To be fair, social media advertising is tough. It is largely unchartered territory. Social media by itself is hugely popular, with its followers growing by the day. However, not everyone is getting the marketing right. The key to effective social media marketing is engagement. The businesses that are getting it right are engaging consumers in meaningful ways. Red Bull, Petco, Threadless and Skittles are all examples of social media advertising done right.

Petco, for instance, encourages its users to post pictures and videos of their pets. The company is at hand to respond to any pet-related queries that its users might have. IdeaPaint, a paint that helps create washable, writable surfaces and engages users by providing detailed videos on how to use its product that consumers can share with their friends.

However, several others are not getting it right. In some cases, the message does not resonate with users. Other times, companies are very slow to respond to social media messages that are not entirely flattering to their products. The news travels fast and usually affects the reputation of the company quickly. Sometimes the publicity is not company-approved or driven. The YouTube video of two of its employees doing lewd acts while preparing the food was something Domino's had little control over. The company can only have an effective damage control exercise in such cases. Here are a few examples where social media exercises backfired badly.

Lately, the first thing that seems come to mind when you think of Chick-fil-A is President Dan Cathy's anti-gay comments and the company's fake user account as a failed attempt at damage control. The Jim Henson Company withdrew the toys it provided with Chick-fil-A family meals.

A Facebook user ostensibly named 'Abby Farle' spoke in support of Chick-fil-A by claiming that the Henson toys were withdrawn weeks earlier due to safety issues.

However, another user pointed out that Abby's account had been activated only eight hours before she made the post and that her profile picture was from Shutterstock, a stock image site. Abby Farle, the well-informed teenage Facebook user was actually a hastily conceived fake profile by Chick-fil-A itself. The company's ethically dubious response only managed to attract further negative publicity. Its attempt to reduce bad word-of-mouth through social media backfired.

In response, the Jim Henson Company issued a public statement on its Facebook page announcing that it pulled its toys from Chick-fil-A because of the company's anti-gay stance. Many consumers condemned the company's stand on their respective Facebook pages. The debacle culminated in a same-sex kiss day in protest to the fast food chain. Overall, the incident was a public relations nightmare for Chick-fil-A.

Kenneth Cole
During the Egyptian uprising, American clothing designer Kenneth Cole used the #Cairo hash tag associated with the Egyptian people's movement to tweet about his 'Spring' collection:

"Millions are in uproar in #Cairo. Rumor is they heard our new spring collection is now available online at -KC."

The public outcry caused him to apologize on Twitter for making light of a serious situation. This insensitive statement was not surprising in light of his comments about the 9/11 attacks. He said "Important moments like this are a time to reflect … To remind us, sometimes, that it's not only important what you wear, but it's also important to be aware."

A fake account @KennethColePR was started by a twitter user who tweeted, "Our new slingback pumps would make Anne Frank come out of hiding! #KennethColeTweets." It was a PR disaster, gathering negative publicity. Industry watchers say that while it might have not been the right attention, Kenneth Cole still got attention.

Sony PSP
In 2006, the PSP division of Sony created a fake blog through the ad company Zipotini. It was called "All I want for Xmas is a PSP." The blog had two friends, one with a PSP and one without. The blog went on to say how badly they wanted one, and how others like them should badger their family and friends for one. Unfortunately, consumers saw through the hoax and slammed it. The blog registration information clearly showed Zipotini owned it. Never underestimate your consumers, especially if they are tech savvy. In its apology, Sony said:

"Busted. Nailed. Snagged. As many of you have figured out (maybe our speech was a little too funky fresh???), Peter isn't a real hip-hop maven and this site was actually developed by Sony. Guess we were trying to be just a little too clever. From this point forward, we will just stick to making cool products, and use this site to give you nothing but the facts on the PSP. Sony Computer Entertainment America."

The Australian airways initiated an online competition via its Twitter account @QuantasAirways. Prizes included pajamas and a luxury kit. It stated that #quantasluxury tag must be included in the replies. What was meant to be an exercise in creating further brand interest turned out to be a venting exercise for its customers, who wrote in their worst experiences flying Quantas, much to the airline's dismay.

The fast food giant asked people to share stories on Twitter about their fondest memories at McDonalds' restaurants, using #McDStories. Consumers had a very different idea and instead tweeted about their worst experiences with McDonald's food and service. Overall, more than half of the tweets with the hashtag were negative, making it more a "bash-tag."

The Bottom Line
These stories prove that it is important for companies to cultivate a positive social media presence. Good publicity and word-of-mouth are invaluable to a brand. If companies must speak to consumers, they must do so truthfully and unpretentiously or be shamed very publicly.

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