Next up, one of the earliest and highest profile fails of the year. In all honesty I’m not sure that it merited the number of column inches it received, but it does serve as an illustration of a particular pitfall that marketers need to remain aware of when generating hashtags.
On January 18, McDonalds launched a 24 hour campaign to insert promoted tweets into twitter users’ streams.
The campaign started uneventfully using the hashtag #meetthefarmers, which ran for the first couple of hours. Then, McDonalds started the campaign’s second hashtag with the tweet “When u make something w/ pride, people can taste it.” – McD potato supplier #McDstories.
McDonalds only used the hashtag twice but, unlike #meetthefarmers, #McDstories was sufficiently ambiguous to invite the negative as well as the positive and in this case, while limited to a relatively low percentage of total tweets (2%, according to McDonalds Director of Social Media, Rick Wion), the negative side seems to have gotten the upper hand.
Within the first hour, the Social Media team at McDonalds had noticed that something was going wrong, with negative tweets coming thick and fast. Some were just poking fun, but others shared negative experiences while a few can only be described as highly unpleasant.
Wion stated that it’s inevitable that both “fans and detractors will chime in”. This appears to be particularly true in a fast-paced retail environment where a brand is accessed hundreds of thousands of times every day, and the opportunities for poor standards, poor service, or poor product experience are therefore commensurately amplified.
But of course it is also true that where a brand has a known political football in play, any opportunities for brand detractors to make hay while the sun shines are pounced upon very quickly, and in this case the primary pouncer was PETA. Using McDstories as a convenient portal via which to share their concerns, the pressure group tweeted their accusations about McDonalds meat handling / recovery practices. This charge is not exactly breaking news – PETA have been pushing it at McDonalds for a long time and there are, I would imagine, a selection of defenses (all carefully worded and cleared with legal) that McDonalds executives and marketers can use at any given moment as the occasion merits.
The PETA accusation actually appears to be the only criticism that McDonalds decided to respond to with a tweet, the other stories presumably being considered either anecdotal or simply mischief making, and that a response giving them the oxygen of further exposure was a less attractive option to allowing them to expire slowly and quietly in a vacuum of inattention.
Within a matter of a couple of hours, McDonalds had abandoned #McDstories and had gone back to promoting #meetthefarmers, with a result that negative tweets dissipated in fairly short order.
I personally think that Wion’s response to the backlash was both swift and sure-handed, and it rather surprises me that #McFail became such a big story.
However, there is a lesson that can be learned and it relates to selection of hashtags. #McDstories is not the only time that we have seen a hashtag with a potentially ambiguous meaning being hijacked. In fact, even those that could be considered to be positive expressions, such as #spreadthecheer (see my #10 fail of 2012) or #quantasluxury, are capable of being misappropriated.
And while a company in crisis is likely to see any communications misapplied or misrepresented because the public is actively looking for something to kick, those companies who are not in crisis mode still need to take care that they do not invite a mischievous punch on the nose by promoting a hashtag that is capable of supporting the negative as much as the positive.