I don’t need to tell you that our media model has changed. You already knew that. Gone are the days when our only exposure for businesses was top-down, advertisers-to-customers in the media or eventual word-of-mouth. Now, companies are experimenting with how they fit in to omnipresent social media.
This is a step in the right direction. With social media, customers finally have a chance to communicate with businesses or share their thoughts about those companies to their network. It’s good for businesses, too, because when users voluntarily use social media to share positive experiences with a company, the company benefits from the publicity without any real sacrifice from the customers. Any negative publicity is, at least, informative.
And there can be some seriously negative publicity. Back in 2012, McDonald’s promoted #McDStories on Twitter, hoping that the positive experiences users had with the fast food chain would trend. Instead, stories of food poisoning, failing food safety standards, and unpleasant service dominated the hashtag’s feed. Though this was not the first time McDonald’s has met negative publicity, it was a reminder for McDonald’s PR team about the flaws in their company and what they need to improve.
In another attempt at jumping on the hashtag bandwagon, BillCosby.com tweeted a link to a meme generator of Cosby’s smiling face and encouraged the use of #CosbyMeme. This tweet came soon after his rape allegations and one can assume that this was a desperate attempt at resurrecting the public’s positive image of the entertainer. Instead, people used the meme for black comedy jokes that reminded us of the allegations against him.
There are a couple lessons to learn here. One is that the success of hashtags is dependent on the quality of your product. If you ask social media users to use your hashtag, you’re testing public perception of your brand. Either users can genuinely share their happiness with your company, or they can harp on the flaws. The other lesson to learn is that hashtag contests have a lower success rate. Rather than using #ExampleCompanyContest, I’d simply encourage users to use #ExampleCompany to share their experiences. That way, they’d feel less like they were doing the work of the PR team and more like they have ownership of their feelings of the company by sharing genuine experiences with their network.
As these practices evolve, it’s our responsibility to recognize unethical behavior in social media marketing. This can mean any number of choices, but in this article, I’ll define “unethical” as dishonesty, lack of accountability, greed, and compromising integrity and character.
One social media campaign that can excite consumers is gamification, or the process of adding game elements (such as earning points, advancing levels, and competition). Creating a game in which users can win prizes naturally creates exposure and a reason for users to come back. The precursors to this are the McDonald’s Monopoly and Tim Hortons “roll up the rim” contests. In the social media landscape, this can be selecting random commenters on their Facebook page or games in the apps.
The unethical approach is to make these contests misleading. “Spam your friends for a chance to win!” when there’s little chance to win is obnoxious to the friends in the customers’ network. This is a hindrance to both the consumer, who took the time to enter the contest, and the aforementioned network. A better idea is to offer a tangible reward. Apps like Panera Bread who offer rewards for multiple visits entices customers to come back. And to take the concept of gamification to a more literal direction, the “Starbucks for Life” game encourages customers to purchase several times a month. Even when they don’t win many prizes, the feeling of leveling up in the game gives users a sense of accomplishment.
Another example of dishonest marketing is the lack of transparency. In 2006, a PR firm for Wal-Mart sponsored two travelers to write “Wal-Marting Across America,” a blog series in which the couple parked their RVs in Wal-Marts across the country and interviewed employees on their favorite parts of working for the retailer. The problem was that “Wal-Marting Across America” neglected to disclose its sponsor and came across as a genuine experience. The PR firm could have avoided this problem simply by stating it was a paid campaign. And if it had been an actual, unpaid testimonial from those bloggers, there would have been nothing immoral about publicizing it. That would have been a similar case to Jared Fogle’s publicized weight loss from eating Subway — before his unrelated scandal.
Where we lack transparency the most is in online reviews. Yelp, Google Maps, and Amazon reviews for restaurants, companies, and products give an opportunity for everyone to share their opinions. Unfortunately, this includes owners of the companies themselves. And too often small-business owners or paid PR teams have posted glowing reviews for their own companies. I’ve even seen recruiters looking for users on reddit, a social and news aggregator, to pose as users to positively promote their product.
As a consumer, I have a right to share a link to merchandise that I like on reddit. But where can we draw the line legally for the business to hire people to promote their merchandise just like I did? All we have to rely on are our standards. Not being transparent is infuriating to customers who feel deceived. All that would rectify that would be to say, “Here is our company, here’s what we offer, and here’s why we think you would like it.” On top of that, users have a chance to chime in and say, “I’m interested in your idea, but I’d only buy it if you improved these elements.”
Within the past year, many businesses have scrambled to ride the coattails of Pokémon Go’s success. Companies shamelessly ask Pokémon Go users to tag themselves at locations where they have caught Pokémon near their business, or else share screenshots of Pokémon with their merchandise in the background.
But the most obvious case of mooching off Pokémon Go is the process of setting up PokéStops or Gyms at their businesses’ locations. At the beginning of the app’s release, Pokémon Go users could submit a request for a real-world location for other users to meet up. Companies flooded Pokémon Go with requests to make their locations a hotspot to bring in business.
Unlike my other examples, I can’t offer a more ethical alternative to the Pokémon Go phenomenon. This is simply a case of greed and manipulation.
The best social media presence is based on genuine interactions with consumers. PR teams are not only responsible for their clients’ exposure but also maintaining consistent relationships with consumers and allowing consumers benefits for those interactions. That way, we avoid the greed of advertisement spam and instead create an environment where everyone benefits.