When good tweets go bad
Twitter is a powerful tool for brands to interact with their fans. It’s an inexpensive and immediate way for restaurants to build relationships and create a buzz. It builds customer engagement and loyalty. But when something goes wrong, things can go downhill in a hurry.
The followers, and the followers’ followers, and the followers’ followers’ followers….
We’ve seen blunders and over-sharing, humor that backfires, restaurants that tweet their own gaffes, and Twitter campaigns hijacked by disgruntled customers. When it happens, the company’s own narrative is in the hands of the masses. Starbucks is the latest in a string of restaurants to lose control and see their Twitter campaign blow up.
They spread it, all right.
Starbucks created the hashtag #SpreadTheCheer and invited its customers in the United Kingdom to tweet out some holiday cheer. The feed was displayed on a giant screen at London’s Natural History museum where the company sponsors the ice rink. But cheerful quickly turned to sneerful.
Unfortunately, Starbucks has a reputation as a bit of a Scrooge in Britain where the company has been in the news for its plans to cut paid lunch breaks, sick leave, and maternity benefits for thousands of employees. It had also recently emerged that the coffee chain, with 700 locations across the U.K., had circumvented the British tax system with some financial-sleight-of-hand involving its division in Switzerland, and had paid less than 1% in corporate taxes over 14 years. The tweeter feed was flooded with profanity-laced sentiments blasting Starbucks as economy-busting tax dodgers who push overpriced milky coffee drowned in sugar syrup. And all was displayed on a giant screen at a central London landmark.
For the non-twitterers out there, hashtags are words or phrases preceded by a hash (#) symbol. They’re used to organize tweets into a topic or dialogue, and make them searchable. The hottest hashtags appear as trending topics on the right side of Twitter’s homepage, the most coveted spot in the twitterverse, seen by millions of users. This happens organically when a newsworthy event dominates the conversation, like #HurricaneSandy or #JustinBieberHaircut, or for about $120,000 a hashtag can be purchased and promoted as a trending topic, as Starbucks did with #SpreadTheCheer.
This is not the first restaurant twitter campaign gone wild.
McDonald’s began promoting the sponsored hashtag #McDStories with the idea of getting people talking about their experiences with the fast food giant. The company started the conversation with a few innocuous tweets: Meet some of the hard-working people dedicated to providing McDs with quality food every day and When u make something w/pride, people can taste it. As hoped, people shared their #McDStories by the thousands. There were stories about diabetes and diarrhea, a video posted of a mouse working its way through a bag of hamburger buns, and a heated back-and-forth with PETA over the inhumane use of mechanically-separated chickens. Apparently some McDStories are better left untold.
Wendy’s had a similar experience with a Twitter campaign built around its 25-year old TV commercial with the little old lady crying out “Where’s the Beef? When the chain promoted its hashtag #HerestheBeef, plenty of users responded with their pornographic versions of Here it is! and another segment responded with less bawdy but equally graphic imagery of cruelly penned, industrially-raised livestock.
There have been some obvious missteps: Taco Bell was justifiably slammed for its utterly offensive tweet on Martin Luther King Day asking Have you ever dreamed of eating @Taco Bell and then woke up and made that dream come true? And Denny’s printed its menus with an invitation to Join the conversation! that directed its customers to the Twitter account of a Taiwanese gentlemen named Denny Hsieh whose Twitter handle is @Dennys. The menus were used for four months in 1,500 locations before they were corrected.
For Starbucks, this was a rare stumble in cyberspace. The company has topped virtually every list of social media winners since such things were tracked: industry, media, and marketing firms have all singled out Starbucks as the most socially engaged company, the best loved online brand, and the top restaurant presence online. That’s what makes this bush league Twitter fail all the more surprising. A publicly displayed, unmoderated, real-time feed? They should have known better.