Halloween Special: Social Media Horror Stories

The world of social media is a scary place. Do you fear the crowds of shrieking fans, the cackling trolls and things that go bump in the blogosphere? Here’s our list of the top ten social media horrors. Read, beware and don’t go down to the basement to investigate that strange noise.

Chapstick’s social media nightmare started last week with a distasteful ad. Feminist bloggers were the first to criticize it, for reasons we hope are obvious. But the real problem began when customers started complaining on Chapstick’s Facebook page, which has the tagline ‘Be Heard.’ Chapstick deleted all negative comments. This approach led more and more Chapstick fans to comment on the page, only to see their comments deleted as well. This censorship caused more outrage than the original ad. Last Wednesday, Chapstick issued a lukewarm apology for the ad, and to those who “felt like their posts are being deleted.” It’s too early to determine the long-term PR consequences of the blunder – but really, Chapstick should have known better.

The hyper-connectivity of social media scuppered American fast-food chain Taco Bell. Back in 2007, a user recorded this video of rats scurrying around a New York branch of the restaurant late at night. Before YouTube, the passerby might have told a few friends about the rats, but the video went viral and was featured on national news. Americans still remember the story, although Taco Bell remains a successful brand.

Social media outlets also leave brands uniquely vulnerable to sabotage, or brand-jacking. Anti-fur activists from hardcore animal rights group PETA attacked DKNY’s Facebook page last year. Several activists changed their profile pictures to single letters and commented on the page in quick succession, with messages like “Fashion to die for!” and “What’s the cost of a fur coat?” Their profile pictures appeared next to the comments, spelling out DK BUNNY BUTCHERS in a protest against Donna Karan’s use of rabbit fur.

At blur, we love crowdsourcing, but this story gave us the heebie jeebies. In 2008, a juror just couldn’t make up her mind about whether three men accused of child abduction and sexual assault were guilty. So she made a Facebook poll asking her friends how she should vote, revealing confidential details about the case. Incredibly, she forgot that jurors are prohibited from talking about a case in progress. The trial proceeded with only eleven jurors.

Speaking of inappropriate revelations, Representative Antony Weiner lost his job for tweeting and sexting lewd images to his female followers. A love that dare not speak its name? Maybe we’ll call it sexittering. You heard it here first.

Last year, Pepsi shocked the marketing world when it ploughed 50% of its North American marketing budget into social media. They pulled back from traditional media, including celebrity endorsements and advertising during the Super Bowl, America’s highest profile ad spot.  Instead, it launched the Pepsi Refresh project, giving away millions to ‘refreshing ideas’ for community change. Unfortunately, while we admire community investment, Pepsi didn’t focus enough on promoting its drinks. It lost 5% of its market share and lost its historic position as America’s no.2 soft drink. It’s now no.3, behind archenemy Diet Coke. The AdContrarian estimates Pepsi lost up to half a billion dollars. This despite the apparent success of the social media aspect – Pepsi now has 3.5 million likes on Facebook. Pepsi’s now beating a hasty retreat back to traditional media.

Customers expect rapid response from their companies’ social media channels. During the recent Blackberry service breakdown, parent company Research in Motion failed epically at keeping users in the loop. The phone is popular with business types, and being cut off from emails and the web gave them the screaming horrors. RIM scrambled to fix the problem, but didn’t update users on its website or via Twitter. The lack of customer service has left many customers vowing to undergo the most horrifying transformation imaginable – from Crackberry addicts into iPhone drones.

Social media burglaries are a new problem for the sharing public. Connected individuals tend to broadcast their travel plans on Facebook and Twitter and update their locations with apps like FourSquare. Unfortunately burglars can use these sites to tell when houses will be empty – and ripe for robbing. Just last week, New Jersey police arrested a man who broke into a house while the owner was away and “appears to have learned of the vacation plans via Facebook.” And last year, a gang of thieves in New Hampshire who stole from more than 50 homes did so using Facebook updates. Police in the US and the UK have warned the public to avoid posting their travel plans on the sites. Creepy.

Rogue individuals wreaking havoc pop up on horror screens, but also on Twitter. In March, Chrysler rolled out an advert emphasising their gritty Detroit origins, complete with Eminem and a gospel choir. They made the mistake of farming out their Twitter management to a social media agency where one employee tweeted “I find it ironic that Detroit is known as the #motorcity and yet no one here knows how to f**king drive.” Using the Chrysler account, no less. The tweet was swiftly pulled off the site and an apology issued, but the brand’s image as a down-to-earth American motoring company was dented. There are better ways to handle a mistweet – just look at how the Red Cross dealt with theirs.

Airlines are particularly adept at inspiring homicidal rage in passengers. But United Airlines messed with the wrong musician when they broke Dave Carroll’s guitar through clumsy handling and refused to refund him. After nine months battling the bureaucracy, Carroll wrote a song about it. The resulting tune, United Breaks Guitars, went on to become one of 2009’s greatest viral hits. United Airlines were publicly humiliated, and their stock dropped 10% in four days. That’s an expensive guitar.

Scared? You should be. Social media can be a brand’s greatest asset or its fatal flaw. But really, these companies have only themselves to blame. Social gaffes are crises for brands, but also opportunities. If they respond promptly, take responsibility for the mistake and even put a humorous spin on it, then they’ll win their customers’ loyalty. But these companies ignored the problem, hoped it would go away, or censored customers’ messages. We hope you won’t do that. We also hope you’ll avoid road trips to rural America with a bunch of impressionable teenagers. But you can’t have everything….. Happy Halloween from blur Group.

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