The five biggest social media fails of 2015 - an enterprisey take

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed December 16, 2015
Social media fails are the cotton candy of the Internet. Here's your helping, along with a few enterprisey takeways - that would be the kale.

I never start my articles with a self-buzzkill, but social media fails are overrated. Armed with their precious sentiment analysis tools, enterprises fret over sarcastic tweets and their own misfires. But the truth is that you can walk back from almost any social media mistake - if you handle the apology well and pull out the root cause of said failure.

That said - these failures sure are fun to gloat about, eh?

So for your enjoyment, here's my top five fails, why they made the list and the lesson derived. Start the countdown...

5. Blackberry tweets from an iPhone

Why: I don't think I need to answer that:


How it failed: Instant, mass ridicule.

Lesson: With social media, minutia matters. In this case, it would have been good to know that Twitter sends out a happy little notice identifying the device you are tweeting on. I still get tweets from social media managers at big brands who don't understand that if you begin a tweet with an @reply it is only immediately visible to mutual followers. It pays to study up.

4. IHOP compares pancakes to, err, women

Why: Not because it was one of the dumbest and most insensitive brand tweets of the year. But because if a tweet like this slips through, it points to a deep flaw in social media editorial review, or perhaps even corporate culture, that a tweet can't fix.

How it failed: IHOP put out a very dumb tweet and was immediately in reactive apology mode (a crummy apology also)

Lesson: Some decried the outcry over this tweet, claiming that no one can take a joke anymore. I don't totally disagree but for a different reason: the Twitter mob mentality and social media shaming cycles reeks of hypocrisy and changes nothing. Brands don't have the luxury of debating political correctness. They need to have a much better understanding of how a tweet will be received. Rather than avoid controversy I save it for issues that really matter.

3. Seattle Seahawks liken their quarterback to... Martin Luther King Jr.

Why: Because latching onto trending hashtags is an increasingly popular - and almost always questionable - choice.

How it failed: The Seahawks tried to climb on the #MLKday hashtag and ended up looking like opportunistic, patronizing fools. They made their quarterback look like a pretentious idiot as if he hadn't already endured enough mockery for crediting God for his victories.


Lesson: Create your own narrative until it sticks; don't try to hijack someone else's narrative or event - and yes, enterprise software companies continue to screw this up on a regular basis.

2. SeaWorld's "Ask SeaWorld" fail

Why: Colossally bad judgement of how transparent conversations work.

How it failed: SeaWorld hosted an open-ended Twitter chat that provided a platform for critics of SeaWorld's animal treatment after the Blackfish documentary raised the stakes. The chat was overwhelmed by trolls and uncomfortably accurate criticisms.

Lesson: Even a transparency advocate like myself would agree that timing matters. Before opening up to a public dialogue, the underlying problem that raised the public's ire should be acted on. Only if SeaWorld had addressed issues to the satisfaction of its critics should it have concerned such a chat (critics-turned-advocates can be a powerful ally). The lesson is not to avoid transparency - but you better know how deep the rabbit hole goes.

1. Starbuck's "Race Together" campaign

Why: This wasn't just an ill-considered tweet, but an abysmally-conceived campaign. That means some powerful pudding heads inside Starbucks must have rubber-stamped their approval.

How it failed: Starbucks tried to be the facilitators of a conversation about race in America via an attempt to turn its stores into consciousness-raising centers. Baristas were asked to scribble "Race Together" on cups to spark conversations about race. Things went bad, and quick. It didn't help that the promo photo included only the white hands of white baristas.

Lesson: Some wrongly said Starbucks shouldn't have stepped into such a volatile issue. I disagree (though if the campaign was indeed poorly researched, as some have alleged, that's a fail). There is room for brands to take stands in areas that are culturally sensitive, see: Marc Benioff et al taking a stand on anti-gay bigotry. The mistake here was social media grandstanding before your own house is in order. Starbucks then failed to engage with reporters and extend the dialogue their quickly-cancelled campaign provoked. Core values matter but you have to play the long game, and you will be tested. Starbucks failed that test. They should have stayed in the shallow end of the PR pool and focused on polishing their nifty app.

My take

Social media fails are wildly entertaining but in isolation have a fraction of the negative impact brand ninjas would have us believe. However, most of these social fails point to thornier problems in marketing, PR, or even culture and values. Just like the saying goes, these social fails can either lead to crisis or opportunity. How the company responds will dictate which of the two it is.

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