Social Media Debacles: 8 Ways to Screw Up Socially

I stumbled across a fantastic collection of social media debacles in a slideshare presentation connected to an Advertising Age article by Michael Yeomans. I find the simultaneous danger and opportunity in social media interesting and exciting, and seeing a variety of examples of how it can go wrong not only offers direct “what not to do” advice, but insights into the nature of community behaviour and the future of marketing and customer relationships. Check out that slideshow for bite-sized summaries of each debacle, and of course feel free to search for more information about particular ones that catch your interest.

In the list, I noticed patterns, and wondered if there was a way to classify and organize the types of debacles in a meaningful way. In insane cube infographic below is what popped out. Click to enlarge!



I see 8 types of screw ups, each found at one of the 8 corners of the cube. They stem from 3 defining descriptive variables, each with 2 possible states. Each of the 8 possible ways to screw up is a combination of the 2 states for each of the 3 parameters: proactive or reactive, stemming from online or offline activities,with malicious or bening intent. 2 to the power of 3. 2 cubed. Hence the cube.

Here they are in a table:

TYPE Reactive Proactive Online Offline Good Bad
1. Unethical Business Practices No Yes No Yes No Yes
2. Deceitful Campaigns No Yes Yes No No Yes
3. One-Time Disaster Yes No No Yes Yes No
4. Lack of Presence Yes No Yes No Yes No
5. Poor Performance Yes No No Yes No Yes
6. Poor Response Yes No Yes No No Yes
7. Advertising Backlash No Yes No Yes Yes No
8. Unintended Social Behaviour No Yes Yes No Yes No

Each type lists example debacles, and for the most part, each debacle fits best into one main type. Some debacles can fit into more than one category. For example, the Bic Pen picking the U-Lock is an unintended disaster, but the lack of immediate response despite negative buzz was a second problem for which they carry the blame. Still, for the most part, each debacle fits into one main type.

The variables and their states are:

Participation Level: Reactive vs Proactive

Did the company create the problem directly, or did it happen to them passively? Is the brand being discussed on social media platforms without the company even knowing? Typically, the reactive side of social media problems is synonymous with damage control. Something has gone wrong and the company is trying to deal with the fallout, whether it be an unplanned unfortunate occurance, or negligent, offensive, or absent service. This is shown on the left side of the cube for each of its 4 screw up corners. The social media aspect can either be the inflated visibility of an unfortunate event, or the damaging way in which an event or a company’s general customer relationships are handled, potentially on a social media platform.

The proactive side shows the result of an explicit marketing campaign, and the problems that can come when social media is involved. If you do something wrong, people will find out and tell each other, whether you meant well or not. Marketing campaigns used to be essentially one-way, and the right side of the cube shows modern campaign activities that now elicit community response. Forgive the jargon, but the broadcast has become a conversation. This means you have to be that much more careful in what you do or say, because people will talk about what you talk about in your face.

Space: Online vs Offline

Some social media mistakes are online beginning-to-end, often involving botched action either on a social media platform a company has built on its own, or on its presence (or lack of presence) on an existing platform like Twitter or Facebook. These are represented in the bottom side of the cube. The top side shows cases where the problem started offline, catalyzed and exaggerated by the social web. YouTube can spread news of a company mistake to millions, and communication platforms like Twitter and blogs allow not only a place for public complaints to happen, but mechanisms by which these complaints can be shared and explode organically. The bottom line is, no matter where you screw up, expect people to talk about it where they talk about everything else: on the web.

Intention: Good vs Bad

Sometimes companies just have bad luck. Heck, the Pampers dry diaper rash problem turned out to not actually be real. Yes, there are cases where a person can invite bad luck through poor planning, being busy doing other things, or just not thinking something through, and I tend to generally not think “Oh, an oil spill – what bad luck for the poor oil company”, but as far as social debacles go, sometimes business as usual can turn into not only an out of nowhere disaster, but a child of that disaster through the web’s social response to it.

That said, sometimes people are just miserable, unacceptably ignorant, or deceitful. Marketers don’t always have the best reputation, and sometimes that reputation is well-deserved. Thankfully, social media tends to expose truth, with unprecedented exposure and forced honesty (Wikileaks, anyone?). Fool someone once, and now you have thousands of people who are ready to not get fooled again.

Sometimes an entire campaign is morally dubious, but sometimes it can come down to an angry/confused/ignorant/racist company-representing individual. You can always apologize and assure people that a rogue employee doesn’t represent you, but still, the effects of their transgressions persist. In a world where companies speak a lot more often than they used to (in, for example, maintaining a Twitter presence), the odds of a screw up go up, and once it happens, everybody knows.

As far as how these are represented on the cube, well… they’re the front and back. Which is which depends on just how you’re perceiving the Necker cube illusion at a given perceptual instant. Let’s say the bottom-left unskewed square is bad intentions, and top-right is not necessarily good intentions, but not really bad either.

Reading the Cube

If you’re looking for an example of a proactive but well-intentioned social media debacle that started offline, check the top right cube corner. Any combination of the three parameters will point to a corner and its associated screw ups based on the Advertising Age collection.

Whether you’re planning a marketing strategy or not, hoping to work it online or offline, and whether you mean well or not, just know that there’s always a way for social media to bite you in the ass.

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