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Learn From Others' Social Media Mistakes

  |  October 12, 2011   |  Comments

Companies like Kenneth Cole and Aflac have made some very public social media blunders this year that have given the marketing world some lessons learned.

Every year companies take risks with their marketing efforts and every year inevitably there are some big blunders made. Whether it's by not fully understanding their audience, marketing channels, or even technologies, these blunders are so famous that they've made the front headlines of Mashable, TechCrunch, or major outlets like CNN, ABC, and the like.

While these very public blunders were painful for these companies to muddle through, and for some employees and agencies it saw them looking for new jobs or new clients, it gives the marketing world some poignant lessons learned.

Train Your Staff

Even your CEO is not high enough on the proverbial ladder to be taken down a rung or two. Just ask Kenneth Cole, the CEO of his namesake fashion company. If utilizing a passionate hashtag (#cairo) in a very insensitive way wasn't enough, his apology was even worse because it was on a totally different platform then where he offended the masses. Had someone taken the time to train Mr. Cole about the Twitter community as a whole, someone might not have taken his tweet, made a window cling of it, and placed it on a Kenneth Cole store in San Francisco.

Take a lesson from Zappos: before any of your employees start engaging on any online marketing channel (Twitter, Facebook, Wikipedia, message boards, YouTube, etc.), make sure they are trained and understand not only your own messaging but the sensitivities of your audience and the community at large.

Understand the Marketing Channels

While more geared to search marketing and understanding SEO, there's still a bit of social media rooted in the situation Republican presidential contender Rick Santorum has found himself in. He wouldn't be in the situation he's in if the other ranking site's links weren't spread across a ton of social media channels and his own site was optimized.

While he tries to blame Google for being unwilling to change the results for "Santorum" (caution: Googling this word might not be appropriate for younger audience members), both he and his marketing team look inept because they do not understand the marketing channels they are dealing with. However, the folks who hold issue with Santorum do.

Take a look at Santorum's page and there are very few references to the term "Santorum"; it's mostly just "Rick." When you understand your marketing channels, you would make sure both your website and your social media channels need to be optimized for "Santorum" or "Rick Santorum" to be relevant, not relying on Google to "fix your problem" because you are just like Joe Biden.

Understand Your Audience, Don't Offend Them

You first have to understand your audience and what they truly find valuable so not to offend them. Unfortunately for Toyota in Australia, its agency Saatchi & Saatchi didn't understand Toyota's audience at all. The agency tried to fool the community in which a video contest was run for amateur videographers, but the contest had terrible engagement; so much so that a professional video was submitted (and subsequently won). To add to the issue, the video that won was repeatedly flagged on Google's YouTube property as offensive. Eventually it was Toyota that had to apologize for offending its audience, not Saatchi & Saatchi.

Acknowledge Your Mistakes, Apologize, and Move on

The training issue is crucial when you are stepping into social media, but if you make a mistake, acknowledge it, apologize, and try to move on in the best way possible. The American Red Cross did a beautiful job at recovering from what could have been a PR disaster caused by a member of its agency's marketing team. A rogue tweet talking about "getting slizzard" and buying Dogfish beer appeared on the non-profit's Twitter stream and raised a tremendous amount of eyebrows.

Luckily, the American Red Cross' team reacted with an apology that spoke well with its audience.


It turned into even more of a "boon" for the Red Cross, not only because the employee also apologized for the mistake but because Dogfish Brewery then worked with the organization to put together a blood drive and turn some of its followers into the Red Cross' followers as well.

Make Contingency Plans

Not everything you do is going to turn out perfect in the world of social media. There are rogue elements in every strategic engagement that you will encounter and might make you scramble. That's why research and training is so important. Rogue elements can even be your spokespeople. AFLAC encountered this problem when the former voice of the Aflac Duck (a much adored company icon), Gilbert Gottfried, decided to make some rather rude and offending jokes about the earthquake in Japan earlier this year. Unfortunately for Mr. Gottfried, he didn't understand that more than 75 percent of Aflac's business was done in Japan.


Planning for rogue elements like this and other situations - such as audience members taking advantage of loopholes in your marketing strategy as seen on Skittles' notorious Twitter home page and WPMI TV's Twitter billboard (image above) - is necessary when you are trying to make a mark with your audience in social communities. Make sure your marketing teams work with your legal and HR department to ensure you're ready to respond in a way that protects your company's interests.

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Liana Evans

Liana "Li" Evans is the author of the award winning social media marketing book, "Social Media Marketing: Engaging Strategies for Facebook, Twitter & Other Social Media" and she is the president and CEO of Da Li Social, as well as an adjunct professor for Rutgers University's Mini MBA Program. Liana has also been featured in the books "Online Marketing Heroes" and "Video Marketing An Hour a Day." As an established online marketing industry veteran with over 15 years of experience she's focused her unique skillset to specialize in integrated marketing and how companies can successfully strategize integrating all online marketing channels as well as offline traditional media. Her deep technical combined with a public relations background enables her to partner with clients for establishing successful online marketing campaigns that combine cross-channel tactics cohesively.

Li was the search engine optimization (SEO) and social media marketing architect for such companies as QVC and Comcast (Fancast) and has consulted with several other different sized companies such as AOL MovieFone. Her wealth of knowledge in dealing with large e-commerce and content sites allows her a wider perspective into what it takes to launch successful marketing campaigns in the online space.

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