What can be learned from 2 of 2015’s biggest social media campaign fails

Even the largest, most influential brands with expert social media teams still make catastrophic mistakes when executing social media campaigns. The results can range from mildly embarrassing, to offensive – sparking hateful responses that cause long term harm to a brand’s identity. Instead of crucifying those guilty of blunders, we’ve examined what you can learn from their mistakes:

Starbucks #RaceTogether

The campaign

Starbucks ambitiously launched #RaceTogether in March,  following the killings of unarmed teenagers Michael Brown and Eric Garner by the police and subsequent rioting. Spearheaded by CEO Howard Schultz, the campaign aimed to spark a national dialogue about race both in-store and on social media, which unknowingly catalysed a negative Twitterstorm.

The fail

Unsurprisingly, the white billionaire CEO of Starbucks naively thrusting the brand into the emotionally charged issue of racial inequality was considered superficial by most consumers,  and so the campaign ended a week later. Networked Insights found that most of the social media conversations that ensued about #RaceTogether were either not about race, or were negative reactions to the campaign and brand. More than one-third of social conversation was categorised as “hate” directed at the brand, the Race Together campaign, or Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz and nearly 60% of all conversation from the public contained some specific negative emotion.

The lessons  

  1. Do your research Lots of companies successfully start discussions on social media and positively engage their customer base. The problem with the #RaceTogether campaign was that it was poorly researched. The topic of discussion should never have been chosen. In an interview with Austin Carr, Starbucks Strategy officer Matt Ryan revealed that the company did no market research to vet whether #RaceTogether would resonate with the public. It’s hard to keep a social campaign on message – and this is proof.
  2. Convey a genuine message The campaign’s message heralds Starbucks CEO Schultz as a saviour, rather than anchoring for change. “It began with one voice,” read the campaign’s press release, “As racially charged tragedies unfolded in communities across the country, the chairman and CEO of Starbucks didn’t remain a silent bystander.” People didn’t buy into this.

SeaWorld #AskSeaWorld


The campaign

In an attempt to repair its damaged image (following documentary Blackfish and subsequent press), SeaWorld launched a Twitter campaign in March, encouraging followers to send in questions using the #AskSeaWorld hasthag.

The fail


As expected, the campaign completely backfired, because it openly created a  space and opportunity for criticism – tarnishing the brand’s image further rather than transforming it.

The lessons

Don’t take on your trolls, and know when to stop

Despite the campaign failing since the minute it was conceived, SeaWorld’s social media team kept going, and arrogantly ridiculed the campaign’s “trolls”, which infuriated people further.

If a social media campaign is failing and generating a negative response, don’t resist pulling the plug. End it as soon as possible and learn from your mistakes.

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