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Lessons to Learn in Branding From 6 Social Media Marketing Fails

Social media is a critical link in the customer experience chain. According to U.K.-based digital marketing education company Smart Insights, 90% of all social media users have used social media to communicate with a brand, and 75% of users take to social media to share positive experiences with brands.

But consumers and brands don’t necessarily see eye to eye on social media. Smart Insights also notes that 80% of companies say they provide exceptional customer service on social media. But just 8% of customers agree. That’s due in part to brands’ lackadaisical social media support; brands ignore fully one-third of customers’ social media complaints.

Clearly, brands need to do more to engage current and prospective customers on social media. This is a continual process that requires old-fashioned investment in human resources. Brands must add to customer support teams, train new hires, and standardize customer engagement practices so all consumers they interact with have similar experiences.

While improving and fine-tuning run-of-the-mill customer interactions, brands must also take measures to avoid social media crises of their own making. It only takes one serious social media misstep to jeopardize a reputation that’s been years in the making.

The fallout from one of these egregious fails spreads far and wide, often indiscriminately. After Snapchat hosted a horribly insensitive ad trivializing domestic violence, the publicly traded social platform lost $800 million in market value, putting the financial security and livelihoods of uninvolved shareholder-employees at risk.

If you’re in a position of power at any organization with official social media handles, or people will reasonably perceive you as representing your company online, you owe it to your employer, your colleagues, and yourself to avoid social media fails that erode audience trust and threaten customer relationships.

What Qualifies As a Social Media Fail?

There’s a difference between a run-of-the-mill social media gaffe a five-alarm fail.

Where the line between them falls depends on your organization’s target audiences, platform choices, and brand positioning. An edgy, irreverent publisher – say, an energy drink or fragrance brand targeting males ages 18 to 24 on Snapchat – can get away with a lot more than a buttoned-up publisher – say, a consumer products or food staple brand targeting parents of kids ages 8 to 12 on Facebook.

But there’s a line for every brand. Social media content that’s inherently offensive, inappropriate to the audience or platform, or potentially unsafe to consumers is entirely off-limits for any organization or its representatives. That includes:

  • Audience-Inappropriate Content. Vulgar language or not-safe-for-work (NSFW) multimedia.
  • Offensive Content. Content that targets or has the effect of targeting specific audience segments, such as memes that demean specific racial or demographic groups.
  • Tone-Deaf Content. Some content doesn’t rise to the level of outright offensiveness but goes viral for the wrong reasons, embarrassing the account owner or brand.
  • Posts Made to the Wrong Account. People who operate brands’ social media accounts probably have personal accounts on the same platform. Using the same method, such as a third-party app like Hootsuite, to post to both increases the likelihood they’ll accidentally post to an official account something intended for their personal account. How big a fail this is depends on what they post. But it never looks good.
  • Threats or Harassment. Things like targeted attacks on others or “doxxing,” which is publicly posting someone’s contact or personally identifying information to encourage others to harass or harm them.
  • Internal Communications Failures. Examples include publishing an incomplete draft post or posting a company announcement that isn’t ready for release.
  • Offensive or Inappropriate Posts by Employees. Examples include badmouthing a client or using politically incorrect language.

Fails like these require urgent remedial action. Depending on the infraction’s nature and severity, the appropriate remedy ranges from a follow-up apology and correction to a full-blown crisis response covering multiple internal and external communication channels.

Brand-representing employees, such as a well-known CEO, who commit minor infractions generally participate in these remedies. Following profoundly offensive fails that a single employee was clearly responsible for – or whom the company can easily blame – brands are more likely to sever ties with them and task its communications team with cleanup duties.

Employers are typically more forgiving of social media fails by employees acting in a wholly personal capacity. That’s why it’s essential to dissociate personal handles from your employer with an “opinions are my own” or similar disclaimer in your bio or to take the more drastic step of making your personal social accounts private. Still, egregious personal posts may have professional consequences, especially if they go viral and ensnare your employer. Screenshots last forever. Deleting and apologizing for the offending post sometimes comes too late to prevent blowback.

It’s best if your company distributes an official social media policy that covers your expected social media etiquette for both representative employees – those who have known ties to the company, such as an executive or public relations representative – and private employees, such as administrative or support staff whose association with the company may or may not be known to the public.

Real-World Social Media Fails & What You Can Learn From Them

Each of these very real fails has something to teach us about social media’s risks and rewards.

1. A Wildly Inappropriate Link to the “Yanny/Laurel” Meme – U.S. Air Force

Us Air Force Soldiers Silhouette Jets

In May 2018, the United States Air Force’s official Twitter handle published an awkwardly constructed tweet linking a recent airstrike in Afghanistan to a viral audio meme in which an auditory illusion causes some people to hear “Yanny” when the speaker is actually saying “Laurel.”

According to The Guardian, the since-deleted tweet read: “The Taliban forces in Farah city #Afghanistan would much rather have heard #Yanny or #Laurel than the deafening #BRRRT they got courtesy of our #A10,” and linked to an Air Force release describing the strike. “#A10” references a type of Air Force attack aircraft; “#BRRRT” appears to mimic the sound of machine gunfire. Citing a coalition spokesperson, Stars and Stripes reported that the Farah strike killed 28 Taliban fighters.

The Air Force’s tweet drew protest on Twitter and sharp questioning at a Pentagon press briefing. As the blowback intensified, the Air Force deleted the tweet and posted an apology: “We apologize for the earlier tweet regarding the A-10. It was made in poor taste and we are addressing it internally. It has since been removed.”

  • Why This Qualifies As a Fail: The Air Force’s tweet makes light of a targeted airstrike that caused significant casualties. While the Taliban isn’t exactly popular with the U.S. military’s marketing audiences, joking about bloodshed – even when it occurs on the battlefield and follows the rules of engagement – is plainly in poor taste. Separately and subjectively, the Yanny/Laurel link is a strained one. This attempt at humor just isn’t funny or clever.
  • What They Could Have Done Differently: The Air Force should have gone with a more straightforward post that announced the airstrike and linked to an official statement with more detail. The offensive and misguided attempt at humor detracted from the whole point: to tout successful action against a canny U.S. enemy.
  • How to Avoid a Similar Fail: Don’t try too hard to associate your organization’s activities with transient memes – or current events, for that matter. The Air Force may have included the Yanny/Laurel reference to capture traffic around the then-popular hashtags despite growing evidence that hashtags aren’t particularly effective drivers of social media engagement. It didn’t work as intended, and the juxtaposition with the tweet’s deadly theme created a host of other problems for the Air Force.

2. Drawing a Blank – McDonald’s

Mcdonalds Logo Motto On Inflatable Balloon

In 2017, McDonald’s posted a Black Friday tweet that drew a blank – literally. In its entirety, the tweet read: “Black Friday **** Need copy and link****.”

McDonald’s never explained the placeholder tweet, but a scheduling error is likely to blame. A member of the social media team probably added the placeholder to the draft deck in the company’s social media scheduling software, then forgot to go back and add the “copy and link” before the draft went live. That draft deck is probably full of similar placeholders. This one just fell through the cracks.

McDonald’s soon issued a tongue-in-cheek nonapology in reply to the original tweet. Over an image of a man savoring a cup of McCafé coffee, the reply read: “When you tweet before your first cup of McCafé… Nothing comes before coffee.”

But the follow-up was too late to prevent a cascade of mocking replies from the handle’s followers. And as the tweet went viral, people who didn’t follow the brand were also eager to pile on. At least one competitor got in on the action.

  • Why This Qualifies As a Fail: This fail is the stuff social media marketing managers’ nightmares are made of. While the tweet wasn’t offensive or tone-deaf, it implied incompetence. The effect was magnified by McDonald’s sky-high name recognition and generally positive reputation. How could one of the world’s best-known brands, beloved by millions, make such a basic mistake?
  • What They Could Have Done Differently: Though prone to fails like this one, social media scheduling is a necessary evil for active publishers with multiple social channels and limited staff resources. Odds are McDonald’s could have prevented this incident without taking drastic measures like switching over to live-only social media posting. The company could have used an internal organization tool to provide better visibility of their social media pipeline or required a higher-up to sign off on all scheduled social media posts.
  • How to Avoid a Similar Fail: Switching over to live-only social media posting isn’t an option for brands like McDonald’s. But for smaller organizations and individuals undertaking personal branding campaigns, it often is. Live or not, always proofread post drafts and confirm they’re going out under the correct handle. If you’re using scheduling software, double-check the publication date and time. And if you do slip up, take a page out of McDonald’s rapid response book. This is one situation that does call for making light of your mistake. That McDonald’s didn’t immediately delete the tweet suggests its social media team saw an opportunity in what otherwise would have remained an embarrassing fail.

3. Dogsledding on Earth Day – Jeff Bezos & Amazon

Amazon Warehouse Sunset Poland

On Earth Day 2018, Amazon founder and gazillionaire Jeff Bezos tweeted what he thought was a heartfelt ode to humanity’s home planet.

The tweet read: “Dog sledding above the Arctic Circle in Norway. Jim Lovell says it’s not that you go to heaven when you die, but ‘you go to heaven when you’re born.’ Earth is the best planet in our solar system. We go to space to save the Earth. @BlueOrigin #NoPlanB #GradatimFerociter #EarthDay”

It didn’t go over so well. The replies, hundreds of them, torched Bezos for enjoying an extravagant vacation while tens of thousands of poorly paid Amazon warehouse workers toiled in brutal conditions. Comedian Sarah Silverman piled on, drawing more attention to the tweet.

  • Why This Qualifies As a Fail: Bezos probably didn’t clear this tweet with his publicist. Highlighting an exotic adventure that likely cost more than the average Amazon warehouse worker makes in a year is painfully tone-deaf. It’s also unnecessarily self-promotional – Blue Origin is Bezos’ private spaceflight company.
  • What They Could Have Done Differently: Bezos doesn’t appear to have ever acknowledged the controversy around his Earth Day 2018 tweet, let alone admit fault – perhaps because doing so would validate his critics. But Bezos’ inaction fueled the perception he’s an out-of-touch plutocrat with no empathy for working people and no interest in sharing the fruits of his immense success. The tweet’s self-promotional aside further contributed to that narrative, fairly or not.
  • How to Avoid a Similar Fail: Until you’re the multibillionaire owner of a company that employs a poorly paid, overworked army, you won’t repeat Bezos’ mistake. In the meantime, avoid social media content a reasonable person might interpret as hypocritical or tone-deaf. Take the same care when posting from your personal account, where you’re more likely to let your guard down. A good start is to refrain from pointed political or social commentary when it’s likely to be associated with the organization you represent unless your superiors give you such discretion. And when in doubt, don’t post.

4. Asking the Wrong Question – Lockheed Martin

Lockheed Martin Website Missiles Homepage

Defense giant Lockheed Martin got a rude lesson in unintended consequences when it asked Twitter for “amazing photo[s] of one of our products” for World Photo Day 2018.

According to HuffPost, the now-deleted post read: “Do you have an amazing photo of one of our products? Tag us in your pic and we may feature it during our upcoming #WorldPhotoDay celebration on Aug. 19!”

It’s not clear there’s ever a good time for the world’s largest weapons manufacturer to ask followers for photos of its products in action. But Lockheed’s timing was nevertheless abysmal. Per HuffPost, the tweet came soon after CNN identified Lockheed as the manufacturer of the laser-guided bomb used in a Saudi-led airstrike that killed dozens of schoolchildren and adults.

The tweet prompted a furious response. Dozens of respondents posted public domain images of the airstrike and its aftermath, including horrifying photos of blood-soaked UNICEF backpacks.

  • Why This Qualifies As a Fail: It’s mind-boggling that a massive defense conglomerate would see nothing wrong with asking the general public to post photos of any of its products in action. Lockheed’s failure to read the room unleashed a deluge of graphic content that may have violated Twitter’s terms of service while drawing attention to its most controversial business line. The World Photo Day tweet also prompted justifiable questions about the competence of its social media team. Though no reliable reporting has emerged about the tweet’s aftermath, it’s possible someone lost their job over this fail.
  • What They Could Have Done Differently: At minimum, Lockheed should have limited its request to less controversial product lines. The company’s cyber defense products don’t (directly) cause death or injury, for instance, and its advanced manufacturing solutions are cool in the abstract.
  • How to Avoid a Similar Fail: Avoid leaning into known controversies or reputational challenges affecting your organization. If you have the resources, invest in market research to learn more about how prospective customers perceive your brand and identify potential marketing no-go zones.

5. Trivializing Domestic Violence – Snapchat

Snapchat App Cellphone Logo

In early 2018, Snapchat ran a third-party ad that asked users which they’d like more: to “slap Rihanna” or “punch Chris Brown.”

The ad was an obvious reference to Brown’s February 2009 assault of then-girlfriend Rihanna. Later that year, Brown pleaded guilty to one count of assault with intent to cause great bodily harm. His rap sheet has ballooned in the years since, according to an E! News timeline.

Widely shared by Snapchat users, the ad drew widespread condemnation from domestic violence advocates. As the backlash grew, Snapchat deleted the ad, saying it violated the platform’s advertising guidelines and they’d approved the ad in error. After that, Rihanna herself responded – on Instagram. She said, in part, “You spent money to animate something that would intentionally bring shame to DV victims and made a joke of it!!!”

According to Vanity Fair, Snapchat’s stock price fell 4% the day after the controversy broke, erasing about $800 million in shareholder value in a stark illustration of the real-world consequences of social media misuse.

  • Why This Qualifies As a Fail: Domestic violence is never a laughing matter. Though Snapchat didn’t create the offending ad’s content, its ad team implicitly endorsed the ad’s content by making it visible to millions of users, including victims of domestic violence. Moreover, the ad quickly went viral as Snapchat users shared and talked about it, exposing it to a much wider audience than most Snapchat ads.
  • What They Could Have Done Differently: Outright prohibitions on certain types of advertising content would have prevented this incident. For instance, many digital publishers refuse to accept ads and promotions containing references to gaming, depictions of violence, or sexually explicit content. Snapchat claimed to have such restrictions in place, but they clearly weren’t followed here. Separately, advertisers themselves – in this case, the third party that submitted the ad to Snapchat – should enact clear policies restricting inappropriate content and hold marketing employees responsible for their poor judgment.
  • How to Avoid a Similar Fail: Whether you’re responsible for advertising decisions or simply wish to keep your organization’s social media account appropriate for all audiences, use common sense. Avoid subjects that are highly likely to offend – and, in this case, to traumatize – entire audience groups. If you’re not sure a joke or reference is OK to post to an official social media account, it’s probably not.

6. The NSFW Like – Sen. Ted Cruz

Ted Cruz Senator Public Speaking American Flag

In the early morning hours of Sept. 11, 2017, Texas senator and former presidential candidate Ted Cruz’s official Twitter account liked a tweet containing a sexually explicit video clip.

Though the Cruz account undid the like within a day or so, countless Twitter users screenshotted the original post in the account’s history, creating a permanent record of the fiasco. Others piled on the staunchly conservative senator, dinging his apparent hypocrisy. According to The Washington Post, Cruz argued a variety of prudish positions as a young law clerk and later Texas’ solicitor general, including writing a 76-page brief supporting a state ban on the sale of sex toys. National media picked up the story, further embarrassing Cruz.

As the furor grew, Cruz blamed a staffer for the mistake – though he declined to identify the individual or say whether he’d taken any disciplinary action against them. Cruz’s staff reported the explicit tweet to Twitter, which eventually suspended its publisher’s account, to the great dismay of its legions of fans.

Ironically, by humanizing the famously wooden senator, Cruz’s folly helped his reputation with some. One anonymous Twitter user whose posts make it clear they’re no fan of Cruz wrote: “Liking a porn tweet is by far the least offensive, most normal thing Ted Cruz has ever done.”

  • Why This Qualifies As a Fail: Cruz didn’t publish the sexually explicit tweet himself. But his account’s like was wildly off-brand given his conservative politics and professional background. If there’s a silver lining in the situation, it’s that the voting public is far more tolerant of officeholders’ foibles these days than a generation ago, when Cruz’s mistake would have threatened his career.
  • What They Could Have Done Differently: If we take Cruz’s explanation for the errant like at face value, the senator should have exerted tighter control over his Twitter handle, perhaps by limiting access to himself and a single trusted social media manager. If Cruz himself was the perpetrator, as was widely speculated, he should have kept a Twitter account without thousands of high-profile followers – ideally one without anything that could positively identify its owner as the junior senator from Texas – for late-night browsing. Perhaps he does now.
  • How to Avoid a Similar Fail: Limit official account access to a small circle of trusted colleagues. Never use official accounts for nonprofessional purposes, especially not scandalous ones. And avoid personal social media activity that could reflect negatively on you or your employer.

Final Word

These six social media fails are the proverbial tip of the iceberg. If you’re an active social media user, you’ve almost certainly encountered cringeworthy slip-ups – and worse – not mentioned here. And fresh fails are surely on the way.

The good news for brands and their human representatives is that every social media fail presents a learning opportunity, no matter how unfortunate the circumstance or dire the consequences. These six fails have countless analogues, each of which is another example of what not to do online.

More important still: Many social media fails transcend the digital realm to provide object lessons in real-world etiquette, tolerance, and social norms. We might never have the opportunity to dogsled on Earth Day, and we should all know that domestic violence is never funny. But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from the tangible consequences of hurtful content and strive to be better than that.

What’s the worst social media mistake you’ve ever made? What did you learn from it?

Brian Martucci
Brian Martucci writes about credit cards, banking, insurance, travel, and more. When he's not investigating time- and money-saving strategies for Money Crashers readers, you can find him exploring his favorite trails or sampling a new cuisine. Reach him on Twitter @Brian_Martucci.

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