Lessons from Twitter hell

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Lately, it seems that using Twitter can be hazardous to your company's health. Consider three recent incidents:
  • Fashion designer Kenneth Cole enraged many people in the Twittersphere last month with a tweet that took advantage of the human drama in Egypt to push a line of clothing. As the tweet went, “Millions are in uproar in #Cairo. Rumor is they heard our new spring collection is now available ...” The company later apologized for the action.
  • Earlier this month, Microsoft's Bing search engine used the earthquake and tsunami in Japan in a promotion tied to disaster relief. The company offered to donate $1 for every retweet of @bing, up to $100,000. Bing was slammed for insensitivity in using a tragedy to promote a search engine.
  • A Chrysler Group employee sent a tweet under the Chrysler account insulting Detroit drivers. “I find it ironic that Detroit is known as the #motorcity and yet no one here knows how to f-----g drive,” the message read. That snafu was particularly embarrassing in light of Chrysler's recent celebrations of Detroit in ad campaigns. Chrysler later fired its social media agency.

The fact that these were big-name consumer companies no doubt contributed to media coverage of the incidents, but there are lessons here for all marketers. Those who tweet on behalf of their brands live in glass houses, and the ease of delivering a message to a global audience can be a curse as well as a blessing.

Technology has steadily lowered the barriers to making a fool of oneself. Twitter is fast and easy and it promotes spontaneity; but it's easy to forget that it's a public medium. Every message is searchable and even archived by the Library of Congress.

The risk of misstep has only grown as businesses have adopted such clients as TweetDeck and HootSuite, which enable people to juggle multiple accounts simultaneously. At the click of a mouse, an embarrassing message about your hangover can inadvertently go out under the corporate account.

Some high-end commercial packages offer approval options that limit the potential for such damage, but only a few companies use them. For most of us, Twitter is still the Wild West.

There's still a vast disconnect between businesses' enthusiasm for social media and their ability to use it effectively. The Halo Group recently surveyed attendees and found that 96% were using social media marketing, but only 9% had a social media training program for their staffs. These companies are playing with fire.

Ironically, in each of these cases, the communicators were supposedly knowledgeable spokesman who could be trusted to represent their organizations. Kenneth Cole and Bing went public with promotions that probably would have raised alarms if vetted in advance. The guy at Chrysler's agency was just reckless.

Don't expect Twitter to solve this problem for you. If you're going to use the tool as a marketing device, it's your responsibility to teach your people how to do that. It's been said that the Internet is the greatest focus group ever invented. But unlike social media, focus groups take place behind closed doors.

When using social media, don't say anything that you wouldn't want to see the next day in The New York Times. Because you just might.

Paul Gillin is an Internet marketing consultant and the author of three books about social media. He also writes the “New Channels” column in BtoB.

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