Hashtag: (noun) The # symbol, called a hashtag, is used to mark keywords or topics in a Tweet. It was created organically by Twitter users as a way to categorize messages.
RIM and McDonald’s have both recently learned the hard way in the past couple of weeks that hashtags are meant to be created bottom-up by Twitter users, not fed top-down by corporations. Tweeters have been having a field day hijacking McDonald’s promoted #MeetTheFarmers paid Twitter campaign. McDonald’s switched mid-stride from #MeetTheFarmers to #McDStories when the initial hashtag failed to trend – bad move!
Expecting stories about families visiting their restaurants and other similarly positive stories, McDonald’s never foresaw the backlash of their newest hashtag campaign. Hijacking Tweeters used the hashtag to rant about McDonald’s, linking the hashtag to stories about employee mistreatment, animal cruelty, and health issues. A company as polarizing as McDonald’s has its share of supporters and critics; as one Tweeter succinctly summarized the situation: “The only surprising thing about the #McDStories #fail was that they didn’t see it coming.”
What shocks me even more is that one week after the #McDStories hashtag fail, RIM introduced the #BeBold hashtag: insert hashtag #fail number two! Despite RIM reporting 35,000 appropriate interactions with the hashtag, hijackers once again took over, dominating the Twitterverse with messages linked to technology frustrations and corporate weakening. The #BeBold campaign was coupled with a highly criticized brand faux pas involving a quartet of costumed superheroes as mascots; one more demonstration by RIM that they are terribly out of touch with their consumers.
What can we learn from RIM and McDonald’s respective hashtag #fail stories? Social media is ruthless. Relinguishing control of your message, involving consumers in the discussion, is risky business. Constrained framing, distinct direction, and proactive management are vital to success. When McDonald’s hashtag went negatively viral, the company attempted to backtrack and reverse the issue rather than proactively dealing with the fallout, interacting with the hijackers. Listening to consumers, responding to their concerns, and engaging in discussion could have leant nicely to a pseudo-recovery for McDonald’s and RIM.
Social media can be a sustainable marketers best friend or worst enemy. It’s a finicky beast. Enter Kenneth Cole and their #epicfail hashtag hijacking the #Cairo hashtag during the Egypt uprisings against the government. Capitalizing on a trending hashtag, Kenneth Cole effectively alienated thousands with one of the most controversial hashtag campaigns to date. Ethically wrong. Morally corrupt. This attempt reflected terribly on the fashion house.
Overall lesson learned: tread carefully when developing promoted hashtag campaigns or they will quickly turn into out-of-control bashtag campaigns. Social media is an animal that few can predict and none can control.