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What we can learn from some of 2012’s biggest social media fails

Previously a darling of the social media scene, retailer Woolworths had its fair share of digital travails this year, from Halaal hot cross buns, to accusations of ripping off Frankie’s Olde Soft Drink Company, to calls for boycotts over perceived racist job adverts. But it was not alone. Around the world companies – in fact, very often retailers as well – had online conversations turn nasty.

In Woolworth’s case, things came to a head in September with calls for the stores to be boycotted after a so-called whistle-blower accused the company of being racist based on the content of its job ads. Woolworths replied that it, like all South African companies over a certain size, was legally obliged to comply with the country’s Employment Equity Act. But by then the storm in the teacup had spiralled out of control, and Woolworths eventually was forced to close its Facebook page to control the barrage of “hate speech” and “vitriol” people were spewing forth.

It makes one think of celebrities’ love-hate relationship with the paparazzi — the publicity is all very well when the schleb has a new movie to promote, but in the middle of a scandal that same fleet of photographers and fans suddenly becomes a curse.

In addition, commentators accused the company of being “factual if boring” in its response to the saga as well as being “very corporate, very reserved, very defensive, and not in keeping with social media marketing principles of engagement and two-way communication”. The relationship between social media and traditional corporate communications is still an uneasy one, with companies battling to navigate the expectations it creates with their online communities.

The biggest lesson here for Woolworths, and every other company engaging online, is not to underestimate the speed with which social media moves. Ian Moir, Woolworths CEO, said it himself in the wake of the Frankie’s affair: “If we’d had another chance we’d have acted quicker” he told BDLive.

A corollary lesson, however, is that the speed with which social media moves cuts both ways. If it weren’t for “year in review” type articles like this one, would anyone still remember any of this? Did anyone actually boycott Woolworths, and if they did, are they still doing so? Indeed, some of the anti-Woolworths Facebook groups don’t even exist anymore, by the looks of things.

But as mentioned, it was not only Woolworths that found itself virtually red-faced online this year. Hurricane Sandy was the catalyst for a number of online faux pas by retailers in the US for a range of reasons from no planning to badly misjudging the situation, to very poor taste.

EConsultancy slams US retailers Urban Outfitters for capitalising on the storm with a tweet offering free shipping for a limited period. Opportunistic definitely, but the #allsoggy hashtag was a low blow. The Atlantic Wire pounces on a few more ill-judged online posts by retailers during the hurricane: American Apparel for launching a 26-hour storm special in the states affected by Sandy, and Gap for posting a Foursquare check in to “Frankenstorm Apocalypse” that reminded people they can shop at their online store. The company later apologised explaining that the emphasis was intended to be on staying safe indoors.

While some might consider this crafty guerilla marketing, unfortunately for these brands trying to make money out of a disaster by selling something fairly frivolous and non-essential as a t-shirt was seen as a massive social media fail.

The takeaway? Have a plan. Double check that your clever plan isn’t going to backfire. And have another plan for when, even through no fault of your own, the bottom falls out of your social media world.

Author | Vanessa Clark

Vanessa Clark
Vanessa is a freelance journalist and copywriter based in Cape Town, South Africa. She’s been writing about technology since the last century, mostly looking at people, businesses and technology coming together to make something useful and interesting happen. When she’s not deciphering tech-speak, she’s probably running on a mountain... More
  • Hello Vanessa. Social media is powerful and a positive viral campaign can be VERY good for a company/brand. But as we all know, it can all go South very quickly. And in this case it’s not ‘There’s nothing as bad publicity’ or ‘Any publicity is good publicity’. But if (SA) have to name the company with the worst social media clout (or social media company contracted to them), it would probably be Woolworths (and their service providers). The lesson that they probably learned is that your eyes have to be on your account at all times.

    On another note, I liked the campaign on Twitter when Wimpy had their free breakfast. It was pretty cool how it helped spread the word and the campaign became viral very quickly. It also has to be South Africa’s most expensive campaign.

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  • Andy Walker

    Hi Mainevent, and thanks for the comment!

    Agreed. It’s definitely one of the slickest and easiest to use.

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