Failure used to be easier to swallow. Back before “fail” was an interjection, before failure had blogs and whales and other memes attached to it, before you had to worry about schadenfreude propelling your misstep through all of social media — there was a time when a person could screw up fiercely and still take comfort in the fact that most people weren’t going to notice.
Even marketers and media types could rest a little easier. If you put out something terrible, most people would ignore it. And even if people did notice, at least your mistake wouldn’t be remembered for long. Now it seems your sins can live on forever, amplified by the echo chamber of the Internet. Ask Rebecca Black if you don’t believe me.
Failure in the age of social media is polarizing. Should we become bland and timid, paralyzed by worry while wearing white flannel trousers? Or should we be bold, knowing that if we put a toe out of line, a cry will go up from some dark corner of the Web, the fail hashtag hoisted like a pirate flag, and we’ll be eaten alive by trolls.
” ‘Fail’ is the scarlet letter of social media,” David Griner told an audience at a recent BlogWorld & New Media Expo panel. Griner, director of digital content for Luckie & Co., along with Meshin Community Director Dave Peck, explored a variety of recent social media public relations disasters during their presentation. But rather than being frightened by these mishaps, Griner and Peck said, the audience should learn from others’ mistakes and even be empowered by them.
Here are six lessons they delivered during their presentation.
- Do build safeguards. Social media mistakes can and will happen. Twitter’s been around for five years, and people are still sending direct messages as tweets. But by taking simple precautions, you can avoid a lot of unforced errors. Assign company Twitter accounts to specific, trusted people, and limit access to authorized users only. Mandate that anyone tweeting for a company use a different Twitter client than the one used for personal tweeting. Perhaps safeguards such as these could have prevented Chrysler Group’s infamous Detroit tweet, Griner and Peck said.
- Don’t deceive people. Obvious fiction is one thing, but people get upset when brands spin elaborate “true” stories that later turn out to be hoaxes. Peck cited an insurer that hired two actors to portray a pair of tragic lovers for an elaborate social media hoax. The actors were threatened by followers after the hoax was revealed. The most upsetting element of that story, Peck said, was that the world is full of similarly tragic stories. The company could have easily based the campaign on a real case study and handled it in a sensitive, powerful way. “Marketers love making stuff up … because it’s so much easier” than finding real-life stories that illustrate whatever point you’re trying to make, Peck said. But your fans are smart, and they’re going to see through whatever ruse you put out there.
- Do get out in front of the story. When the blogosphere caught on to a questionable piece of advertorial content by Summer’s Eve, the company met the story head on. It apologized, pulled the content, which was set to run in other print publications, and then Senior Brand Manager Angela Bryant wrote an column for Adweek explaining what the company learned from the debacle. You can turn a social media fail into a positive by responding in a proactive, honest way, Griner said.
- Don’t hide it. If you screwed up and said something dumb on a social channel, own the mistake, the way the Red Cross did, instead of pretending you were hacked, like Chrysler. Be honest about what happened, and look to turn a negative into a positive, Griner and Peck said.
- Do be willing to experiment. Ford Motor recently launched a video campaign for its Focus line featuring a puppet named Doug. The videos haven’t proved popular — many brands would have killed the campaign after one or two tries. But Ford kept at it, and the videos developed a small but passionate fan base. It’s hard to say how many cars these videos sold, but Griner and Peck figured the videos probably weren’t that expensive to produce (even with the involvement of comedian Paul F. Tompkins) and might have still made money. Regardless of how you feel about the Doug videos, a social campaign doesn’t need to be a monster hit to be successful if it resonates strongly with a certain group, Griner and Peck said.
- Don’t let the fear of failure stop you from trying. It’s easy to let fear keep you from experimenting with social media. But, as Peck and Griner said, ignoring those channels doesn’t protect you from failure; it only keeps you from knowing about a crisis until it’s too late. Failure happens every day, so accept it, learn from your mistakes and move on as quickly as possible. “Fail harder,” Griner said.
What have social media failures taught you?
Image credit: skodonnell, via iStock Photo