Social Media Screw-ups: A Brief History

A Look at Some Big Missteps -- and What We Can Learn From Them

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Seven years is a long time in social media as countless companies have found to their detriment. Take Burger King. Just last month it was forced to change its palm oil sourcing in the face of some fierce Greenpeace social-media protest pressure. Back in 2003 no one had heard of a "social-media swarm," and the exploding business of social-media monitoring and measurement didn't even exist. Of course neither did YouTube, Facebook or Twitter and it is these social-publishing platforms, along with the personal publishing power of blogs, that have brought about a sea-change in the way companies have been forced (yes, forced) to communicate with their customers.

So, at a time when social CRM is the new holy grail for online marketers, and when every major brand has woken up to the power of social media, we've decided to take a trawl back through the social-media history books (e-books, of course) and catalog the learning curve, to put it politely, that companies have experienced when dealing with social media.

Admittedly, we call our project "A Short History of Social Media Screw-Ups" because, let's face it, there have been some whoppers over the years in terms of dumb marketing, officious customer service and plain asleep-at-the-wheel moments in monitoring online reputation. From Kryptonite locks (long the savior of lazy social-media consultants) right up to Burger King, we've documented 37 individual cases of companies being caught out by the new environment of two-way conversation.

Social media Screw Ups - A History
Perhaps the most interesting part of our jaunt back through history is what the numbers tell us. In little over six years Facebook has amassed 500 million members, more than 14 billion videos are viewed each day on YouTube and Twitter has more than 165 million users. Against that growth, 37 major corporate screw-ups doesn't seem that big. Sure, high-profile snafus like the Tropicana rebranding debacle can cost the brand millions, and a coordinated pressure group campaign against Pampers can spark product safety investigations and lawsuits, but what seems clear is that companies have gotten smarter about listening and learning from social-media conversations and they're dedicating serious resources to engaging in social media.

However, the other learning we take from our research is that as quickly as our way of communicating changes, so does the likelihood that companies will be caught off guard by a new social-media screw-up. We've seen blog storms and we've lived through the whirlwind of Twitter swarms. Who would bet against a big Foursquare or Facebook Places furor?

Matthew Yeomans is co-founder of Custom Communication, an online strategy, training and content consultancy, and editor-at-large of Social Media Influence.
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