When 3M decided it wanted to capitalize on all the free publicity surrounding Scott Ableman’s 2006 decoration of his colleague’s Jag, Mr Ableman very reasonably offered to sell 3M the rights to the photographs for $2,000.
Those familiar with licensing will know this is not an unreasonable amount – far from it in fact. But bizarrely, 3M said they could recreate it in their garage for half that amount and requested Mr Ableman match that price. When Ableman balked at the request, 3M made good on the promise and produced a copycat Post-it car, which was then sent on tour.
The result was one of the very first social media backlashes and 3M found itself in a position of being viewed as a curmudgeon, a self-satisfied killjoy and facing accusations of copyright infringement when for the princely sum of $2,000 it could have enhanced its credentials as a forward-thinking and fun company.
David Meerman-Scott wrote a well-measured piece at the time on Web Ink Now (one of the web’s longest running blogs) that not only discussed the case in point, but also offered some early observations on social media ethics.
Over 5 years later, it seems that some companies have learned a few lessons about how a lot of goodwill is worth a little money, while others still seem to take the “If it’s going to cost us anything then screw the goodwill” approach.
In November 2011, Britain’s largest travel agent Thomas Cook found a post on their Facebook page from…..a 26 year old Brit called Thomas Cook.
Mr Cook informed Thomas Cook that, following a lifetime of putting up with silly jokes about his name, he though that Thomas Cook might like to compensate him for pain and suffering by providing him with a free trip to Paris.
At this point, some forward-thinking young whizz at Thomas Cook might have stopped for a moment and mused “Hmmmm, y’know maybe we can have a little fun with this….”. It was, after all, little more than a joke.
But no. Perhaps not surprisingly, Mr Cook received a response that was polite, matter of fact, provided an immensely helpful link to the Thomas Cook website homepage , missed the point completely and when all is said and done, was utterly hopeless.
I suspect that Mr Cook had originally posted his request as a joke, but Thomas Cook’s sense of humor failure clearly seemed to spur him on. He posted again on the Thomas Cook page that he was not asking for a freebie, but for compensation, also advising them that after so many years the requested compensation was well below market value and that they were welcome.
Small online travel retailer lowcostholidays.com had been running some google search PPC activity to ask consumers whether they had been “Thomas Crooked”. Clearly, lowcostholidays.com were already enjoying baiting the market leader so when one of their marketing team, Charlotte Hunt, saw the exchange on the Thomas Cook Facebook page, she immediately saw an opportunity to irritate the 800lb gorilla a bit further, and maybe drum up a little positive rep for her own company.
Using her personal Facebook account, she sent Mr Cook a direct message that essentially said that if Thomas Cook are too mean to help you, then lowcostholidays.com would do the right thing in their place. She then proceeded to offer him not just one weekend in Paris for him, but a week there for him and a friend,. The offer was serious but the tone was tongue in cheek and light-hearted, in keeping with Mr Cook’s original post to Thomas Cook.
Fastforward 10 months……
Mr Cook, finally redeeming the offer from lowcostholidays.com, snapped a picture of himself and a friend at the Eiffel Tower. He posted it to Reddit, under the title “Benefits of sharing my name with a travel agent”.
In a matter of hours, the picture had been upvoted to the Reddit frontpage, and was going viral on Twitter. So, for the cost of maybe $2,000, lowcostholidays.com got themselves many times that amount of brand name exposure, not to mention the added benefit of being seen as Prince Valiant to Thomas Cook’s Wicked Witch of the West.
The lesson of all this? Well, the lessons haven’t changed and I’m not going to repeat them since we all hopefully know them, even though some still ignore them. ‘Ahem’, like Thomas Cook then went on to do.
With Mr. Cook’s photo getting mass exposure on Reddit and Twitter, Thomas Cook (who presumably had thought this had all gone away months earlier and had deleted all trace of Mr. Cook from their Facebook page) could have decided to be magnanimous, held their hands up and said “OK, fair enough, you got us”.
But no. Thomas Cook made a new post to their Facebook page congratulating Mr Cook and acknowledging the part played by lowcostholidays….but then completely screwed the pooch by saying that they can’t give away free trips to everyone, but that they do a lot for charity and perhaps Mr. Cook might like to volunteer.
So, as well as failing to give him a free trip, they now tried to force-feed him a guilt trip.
Presumably several very clever people pushed what to do back and forth, and thought that this would be a good way to take the high road while giving Mr Cook a discreet kick in the shins and making themselves look pious. But a look through the comments in response reveals that they’re not really fooling anyone. One doesn’t take the high road and kick in the shins at the same time. This isn’t rocket science, folks.
Why is it that big companies are frequently so much less agile when it comes to Social Media? Is it simply the obvious answer that they have become grey, faceless and humorless, so big that their employees are not empowered or encouraged to think outside the box? Or is it that smaller, growing companies retain their entrepreneurial spirit, their sense of fun, and their willingness to be a little off the wall or zany? Or are those just different sides of the same coin?
In the case of Thomas Cook, it wasn’t really their decision not to pay up that harmed them as much as their complete lack of personality. Social Media is no longer new, and the lessons should really have started to get through by now.