‘Retweet to win’ contests damage a brand

The local social media scene is awash with companies, brands and personalities diving in and trying their hand at this new “engagement” thing. And while there’s nothing wrong with that — the age-old strategic (nay, common sense) principles will always stand.

People commit to something based on shared value. People are people, they have emotions and don’t react the way you think they might. People don’t always want to engage with you. People need you to understand that there’s a time, a place and a medium. People want better products over more prizes, deeper engagement or clever communication – always.

It’s into this torrent of social buzz that Afrihost has dipped its proverbial promotional pen, again. Their first Twitter promotion involved following the CEO to enter a competition. I didn’t approve, but after an understanding tweet from CEO Gian Visser, I wrote it off to experimentation. Let’s face it, you don’t build a community by buying followers. Not a permanent, value-based community at least.

The next effort broke recently, and involves retweeting the hastag #AfrihostRelaunch and a Bit.Ly link in order to enter. The competition mechanic also allows you to retweet this combo as many times as you like, for as many entries as you like. This has resulted in a flood of entrants from around the burgeoning South African Twitter-sphere.

A quick search on Twendz showed that Afrihost were hitting over 103 tweets per hour (at least when I checked on 14 September 2010). You might think this qualifies as a major success? Everyone’s talking! Everyone’s entering… but think about what that means.

Twitter has a follow mechanic. If I have 10 “friends” that enter that competition 10 times — that means I’m going to see 100 Afrihost entries in my stream of information. This is a stream that I value for news, links, current events, contextual opinion and engagement with various industries. Now, it feels like my cell number is on the receiving end of a popular short code SMS campaign. And I don’t even send tweets to SMS. Heaven forbid.

Let’s have a look at what is fundamentally wrong with this approach, from a marketing strategy point of view, and then perhaps at one or two suggestions. Frustration with this competition has led to quite a bit of commentary on Twitter – but sadly, there are a lot more entries than there are indignant people.

Fundamentally, this is interruption marketing (hats off to Walter Pike for highlighting this term for me). Interruption marketing is archaic. It’s the nail that appears before every man with a hammer. It’s the battleship of communication. Radio, TV and sponsorship are all interruption techniques: take an experience and insert yourself into it, in the hopes that enough insertion will increase awareness. It’s intrusive and seems to work less and less effectively in this message saturated world we live in. 

Imagine a six year old, screaming “Afrihost Afrihost Afrihost Afrihost” into your ear. That’s how interruption marketing can come across on a conversational platform.

By using this competiton mechanic, Afrihost aren’t guaranteeing themselves any opt-in opportunity. A tweet does not allow them to contact me in future, so aside from irritating people – or at the most causing a bit of buzz amongst those who don’t find this info-overload offensive – the competition doesn’t seem to have legs.

A visit to TwitterCounter shows an increase in followers to @Afrihost of about 100 in the last 3 months.

They’re neither driving a brand position nor a value proposition. The content lacks context. All I get from it is that there’s a relaunch. The sheer volume induced by the mechanic doesn’t exactly encourage me to click through to their site. I haven’t yet…

These kind of competitions hurt the social graphs of your customers. That’s a dangerous space for a brand to play in: creating a mechanic that causes their potential customers to piss off their friends. The first person I publicly unfollowed (for retweeting 10 competitions entries in the space of a minute) came back with a concerning statement: “I’m on twitter to follow, not to be followed”. Chew on that one.

While many have commented that Afrihost aren’t to blame for the behaviour of Twitter users in South Africa – they’re certainly the ones that started it. And their brand is associated, not only with every inane competition entry, but also with every negative comment of the periphery that is being pulled into the grand relaunch, whether they like it or not.

While innovation and experimentation can be great for a brand it has to be weighed against the potential risk of negative search rankings. I wouldn’t put this near the top of the list, for it’s merely the chance of a perception change should someone be searching for your brand. But it can’t be ignored. Toddle on over to Google’s filter by updates (you’ll find this option down the left column) and have a look at the keyword “spam” that is starting to creep in.

It gets even more interesting as you change the date filter from today, to September, to 2010. I’m not entirely sure how the Google tweet-ranking algorithm works, but a comment of mine is top for 2010. And it’s not a nice one either.

These kind of contests populate the web with shallow, duplicated content. Someday, Twitter is going to be able to index and return the instant wisdom of millions in a search result. And not just searching today – but searching history. You think Google search results are getting over-SEO’d and difficult to sift through? Try Twitter in a year if these mechanics persist.

And what’s worse? They’re not selling bandwidth or positioning their company against the myriad of small bandwidth players starting to crop up, post the arrival of the SEACOM cable. And isn’t that their game, after all? Isn’t that what marketing is meant to achieve?

If you must run competitions via Twitter, and please, think very carefully before you do, then here are a couple of things to consider:

  • Allow one entry only. It’s still not perfect, but will decrease the spam factor considerably
  • Make the entry add context, or at least humour to the Twitter stream. Complete a sentence, invent a word, give an opinion.
  • Even better, encourage contribution that could actually benefit your users. Research a topic, share insight, write a post, point out links, find a picture.

And finally, if you have to prod to keep the momentum going (and this is something we inevitably have to do as marketers), then curate the content and context that is flowing in. Pick out the gems and retweet them. Add something to my life. Give me a reason to check you out. Give me a reason to love your brand.

Or get out of my conversation.



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