Social Media Marketing Gone BadWhen it’s done well, social media marketing is an awesome way for businesses to connect with their customers and establish a personality for their brand that goes beyond the standard buyer/seller relationship. When it’s done poorly… well, the results can be more painful than a mouthful of Brussels sprouts and aluminum foil. In honor of Friday the 13th, here are some examples of social media marketing efforts gone horribly, horribly wrong.

Cashing In on Natural Disaster

Hurricane Sandy was a terrible disaster that left hundreds of people dead and thousands more homeless. So naturally, some retailers figured this was the perfect opportunity to hawk their goods. Among the offenders were:

  • American Apparel, who sent out a mass email promoting their “Hurricane Sandy Sale,” where they offered their customers 20 percent off for the next 36 hours “in case you’re bored during the storm.”
  • Urban Outfitters, who promoted their free shipping on Twitter with the hashtag #ALLSOGGY and the message, “This storm blows (but free shipping doesn’t)! Today only…”
  • Jonathan Adler, who sent out emails inviting customers to “storm our site” and offered free shipping to those using the checkout code “SANDY.”
  • Gap, who took to Twitter to invite those impacted by Sandy to stay indoors and do their shopping on
  • President’s Choice, a food retailer who took the opportunity to link to a Halloween recipe with a tweet reading, “What’s scarier? Hurricane #Sandy or a beverage with marshmallow eyeballs?” Perhaps not the worst offender, but probably the strangest…

Takeaway: Tragedies need to be regarded as tragedies, not as marketing opportunities. If your business is commenting on an unfortunate event, make sure you keep it short, respectful, and free of advertising.

Oops, Was That Out Loud?

In some cases, it’s not crass merchandising that nails a social media campaign between the eyes, but rather off-brand messaging that gets revealed to the world at large. For example:

  • A Red Cross employee inadvertently tweeted, “Ryan found two more 4 bottle packs of Dogfish Head’s Midas Touch beer…. when we drink we do it right #gettngslizzerd.” Red Cross responded quickly and with good humor, posting, “We’ve deleted the rogue tweet but rest assured the Red Cross is sober and we’ve confiscated the keys.”
  • Followers of Vodafone UK’s Twitter account were shocked to see an obscene and homophobic tweet coming through their feed. Vodafone at first claimed that their account had been hacked, but the culprit was later discovered to be one of their own staff. Vodafone eventually owned up to the embarrassing incident and the employee was suspended.
  • Chrysler had employed an agency called New Media Strategies to handle their social media marketing. Unfortunately, somebody at the agency dropped an angry driving rant, complete with an f-bomb, on thousands of Chrysler’s followers on Twitter. The tweeter was fired, and Chrysler later announced they wouldn’t be renewing their contract with New Media Strategies.

Takeaway: Be careful about letting folks post, comment, or broadcast on behalf of your business or your brand. Even a harmless mistweet can cause damage to your online reputation, so make sure the folks representing you online are clear on messaging and intent.

Dallas Cowboys Lose

In 2012, the Dallas Cowboys were named the most valuable franchise in the NFL, with an estimated team value of $2.3 billion. The Boys earned $539 million in revenue in 2012, and recently struck a 25-year stadium naming rights deal with AT&T for an estimated $500 million. I tell you all of this only to provide a little context for the following.

In 2007, the domain name was up for auction. A bidder, calling on behalf of Jerry Jones and the Cowboys organization, placed a winning bid of $275,000. Unfortunately, due to a misunderstanding, this bidder actually thought he was getting the domain for $275. When they learned the actual price, the Boys decided to pass. The domain name was purchased by another bidder, who unveiled this year as a dating site for the “country western cowboy looking for a man to ride into the sunset with.”

Takeaway: For an organization as wealthy as the Dallas Cowboys, is $275,000 really all that exorbitant when it comes to managing your online brand?

Progressive Insurance Appears to Side with Policy Holder’s Killer

In June 2010, a young woman was driving home in Baltimore when another driver ran a red light and collided with her, killing her. The other driver was underinsured so, although his policy did pay, her family was still left with considerable debt. Although the woman’s insurance policy was supposed to cover her in the event of an accident with an underinsured driver, Progressive refused to pay.

In the state of Maryland, it’s illegal to sue an insurance company for not paying, so the woman’s family was required to sue the driver who had caused the accident and prove his negligence in court. And so, to make sure their interests were being looked after, Progressive sent their own attorney to sit in with the defense. The woman’s brother, a New York comedian named Matt Fischer, took umbrage to this and wrote in a blog article, “If you are insured by Progressive, and they owe you money, they will defend your killer in court in order to not pay your policy.”

The blog post went viral, and Progressive lost thousands of customers. It was only after the jury ruled against the defendant and Progressive was forced to settle that they attempted to defend their actions. And although they explained in a statement that their attorney wasn’t there to defend the other driver, but to look after Progressive’s interests, it came off more like a rationale than a reason.

The problem was compounded by Progressive’s robo-tweets, which just kept churning out the same trite response every time somebody posted to Twitter about the incident:

This is a tragic case, and our sympathies go out to Mr. Fischer and his family for the pain they’ve had to endure. We fully investigated this claim and relevant background, and feel we properly handled the claim within our contractual obligations.

Takeaway: Perception matters, and the purpose of social media marketing is to put a human face on your business. If you don’t want people to think of you as a soulless bureaucracy, then don’t publicly behave like a soulless bureaucracy.

McDonald’s #Hashtag Becomes a #Bashtag

It started with the best of intentions, but McDonald’s attempts at social media engagement quickly went sour. The fast food conglomerate had just introduced its fresh-produce campaign to Twitter through promoted tweets using the hashtags #MeetTheFarmers and #McDStories. The idea, presumably, was to encourage fans to share warm memories and nostalgic tales about the good times they had shared with friends and family at McDonald’s.

Unfortunately, the Twitterverse was in no mood to play nicely. Within minutes, the #McDStories tag had been hijacked and thousands of users were sharing horror stories involving food poisoning, drug use, and projectile vomiting—often within the same tweet. McDonald’s yanked the campaign after just a couple of hours, but the #McDStories tag refused to die and is still in wide use, much to the company’s chagrin.

Takeaway: Social media engenders a mob mentality, and all it takes is a handful of people behaving badly to lose control of your marketing efforts. If you’re going to base your campaign around a hashtag, make sure your market is going to respond positively.

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