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The dangers of social media

The past couple of years have provided some of the best – and worst – of social media issues. Here’s a recap, and how to avoid making the same mistakes yourself.


The rise of social media has led to some amazing breakthroughs for small business, especially in the way we market our businesses and engage with our customers.

However, the number of terrible mistakes that businesses are making on social media – with the potential for massive amounts of damage to their brand – seems to be increasing.

Every week, there’s a new outrage, or a fresh blunder, which serves to cause enormous issues for the business owners, and provides fodder for those online types who like nothing more than to see others fail.

So – what are the big mistakes, and how can you avoid them? Here are just a handful of examples, so we can all learn from their mistakes and get on with running our businesses.


Giving customers control

Social media – and the internet in general - is a great platform to help get your customers to engage with your brand. But it’s worth remembering that there’s nothing ‘the internet’ loves more than a social media boilover – especially when it’s one that certain elements of online users get to hijack and make their own.


Any marketing campaign that effectively hands the reins of the brand over to the consumer is fraught with danger. The likelihood of the outcome being anything other than damaging is growing increasingly small, even with the amount of ‘worst case scenario’ testing that goes into most marketing efforts these days.


McDonald’s, one of the world’s most marketing-savvy brands, found this out the hard way recently, when it’s New Zealand arm set up a website that allowed users from anywhere in the world to ‘build their own hamburger and name it’.


By all accounts, the campaign was progressing quite normally and providing a fun outlet for consumers to tinker with the kind of food they would like McDonald’s to make. However, it wasn’t long before the so-called ‘trolls’ of the internet caught wind of the promotion, and the shenanigans began.


Without repeating what the more dire examples were, it wasn’t long before the site was a mess of ‘joke’ entries, ranging from reasonably clever through to outright offensive and obscene. McDonald’s pulled the pin on the site – and hopefully learnt its lesson.

Microsoft also fell foul of the online trolls in March of this year, when it released an artificial intelligence (AI) Twitter bot called ‘Tay’. Tay was designed to respond to comments it received via Twitter, GroupMe and Kik – and to learn from what it was being told, before sending out Tweets of its own.


It was a remarkable step forward for AI and machine learning, because Tay turned out to be highly adept at learning. Sadly, it was the trolls that were doing all the teaching, and within 24 hours, Tay went from being a benign experiment in AI and became a racist, homophobic tweeting machine.


The lesson here is about ensuring that if you give control of your brand to your consumers, there’s a good chance it could go wrong – and when it does, it’s very hard to get that genie back in the bottle.


Responding to bad reviews

No one likes a bad review – a single disgruntled customer or client can be very bad for small businesses. And now that we live in a digital age, bad reviews have stopped spreading by word of mouth, and are now instantly available to billions of people around the world, via websites such as Yelp.


Yelp has recently become a notorious battleground between business owners and customers, with a number of business owners (especially, for some reason, restaurant owners) giving back as good as – or, often worse – responses to one-star reviews.

The best we’ve seen so far this year belongs to a man called Mark Neary, who runs a trendy café in Denver, Colorado. Neary’s response to a customer’s complaint about not having any decaf coffee options was a stunning example of how not to respond online.


The customer in question was “Jan M.”, a 74-year-old woman who did the usual Yelp thing – she left what appeared to be a genuine complaint and question about some aspects of the menu (including the aforementioned coffee).


Neary replied by accusing the woman of hiding behind her age, and being an “a**hole” – and in the process, earning himself a fairly steady stream of online abuse from other patrons in the process.


It doesn’t stop there for Mr Neary, either – as someone who is clearly personally invested in his business, he takes a lot of the negative reviews to heart, and has been involved in more than one online incident in recent months.

The problem with Yelp (and other similar sites) again comes down to the question of how to deal with bad reviews. The issue has become so widespread, that the animated TV show South Park dedicated an entire episode to it – (it’s worth watching, but not for the easily offended).


Yelp does have some insights into how to cope with bad reviews on its website, as a way of dealing with the onslaught of business owners making a mess of dealing with unhappy customers.


“Before responding to a negative review, take a deep breath and think very carefully about what you are going to write. Or even better, don’t think too much: just keep it simple by thanking your customer for the patronage and feedback,” the Yelp site says.


“But please be very careful here: if your reviewer perceives that you are being rude, condescending or disingenuous in any way, there’s a chance he or she could get angry and make the situation even worse. Keep in mind that this is a vocal customer who could well copy and paste your message all over the Web,” the site continues.

Thje point here is that vocal customers can, and often do, spread their message far and wide when they don’t get a reasonable, considered response from your business.


Check your links…

This could well sound like “social media 101”, but there have recently been a number of high profile social media foul-ups that boil down to simple user error – when the person tweeting or posting to Facebook doesn’t check that the link that they’re sending people to is correct.

Most of the time, it’s relatively harmless, and fixable by removing the post and re-posting the correct information. But it’s important to remember that once the post is made, it’s pretty much out there for good.


That’s what happened to an ESPN analyst called Gerry Hamilton, who was reporting on the seemingly innocuous news that the sports network’s 29th-ranked football recruit, Roquan Smith, had scheduled an official visit to Texas A&M.


Included in the tweet was what should have been a link to the ESPN website’s story about Smith. However, the link went to a porn site. The result was highly embarrassing for Hamilton, and for the network, which reprimanded the reporter and reportedly put serious restrictions on how and when he was able to use his Twitter account for a few months.

It’s not just journalists who get it wrong on Twitter as well. Recently, beer giants Budweiser made a serious mis-step in its online marketing campaign, which centred around a hashtag #UpForWhatever – which was clearly meant to play on the idea of fun and spontaneity among its customer base.


But when the brand tweeted an image sporting the tagline “”The perfect beer for removing ‘no’ from your vocabulary for the night” the result was somewhat less inspiring that the brand had hoped for.


The internet lit up with criticism of the brand, for making light of date rape, with a number of people and concerned groups calling for a boycott of the brand. It took weeks for the incident to die down – and left a lot of the marketing staff at Budweiser very red-faced.


Summing up

It’s easy to forget a few of the salient things about social media that we tend to take for granted. With enormous scope for reaching out to thousands of people at once, it seems like a golden age for marketing your brand or business.


But it’s also very easy for things to go wrong – as the examples we’ve looked at in this article show. The thing is that these are literally the tip of the iceberg when it comes to social media fails by businesses, big and small.



The pro-tip from all of this is simple… remember that you’re talking to virtually everyone at once, and that once you hit ‘send’, it’s impossible to take it back


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