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What Makes a Great Social Media Campaign?

  |  March 12, 2008   |  Comments

Lessons from the 10 worst social media campaigns.

Listening to Blogads founder Henry Copeland's "Worst Ten Social Media Campaigns of 2007" panel at this year's SXSW Interactive Festival, I realized that most of the worst could have been among the best campaigns if they'd been thought through from a social perspective. I say "most" because there were a couple that were simply wrong; nothing, short of not doing them, would have made a difference. For the others, some social savvy would have paid big dividends.

Going forward, discovering how the campaigns failed isn't useful. Charlotte Selles, panelist and global brand manager for Jim Beam, put it this way: "Given a plainly wrong choice upfront, there isn't a lot to learn in measuring what happened after that." She suggested instead looking at why they failed, getting clear about exactly what "wrong choice" was made and taking care not to repeat it. There were three specific errors leading to failure for these campaigns:

  • Lack of transparency. In this bucket are campaigns like Cisco's "Human Network" Wikipedia entry and both HP's and Wal-Mart's paid blogging programs.

  • Poor execution. Here we find Agency.com's Subway sandwich pitch, a Molson campaign, and Vespa's Vespaway blog.

  • Poor brand identification. This is when you have a great campaign and incredible pass-around, yet it's not clear what brand paid for it all. The campaign? Carlton's "Biggest Beer Ad" pushed onto YouTube. Write the name of that beer down.

Reasons for Failure

Let's look at what failed, and why.

First, transparency. This was responsible for the bulk of the 10 worst, including both finalists. This isn't surprising: lying is about the most offensive error a marketer can make. Marketers, long used to being in control of the message, pay little attention to transparency because it's a given that the message is an ad. On the social Web, however, this distinction must be made clear lest it be confused with genuine conversation. The social Web is incredibly good at shining bright lights into dark corners, and inevitably the marketer-generated conversations are identified. "Sunlight," as the saying goes, "is the best disinfectant." Count "transparency" as rule number one on the social Web. Wal-Mart's "Blogging Across America" and Cisco's "Human Network" campaigns were hit hard by a lack of basic transparency, an oversight not lost on panelist Jeff Jarvis. It was painful to watch the clip of an ad exec introducing the campaign as he struggled through his delivery with rationalizing phrases like "organic socialization" (a.k.a., "paid blogging"). Even he didn't appear to buy it.

What would have made these campaigns winners? Being open and honest. At my son's elementary school, the marquee this month features this thought: "Half of the truth is a whole lie." Both of these campaigns actually presented truthful content, while obscuring origins and motives. Consider the Wal-Mart campaign: instead of hiding the fact that the campaign was associated with Wal-Mart, it could have made that the central point. It could have featured Wal-Mart and its policy of allowing RVers to stay overnight for free in any Wal-Mart parking lot. It could have built that into a reality-TV-on-the-Web series. Same for Cisco. The Human Network is kind of a cool idea. But a stealth Wikipedia entry? Paid bloggers? We expect more from the firm whose hardware basically runs the Internet.

Under poor execution, we saw a couple of doozies. Agency.com gets credit for trying an innovative approach to pitching Subway. It actually used the tools it sells its clients on. Kudos for eating your own dog food.

Social media can be tough, and it's great to see a smart agency dig in and try it. The problem was execution: it was limp. I'm not sure if was too cheesy or not cheesy enough. As Steve Hall, Adrants founder and panelist, put it: "The problem was that it was embarrassing to the ad industry, where stuff like what they portrayed really does happen." A bit more over the top and it might have worked. It could have been hilarious.

Execution is everything. Molson ran a decent social campaign by most accounts, but it failed by inadvertently encouraging (or at least appearing to encourage) binge drinking, something clearly at odds with Molson's actual policy. The lesson here is to pay attention to current real-world social issues when planning an online social media campaign.

Then there was Vespa, which deserted its campaign-built blog, leaving it to slowly die and giving rise to what panelist and ClickZ Network editor-in-chief Rebecca Lieb called "derelict blog" syndrome. It was shame to see participants, who once powered the blog, slowly lose interest when they realized their efforts weren't being supported. They turned negative, and the results are now forever captured in the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine. Preventing derelict blogs is easy: Either craft a plan to continue the campaign if a real community takes hold (always a nice outcome!), or thank everyone, turn the lights out, and lock the doors.

Finally, one of the most basic mistakes of all: an idea so big, so great, so absolutely huge that the actual brand got lost. I've seen this ad a dozen times, and I laugh every time. But even in writing this column, I had to confirm the name of the beer it's designed to promote. Make no mistake: this is great entertainment. But search for this one on YouTube and you'll find it listed under both Carlton Draught (the actual brand) and Carlson Beer (a competitor). Perhaps that's actually the brilliance of the campaign. I'm clearly talking about it and spreading the word, and if you look for the competitor's brand you'll find Carlton. Maybe "New Coke" was planned from the start to reinforce the Classic audience, too.

Avoid Failure

How do you avoid these errors? Here are my suggestions:

  • Think through your disclosure plan ahead of time. There's nothing wrong with a playful deception. Think about a punch line that's revealed only after some period, perhaps a week or two. That's fine. The problem isn't the deception itself; it's the intention to permanently deceive. If your campaign doesn't have a stated disclosure plan at the outset, either rethink it or do something different.

  • Pay attention to social norms. Remember, your campaign is likely to be acted on in real life. To the extent you can, be sure that likely real-life extensions are in line with brand standards, as they will (by design) become part of your social media campaign.

  • Make sure the brand is clearly positioned. The conversation that results from the ad is the payoff for integrated campaigns' social components. If the brand is incorrectly identified, it's a wasted opportunity.

In the end, using social media components in your campaigns requires the same planning as any other campaign, combined with an acute social sensibility. Don't think about pushing a message to a mass audience; think about having a conversation with one person. Think about that person as if she had all the campaign information in front of her. Because on the social Web, sooner or later she will. What then?


Dave Evans

Dave is the VP of social strategy at Lithium. Based in Austin, Dave is also the author of best-selling "Social Media Marketing: An Hour a Day," as well as "Social Media Marketing: The Next Generation of Business Engagement." Dave is a regular columnist for ClickZ, a frequent keynoter, and leads social technology and measurement workshops with the American Marketing Association as well as Social Media Executive Seminars, a C-level business training provider.

Dave has worked in social technology consulting and development around the world: with India's Publicis|2020media and its clients including the Bengaluru International Airport, Intel, Dell, United Brands, and Pepsico and with Austin's FG SQUARED and GSD&M| IdeaCity and clients including PGi, Southwest Airlines, AARP, Wal-Mart, and the PGA TOUR. Dave serves on the advisory boards for social technology startups including Palo Alto-based Friend2Friend and Mountain View-based Netbase and iGoals.

Prior, Dave was a co-founder of social customer care technology provider Social Dynamx, a product manager with Progressive Insurance, and a systems analyst with NASA| Jet Propulsion Labs. Dave co-founded Digital Voodoo, a web technology consultancy, in 1994. Dave holds a BS in physics and mathematics from the State University of New York/ Brockport and has served on the Advisory Board for ad:tech and the Measurement and Metrics Council with WOMMA.

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