Disclaimer: We are far from social media experts. We will fully admit that. We use social media like Facebook and Twitter (and to a much lesser degree, Pinterest) to promote our blog and interact with our readers, but we wouldn't necessarily call ourselves "corporate" users. However, we've dealt with enough of them (and have enough common sense) to be able to recognize when some companies are just plain old doing it wrong.
So here is our somewhat incomplete, totally biased guide to how you may or may not be fucking up your company's social media presence - complete with real life examples. We're going to focus primarily on Twitter, but we'll briefly address some failures on other sites as well.
(Note: We've chosen to block out some of the companies' names. We did this because while we think all of these mistakes were bonafide social media "fails", we don't want to publicly blast certain companies or brands that we still like or have relationships with or who we've already spoken to privately. Also, we didn't want to repeatedly blast the same companies/users for multiple errors. Our hope is that they will all learn from these mistakes and do better next time.)
Learn Before You Tweet
It pains us to see companies (and individuals) messing up some of the basics. We understand that not everyone fully understands every site right away, but we recommend that you learn that shit before you dive right in. And if you're paying someone to handle your social media marketing for you then they better damn well know what they're doing. Some of the mistakes we see coming from companies are just so cringeworthy. Here are a few basic Twitter "tips":
@ Messages and Retweets
If you want everyone to see your @ messages then you have to put something in front of the @ symbol. Most often people just throw a period in front (.@) and that will suffice. If you're not sending the message to that user (and rather are posting about them) then you can put the @username in the middle of the tweet instead. We always roll our eyes when we see brands or PR companies tweeting posts that should really be public but aren't because they started them with @, therefore limiting the audience. It actually didn't work like this in the early days of twitter, but the change was made a long time ago so we're surprised at how often we still see @ when it should be .@.
If you put a space between the @ and the username it won't work at all.
When you want to repost something that someone else has posted, you have two options. You can hit "Retweet" which will repost the entire tweet in your feed. Or you can cut and paste the original tweet into a new tweet - preceded by RT @username. (A lot of twitter clients and apps have an option for this too.) Using the RT option is preferable when you'd like to add a quick comment before the retweet. MT means "modified tweet" which is what you should use if you've edited the original tweet somewhat (usually for space).
If you want to share a link or photo or fact that you saw in someone else's tweet, but don't want to repost their whole tweet. You can include just include via @username to credit where you originally found the information. If you're posting something that you want someone else to see (but aren't directly addressing them) you can throw a little cc: @username at the end... kind of like you'd cc someone on an email.
One of the most well known examples of this mistake came from Rep. Anthony Weiner, who set off a good old fashioned political sex scandal when he infamously tweeted a photograph that was probably intended to be a direct message. We've also seen people (including some celebrities) accidentally tweeting their cellphone numbers and stuff like that. Pay attention to what you're tweeting!
You can break a hashtag with certain symbols and punctuation like apostrophes, so it's best to keep them simple. Here's an example from a campaign to raise money for Claire McCaskill after Todd Akin made his offensive and ignorant statements about "legitimate rape"...
The goal was to gather $5 contributions to McCaskill's campaign, but the hashtag #$5-4-McCaskill just doesn't work because it has dashes and a dollar sign breaking up the tag. (It's also just awkward to type and read - it probably should've been #5forMcCaskill.) It's never going to gain any traction or become a trending topic that way.
One example of a popular recurring hashtag is #ff (which stands for "Follow Friday"). It's a weekly tradition where people recommend twitter users that others should follow by tweeting: #ff @username @username2 @username3 (etc)... (And while we're on the subject, many people consider it kinda douchey if you retweet every single #ff that mentions you only because it mentions you. Nobody cares about your Internet popularity as much as you do.)
Sometimes you can use more than one hashtag in a single tweet, but don't over do it and only use hashtags that are relevant to the topic of your tweet. Don't hijack a hashtag that isn't related to your tweet, especially if it's a hashtag for a serious issue. One horrible example of this came from Celeb Boutique shortly after the tragic shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, CO. The hashtag #aurora was trending and they hijacked the hashtag in a really tasteless way:
The offensive tweet sat on their feed for hours (while hundreds of people @'d them in disgust) and then they finally apologized:
It's hard to believe that anyone in PR wouldn't know about the tragedy in Aurora (which despite taking place in the U.S., was an international news story) but even so... that's why you check what the hashtag is and why it's trending before you join in. It would've taken only a few seconds of reading the other #aurora tweets to notice that it was related to something tragic (even if they didn't know what exactly). Don't assume what any trending topic means - check before you tweet.
When your create your own hashtag, you run the risk of how others will use it. Making up a random hashtag doesn't mean that anyone will necessarily answer - you need to establish followers and engagement and interaction first. If you don't have a lot of active followers then it's likely that no one else will be using your hashtag except for you. It will make your company look dumb if people click on your hashtag and find that you're the only one using it.
On the other hand, sometimes well-intentioned hashtags can backfire. Earlier this year, McDonald's created the hashtag #McDStories in order to get everyone talking about their positive experiences at McDonald's. It backfired when people starting using the hashtag to tweet jokes and talk about their negative "experiences" instead - including poor service, stomachaches, animal cruelty, etc. Part of the problem was that the hashtag was too generic (#McDStories could go either way) and they forgot about the fact that not everyone on Twitter is necessarily a fan.
Another example on the flip side of the 'hashtag hijacking' issue comes from Nestle. They created the hashtag #nestlefamily for an event that they hosted for a small group of parenting bloggers. The conversation sparked some criticism from people who pointed out some of Nestle's questionable and problematic behavior as a company when it comes to their marketing of baby formula around the world and other concerns. This situation created some good dialogue between supporters and critics of Nestle, but also a lot of arguing and snarking back and forth - not the warm and fuzzy positive promotion that Nestle likely intended when they organized the event and created the hashtag in the first place. In this case, Nestle was very slow to respond when the criticism started to come in, and since their reputation as an unethical company is no secret we were surprised that they didn't seem to be prepared with a "damage control" plan to address any critics that popped up. It was as if they didn't realize that their hashtag would not only be visible to everyone on twitter, but that other people besides their designated bloggers would be free to use it.
It's important for any company to remember that your critics are on Twitter too.
There is also such a thing a sponsored hashtags. During Mitt Romney's presidential campaign, he paid to have some hashtags listed as trending topics globally, which can cost at least $120,000 per day. In addition to his official hashtag (#RomneyRyan2012), he also sponsored some anti-Obama hashtags like #FailingAgenda, #16TrillionFail and #AreYouBetterOff. Of course, this totally backfired because Democrats flooded Twitter to use the hashtags against Romney and the GOP.
This is just a complete waste of money in our opinion, especially with hashtags like #16TrillionFail where it's not even clear exactly what it's about. When specific campaign-related events like conventions and debates happen, trending topics related to your campaign will happen naturally.
But please tweet links with caution. It's important not to blindly tweet (or retweet) something without knowing exactly what you're talking about. If you haven't read the article you're tweeting (or retweeting) or you aren't familiar with the original source, you shouldn't tweet it. We've seen this happen way too often, and we'll get into a few examples below.
Which leads to our next point...
Think Before You Tweet
As we said before, don't just blindly tweet without knowing exactly what you're forwarding and what you're talking about. This includes commenting on a news story without having all the information.
Who can forget Ashton Kutcher's idiotic tweet about Joe Paterno after he was fired from Penn State for allegedly covering up a child abuse scandal?
He later apologized and explained that he wasn't aware of the scandal and had only heard that Paterno was fired. Here's a good rule of thumb that he should've followed (and you all should)... if you don't know anything at all about what happened, don't take it upon yourself to declare that it was "in poor taste", an "insult" or "no class". But at least Kutcher apologized and owned his mistake... which brings us to our next section...
Apologies and Transparency
When you screw up, your first instinct may be to defend it... don't. Just own it and apologize. Definitely take the time to clarify what you meant and explain how the mistake happened, but don't get into a back and forth argument trying to defend your mistake. Apologize, make some kind of amends if applicable (for example - if you made a tasteless comment about rape, make a donation to an organization like RAINN). Whenever possible, have someone higher up at the company make the apology. Even if was an intern who screwed up, if the CEO takes responsibility for it their followers will believe that the company truly cares about righting the wrong.
We've seen so many companies and organizations try to argue and make excuses and it only digs the hole deeper. If you really need to give those excuses, you can include them in your official apology. But arguing with individual people on Twitter or Facebook never looks good. (And this should go without saying, but don't send someone unrelated to the drama to fight your battles for you. We actually saw a CEO's mother make a snide comment on someone's page once. Whether she was sent to do so or did it of her own accord is unknown, but it looks bad either way. No we're not going to name the CEO. We think they're probably already embarrassed enough.)
Also, remember that "I'm sorry you were offended" or "I'm sorry you didn't get the joke" or "I'm sorry you're so sensitive" or "I'm sorry but..." are not apologies.
Don't try to hide your mistakes
It's important for your fans/followers/customers to think that they can trust you as a brand/company/public figure. That requires honesty and transparency. Don't try to hide or delete negative feedback. We all make mistakes sometimes... don't try to sweep it under the rug or censor your fans. Publicly acknowledge it, apologize, learn from it, and do better next time. Once we noticed a tweet from a company that included a link to a right-wing religious source with a really bad reputation. We were familiar with this company and didn't think that the tweet matched what we thought was their 'philosophy'. So we tweeted an "FYI" @ them, politely letting them know that the source of the link they had tweeted was extremely controversial, not to mention sexist and homophobic.
A little while later we noticed that the tweet had been quietly deleted and we had a new direct message from the company:
We were shocked. We couldn't believe that a corporation or a PR company would actually ask someone to delete something. It is almost unheard of for a PR company to ask that. (For the record, we didn't delete it.) It's also worth mentioning that we did a regular @ and not a .@ (like we explained above) so none of our followers even saw our tweet unless they also followed the company. We were uncomfortable with the request because we never delete tweets and we felt like we were being asked to help the PR company sweep something under the rug for their benefit, not necessarily the benefit of the company or its followers.
What they should have done was just post a short public apology to their followers, like "Sorry for that last tweet guys, we should have checked the source first!" (The fact that they didn't check the source before posting that link is a whole other problem that we already addressed above.) Deleting the tweet is fine, but acknowledge to your followers that you deleted something and explain why.
Another company that has also messed up in this department is Liberator. A few months ago they tweeted some ignorant comments about condoms, that undermined condom use. A lot of people felt this was especially offensive and dangerous considering that they are a company that makes a sex-related product.
These tweets sat on their newsfeed for at least twenty hours (despite there being a ton of @ messages complaining and asking for explanation) and then they were mysteriously deleted without comment or apology. They also had an offensive photo on their Facebook page that joked about rape and consent (it said "no means eat me out first") that sat on their page for days and then was also quietly deleted the same day they deleted the offensive tweets.
About a week and a half later, they followed us on twitter, so we asked them why they had never apologized. They claimed that they had apologized and offered a link to a short post on their Tumblr page, that apologized for the tweets and mentioned that the person responsible was "no longer with us". The Facebook photo was not mentioned at all. (They later added in a reference to the Facebook post, and upon our suggestion, tweeted a link to the apology for all their followers to see.)
Points for apologizing... but apologizing on Tumblr for something that happened on Twitter and then never tweeting a link to it is pretty pointless. Don't assume that your twitter followers also check your blog/facebook/tumblr/pinterest/etc. pages (or vice versa). Always make apologies or retractions in the same place you made the mistake.
Etiquette and Rules
Copyright and Common Courtesy
A while back a company we know used one of our photos without permission on their Pinterest account. Instead of linking back to the blog where they found it, they linked back to their own website. We were obviously annoyed so we let them know and they corrected the problem by giving us credit and a link (as is standard practice). Even though we knew that it was just a mistake and not an attempt to "steal" our photos, it's concerning that whoever is running their social media accounts didn't know this because they may be creating a lot of potential problems for the company to deal with in the future. Not only is copyright violation a legal issue, but it was also a violation of Pinterest's terms of service to post something without crediting the original source.
Even when it's not a legal issue, it's still considered common courtesy to give credit where credit is due, and when in doubt, ask permission before using something that isn't yours.
On the other hand "Thanks for following" is not necessarily good engagement. We're not saying it's terrible to do that, but when your whole twitter feed consists of you thanking random followers - and there's not any genuine content in between - it just makes you look like you have nothing real to say.
The same goes for repeating the same tweet again and again. It's okay to tweet the same link more than once if you want to make sure it reaches the most of your desired audience (some people are online during the day, others at night, etc.) but if you repost the same tweet too many times, you'll not only look like you have nothing real to say... but you'll also annoy people. We follow a couple of companies that clearly have their twitter feeds set up to just auto-tweet the same tweets over and over and over each day. Most people can tell when a company is doing this and it makes it obvious to your audience that you're just on twitter because you're supposed to be and aren't really all that interested in actually engaging with your customers.
We've seen companies ask users on Twitter to tweet or retweet something in order to win a contest or get some other perks... This seems like a good way of generating attention and new followers for your brand but trust us, it isn't. It comes off as obnoxious and spammy and when everyone's feed is clogged up with it, they're not going to think highly of your company. This is especially obnoxious when a company has hijacked someone else's hashtag. One example of this is the BlogHer conference: Every year brands will latch onto the #blogher hashtag in order to take advantage of the massive amount of users who follow it, even if their tweets are only semi-related.
You should also be wary of using automated tweet systems. We've seen one blogger who has an automated system to tweet links to old blog posts. Sounds like a good idea in theory but in actuality, it's both annoying and confusing - considering that so many of their blog posts are time sensitive. For instance, the tweets below were all posted in a row in September 2012. Only one was recent, two were from a month ago, and two were from 2011. Why would someone want to go back and read that now?
If you've got a really amazing, timeless piece that you want to share again, go for it. But to retweet every old blog entry, even the ones that are embarrassingly outdated and irrelevant, you're only making yourself look bad. This is just a random example from that particular user... we have often seen them posting links to outdated blog entries (including those that truly are time sensitive - just the other day they auto-tweeted links to posts about the Macy's 4th of July fireworks and the death of Steve Jobs in October of 2011) asking "Pls Leave Comments". In theory it's not that terrible - although why would anyone leave a comment on a blog from an event that took place a year and a half ago? - but all in a row like that it just clogs up their feed and makes it look like they have nothing genuine to say. It ends up coming across like you either made a mistake and set up your auto-tweets incorrectly, or are blatantly trying to drive "fake" traffic to your blog by getting people to click links to old posts thinking that they're new.
Auto-tweeting can also get you in trouble when a breaking news event happens - if everyone is talking about an earthquake or a shooting or a political scandal or something else serious that just happened, and your twitter account is auto-tweeting stuff about the great fashion show you just went to or the awesome new product that you're launching, it makes you look out of touch at best and totally insensitive at worst.
We also don't really agree with begging for comments or retweets. Every once in a while if you have a particular topic that you want feedback on (or a cause that you want to promote and spread around), that's one thing. But if you constantly have to ask for interaction, then it's not genuine and means nothing.
Be an Influencer vs. a Follower
Having a lot of followers is helpful for a business, because it increases the audience for your tweets and therefore your promotional messages. However, a high number of followers is less impressive when you have a near equal number of users that you follow. That is, with so many regular users automatically following back anyone that follows them, if you have 10,000 followers it's not that impressive you also follow 9,500 users. A ratio like that isn't that hard to achieve if you just follow everyone who follows you back (and vice versa). You appear much more influential if you have 10,000 followers and only follow, say, 4,000 users.
What you should definitely try to avoid is following a lot more users than you have following you. If you follow 1,000 users but only have 20 followers, you not only look unimportant (like you have nothing to say that would make you worthy of following) but you also run the risk of looking like a spam account and might even get shut down.
We suggest you use a program like Friend Or Follow or Twit Cleaner take a look at who is or isn't following you back and make decisions about who to keep on your list and who to unfollow. Refollow can also help you weed out inactive users from your following list.
Having a lot of followers doesn't necessarily mean that you're doing the right thing though. You want to have real followers and you want to grow that following organically (by posting good content, being generally interesting, and gaining lots of RTs). Begging for followers or retweets is a no-no and it makes you look bad and desperate. Buying followers is even worse - just don't do it. The real way to measure your influence and reach is to think about not just the number of followers you have and the ratio of followers to following, but also think about how many relevant @ messages do you get? How often are your tweets retweeted? Are you getting a lot of traffic to your website through twitter?
In the same respect, you shouldn't rely too heavily on your "score" on metrics sites like Klout or Kred because very few people really care what your score is. (That being said, if anyone wants to go to Klout and give us +K about whatever topics you can think of, please do because we find it amusing.) However, it doesn't hurt to examine their reports in order to find out how others are interacting with you on Twitter.
Don't Let the Interns Tweet Unsupervised
This is the most important "rule" and we can't stress enough how crucial it is. Why would you let an untrained intern or any lower level staff member who isn't fully aware of your company's philosophy or social media strategy be in charge of interacting with your customers or fans? In the same respect, don't hire an expensive PR company that doesn't understand your company or your image. If you're paying someone to handle your social media for you, then they should be making things easier for you. So if they're actually doing the opposite - embarrassing the company, offending your audience, and potentially opening you up to legal problems - why are you paying them? You might be thinking "oh it's just twitter, it doesn't matter", but it does. If you're going to do it, do it right or not at all. Having no social media presence is better than having a bad one.
We once contacted a company about something they had screwed up on Twitter and they claimed that an intern was to blame. As a one-time mistake this isn't so horrible. But most of us have had experience with internships so we know that some interns can manage more responsibility than others, which is why they should be well-informed and supervised to make sure they're capable of handling the task. This has become sort of a running joke now for us... anytime we see a social media error or screw-up we laugh that Joe the Intern (we named him Joe) is at it again. It's all his fault. We imagine poor, untrained-but-overworked Joe, roaming the country, tweeting mistakes for hundreds of companies. Whether or not an intern was actually to blame for your screw up or was just a scapegoat in your public apology, it still begs the question - why are you letting someone like that handle your social media accounts?
Know Your Purpose
Know Your Market
It's also worth thinking about who is the "face" of company's social media efforts. If you are a female-oriented company like that and you have a man as your spokesperson and your tweets are coming through in a "male voice" and are directed to a male audience (or even worse, are condescending or disrespectful to women in any way) you're going to alienate your female audience.
Case Study: Summer's Eve
Summer's Eve is guilty of so much that we couldn't even fit them into just one category! We've written about them a few times now... Last year, they launched a multimedia campaign called "Hail to the V" that was criticized as being sexist and racist. They eventually pulled some of the offensive videos, but the real failure is how they used social media (or rather, didn't use it) to address the issue.
Back in 2010, a lot of people complained about an advertorial in Women's Day that suggested that women seeking a raise at work should start by using Summer's Eve products. Summer's Eve created the Twitter account @Eve_Cares to respond to the criticism. When people started to use @Eve_Cares to complain about the new Hail to the V campaign, the account was deleted without explanation. Initially, some people got confused and thought that Summer's Eve was apologizing for the Hail to the V campaign because they hadn't tweeted anything from the @Eve_Cares account since their last round of apologies in 2010 - it's not a good sign when people get your "sorry for our offensive ad campaign" tweets confused because that's all you ever use your twitter account for. Shortly after, their other official Twitter account (@FleetSummersEve), which had also sat unused for over a year, was taken over by spammers.
ignored or deleted while they continued to post fluff. When the videos were finally pulled, they made no official apology or mention other than linking to a single article (from Adweek) that had a quote from the head of their ad agency. This was one case where a company mishandled a bad situation so totally that they would have been better off not having twitter and facebook pages at all.
Who Does It Right
Since we don't want to just complain (as much as we love to complain), we wanted to show a few examples of companies that are doing it right. They might not all be perfect, but here are some examples of social media successes...
Whoever is running the TacoBell twitter (@TacoBell) is doing a great job. They interact a lot and respond to @ messages. They're funny and they actually knows the pop culture references that people are using. Check out some of their "best" tweets here, thanks to BuzzFeed.
Our favorite? God, Karen you're so stupid!
The Obama campaign
The team that runs the Obama campaign's official tumblr does a really good job. Not only do they understand all of the campaign issues, but they also understand the Internet - they've got memes, they've got gifs, they've got Mean Girls references, they've got funny and cute photos, they talk like normal people and not in campaign speak. They take submissions and share people's stories about why they're supporting President Obama. It comes across as very genuine and gives the impression that the campaign actually wants to get in there and interact with people, not like they just created a tumblr account because some social media strategist somewhere told them that they should have one. (Their Twitter isn't half-bad either.)
Recently a guy named Thomas Cook posted a joke on the facebook page of the UK travel site ThomasCook.com. Whoever was managing social media for Thomas Cook the company did not know how to deal with Thomas Cook the guy, but another travel site called Low Cost Holidays did know what to do, and it's kinda awesome. You can click here to see how the whole thing unfolded, but we also have a summary for the too-lazy-to-click among you:
A man named Thomas Cook found that sharing his name with a global travel company has its perks, as the latest viral sweeping the internet today proves. Mr Cook posted a cheeky comment on the Thomas Cook Facebook page back in November, asking for a weekend in Paris as compensation for a lifetime of being “ridiculed”. The then 26-year-old wrote: “Seeing as I share the exact same name as your huge company, and because of this I have been ridiculed for as long as I can remember, I think it’s only fair that you help compensate for this by giving me one of your lovely holidays.” When the travel agency refused to give away a ‘free holiday’, Mr Cook protested that he had endured ‘years of ridicule and torment’ as a result of sharing the name. He added that he deserved a trip to Paris as he helped “to promote your brand by constantly keeping it in peoples minds every time they speak to me” (sic).So Low Cost Holidays capitalizes on another company's failure to get the joke, and for the cost of one trip to Paris they've got a viral internet sensation and a ton of free publicity.
Quick-thinking travel competitor lowcostholidays.com then stepped in to offer Mr Cook a free trip to Paris. Marketing representative Charlotte Hunt wrote: “Here at lowcostholidays.com we completely sympathise with your suffering and if your name was “lowcostholidays.com” we would certainly have accepted your request to be sent away on a weekend in Paris. “… So how about we send you on that weekend in Paris?” And sure enough, Mr Cook was given a free trip to the French capital, which he travelled to this month, lowcostholidays.com spokeswoman Nicole Walsh confirmed.
HBO has really done it right with their True Blood social media. In addition to their "True Blood Talk" online forum, they are very active on Twitter.
Not only is there a primary twitter account (@TrueBloodHBO) and hashtags (there's #TrueBlood along with #waitingsucks and some other fun stuff, like right now they're doing #TBHalloween to talk to fans about True Blood themed Halloween costumes), but each of the characters has their own twitter account as well and they interact with each other. Not just the major stars like Sookie and Bill, but also the minor characters like Maxine_Fortenberry and Arlene's kids, even baby Mikey!
They also have an official website TrueBloodOnTwitter.com where fans can find all the True Blood tweets in one place. Not only does all of this boost the show's popularity, but it really gets the viewers involved and connected and keeps people talked about the show even during the long breaks between seasons.
Like we said at the beginning, we're not social media experts, whatever that means these days. We've just been using social media for a long time, and observing how others use it and what works and what doesn't. We've really only just scratched the surface with this post - there are so many examples and case studies and tips and other tips that contradict those tips that we could go on forever. Instead we'll shut up now, but we'd love to hear what you think about what we've said, and about your own social media experiences (positive or negative). See you all on Twitter!