations involved, JetBlue was limited in its ability to respond.

8. An employee ignites a bad meme with a comment. Mitt Romney’s campaign adviser Eric Fehrnstrom commented, “Well, I think you hit a reset button for the fall campaign. Everything changes. It’s almost like an Etch-A-Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and restart all over again.” While bad news for the Romney campaign, it was good Etch-A-Sketch sales.

9. Someone unintentionally catches something on film. With expanded use and platforms for photographs and videos, this is likely to become a more common problem. Someone snaps a photo or takes a video, and catches something they shouldn’t. Sarah Palin’s video pardoning the Thanksgiving turkey with someone slaughtering others in the background was more than unfortunate.

10. Someone highjacks your hashtag for another purpose. A prime example of this happened to McDonald’s. Its Twitter campaign used the hashtags #McDStories and #MeetTheFarmers with promoted tweets. After using #McDStories twice, McDonalds realized people upset with the firm and its food quality were trashing it. McDonald’s stopped using the hashtag. Although McDonald’s reacted quickly, people continued to use the hashtag.

11. Someone creates a social media spoof of your marketing. With the array of social media tools and platforms, consumers can create content that’s equal to or better than yours. A prime example was the spoof on BP’s Twitter account. By contrast, Cisco’s spoof of the Old Spice guy with Ted from accounting was a #fail.

12. You pull a bait-and-switch on social media influencers. Do you really think people on social media are stupid? ConAgra did when it asked food bloggers to attend a special chef’s dinner at a restaurant only to serve them Marie Callendar’s frozen food. (Read the results for yourself.) Understand that the public collectively is as smart—or smarter—than you. Don’t try to pull a fast one. It’s likely to backfire.

13. You take the ostrich approach to social media. If you ignore the signs of a social media firestorm and assume it will go away, you’re asking for trouble. In most cases, by the time you realize you have a social media problem it’s too late to contain it. It’s better to be prepared to respond.

Social media is a challenge for marketers because it contains the potential for an issue or consumer complaint to gather a broad audience quickly. Regardless of how involved your organization is in social media, problems will pop up. To ensure you’re ready to react, have social media guidelines, a PR crisis plan, and social media monitoring in place.

What other ways can a company be unlucky in social media?

Heidi Cohen is president of Riverside Marketing Strategies. Follow her on Twitter @heidicohen.

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