How Sweden’s risky Twitter experiment paid dividends

Not every brand hands over its tweeting responsibilities to citizen bloggers. Most would panic when controversy boiled over. But @Sweden likes the results.

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The social media stewards at most organizations clutch the keys to their Twitter feeds so tightly, you could never pry them loose.

But in Sweden, an entire nation—or, at least, two organizations that promote the country abroad—offers a series of ordinary citizens the chance to staff its @Sweden Twitter account.

With citizen “curators” tweeting about masturbation and picking fights with WikiLeaks, the project has stirred up all the controversy you’d expect. (And, yes. Hitler did come up. We’ll get to that.)

What emerged was a Twitter feed as complex as a nation and, with it, a public relations boon, says Patrick Kampmann, one of the co-founders of the agency Volontaire, which heads the project. The project generated a measured PR value of over $40 million, bringing Sweden to the attention of millions around the world.

Though it has spurred imitators all over the globe, @Sweden’s publicity isn’t the kind every organization covets. Still, when The New York Times covers you on page one and Stephen Colbert begs you to let him take over your Twitter feed for a week, you know you’ve gone big time.

@Sweden’s project may seem like an experiment in brand anarchy, especially after Forbes accused it of turning its account over to a troll (see Hitler, below). But Volontaire’s Kampmann says one thing that “we believe fundamentally is that brands should let go.”

Volontaire’s clients were VisitSweden, which promotes tourism, and the Swedish Institute, a public agency that pushes interest and confidence in Sweden around the world.

How do you control it?

If you ask how to control it, you probably don’t get the concept. In a film clip played by Kampmann, Maria Ziv, marketing director for VisitSweden, brushes aside a reporter’s question about control.

“We don’t want to control it,” she says. “I mean, I think the whole point with this project is that we want it to be open. We want the curators that we have to be free to speak their mind and to talk about Sweden from their perspective.”

One of @Sweden’s greatest controversies so far came from a guest tweeter named Sonja Abrahamsson (“27-year old womanlike human being from northern Sweden”), who tweeted, “Before WW2 Hitler was one of the most beautiful names in the whole wide world. I know. Its as chocking as dolphin rapists.” (N.B.: Typos are in the original.)

She also found time to ruminate: “What’s the fuzz with jews. You can’t even see if a person is a jew, unless you see their penises, and even if you do, you can’t be sure!?”

New York’s Daily News reported “@Sweden Twitter account provokes outrage with ‘Jew’ rant.” Some labeled @Sweden’s project as one of the worst PR blunders of last year.

Others take a different view

The New Yorker, however, stated that “the angry commenters who took issue with Abrahamsson’s tweets failed to closely examine their content; though ignorant and sometimes distasteful, they by and large reflected curiosity and open-mindedness rather than bigotry.” A similar point was made by Abraham H. Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League.

The unusual approach was clear from the first tweet. The organizers wanted to make sure that everybody knew that the account was uncensored. The first guest left no question about that, Kampmann says.

The tweeter, channeling two wild and crazy guys from Czechoslovakia, wrote, “Listen up, folks! I’m @kwasbeb, a regular swedish dude, and I’m taking over this goddamned account for a week! Expect bad sex and slapstick.”

You guessed it: He’s the one who confessed what activities keep lonely Swedes busy on long winter nights. (Gizmodo screamed, ” Sweden Gives Full Control of Official Twitter Account to Candid Masturbator. “) He also didn’t hesitate to criticize establishments by name, tweeting, “if you ever come to Stockholm, do not- I repeat do not – visit that worthless Ice Bar.”

“He gave tips on what to do and what not to do in Stockholm, so basically down-selling some of the attractions,” Kampmann says.

Bashing the government and WikiLeaks

Other participants included an organic sheep farmer who tweeted photos of his fuzzy beasts. @Sweden drew fire when it recruited a popular hockey blogger who had gotten himself in trouble three years earlier with comments about gays. (He apologized, and @Sweden considered him forgiven.)

If anyone was hoping for a quieter week when a female priest took the helm, they were disappointed in largely secular Sweden.

“A lot of atheists in Sweden thought that was ridiculous,” Kampmann says, “but she basically gave us a glimpse of her life as a priest.”

One tweeter took a baseball bat (or maybe a Viking cudgel) to the government for, in his view, insufficiently supporting two Swedish journalists who were arrested in Ethiopia.

From the @Sweden account he wrote, “I’m shocked and appalled by the verdict against#ethiopiaswedes,” adding in a follow-up, “But I’m even more appalled, and outright saddened by the actions – or non-actions – by our foreign minister @carlbildt through this ordeal.”

Again, media took note.

Controversy is fine if it’s your brand’s cup of tea. But do you really want to pick a fight with an organization known for airing the world’s darkest secrets?

Yet that’s just what one @Sweden participant did, tweeting on his last night: “So, any final questions, insults or anything else you’d like to add? (Will block anyone mentioning [WikiLeaks activist Julian] Assange).”

The leaker organization quickly reacted, Kampmann says. @WikiLeaks retorted, “We have discovered some very interesting information about @Sweden,” following up with the news that the guest tweeter had a background, some years back, in military PR.

No! Swedes gleefully took to using an #swedenfacts hashtag to ridicule WikiLeaks. They offered further examples of “very interesting information” about Sweden: “It’s not the same as Switzerland,” “The most popular dog name is ‘Hundjävel,'” and “We killed Descartes.”(The French philosopher and mathematician René Descartes died of an illness in Stockholm in 1650.)

Despite the serial ruckuses, the @Sweden experiment has been widely imitated. For those eager to dip a toe into shark-filled waters, it helps to plan. @Sweden picks guests who aren’t celebrities and who will enrich the discussion, Kampmann says.

Guidelines? Are you kidding? Of course there are guidelines. Two of them:

  • @sweden must be tolerant
  • @sweden must be multifaceted

The rewards can be great. Among manifold media mentions, between June 18 and July 1 last year, “The Colbert Report” aired three segments on @Sweden, totaling 15 minutes. Colbert even started an online campaign, Operation Artificial Swedener, demanding to become a guest tweeter on @sweden.

Then again, don’t use citizen participants if you can’t take jokes that run down your brand—such as this one from Colbert: “Soon, Sweden will crumble under our onslaught like an Ikea bookshelf under a book.”

@r_working (Image via)

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