Avoiding Bashtags and Other Twitter Disasters



Early last year, McDonalds created the Twitter hashtag #McDStories. The restaurant chain wanted to introduce “some of the hard-working people dedicated to providing McDs with quality food every day.” What happened next was one of the biggest corporate blunders in social media (Twitter) history.

Twitter users turned McDonald’s hashtag into a bashtag, using it to promote their own stories about the fast-food giant — and those stories weren’t exactly the happy, endearing tales that the company had hoped for. Here are a few selected by London’s Daily Mail as among the best that appeared on the first day of the campaign:

  • @JohnGarrett tweeted: So PETA and McDonald’s got into it today. I was surprised. I didn’t know there was real meat at McDonald’s. #McDStories
  • @JKingArt: Lost 50 pounds in 6 months after I stopped working & eating at McDonald’s. #McDStories
  • @SkipSullivan: One time I walked into a McDonald’s and I could smell Type 2 Diabetes floating in the air and I threw up. #McDStories
  • @PCRM .@McDonalds drops pink goo–but no word on other additives or the high-fat foods themselves. #McDStories
  • @Grist McDonald’s discovers social media can backfire when people hate you #McDStories

So many journalists and bloggers used the hashtag as a cautionary tale for readers that McDonald’s social media director Rick Wion issued a formal statement about a week after the hashtag first appeared. Here’s what Wion had to say:

“Last Thursday, we planned to use two different hashtags during a promoted trend – #meetthefarmers and #mcdstories.

“While #meetthefarmers was used for the majority of the day and successful in raising awareness of the Supplier Stories campaign, #mcdstories did not go as planned. We quickly pulled #mcdstories and it was promoted for less than two hours.

“Within an hour of pulling #McDStories the number of conversations about it fell off from a peak of 1600 to a few dozen. It is also important to keep those numbers in perspective. There were 72,788 mentions of McDonald’s overall that day so the traction of #McDStories was a tiny percentage (2%) of that.

“With all social media campaigns, we include contingency plans should the conversation not go as planned. The ability to change midstream helped this small blip from becoming something larger.”

The last paragraph in Wion’s statement is important. Having a contingency plan, and being able to quickly change direction, is critical to planning a social media strategy. Of course, having a social media strategy is critical to social media marketing success. Sadly though, some companies – even some large companies – get themselves into trouble simply because they start tweeting or posting to social media sites without a strategy.

Pay Attention to Avoid a Bashtag

The first lesson that can be learned from what happened to McDonald’s is that companies don’t control social media. Social media users control social media. So if you have unhappy customers, they can easily turn any campaign on its head by turning your hashtag into a “bashtag”.

It is not surprising that companies that treat everyone well – employees, former employees, customers, competitors, vendors – avoid all kinds of social media problems from litigation to damage to their reputation while generating oceans of goodwill. Companies that embark on a social media marketing campaign designed solely to sell products, without giving thought to addressing actual customer service problems, tend to attract problems from vocal social media users.

The take-away lesson here is simple:  Pay attention to your followers, and become aware of their interests. What happened to McDonald’s was highly predictable to anyone outside the company. Who hasn’t told a story about a fast-food disaster or a pet peeve about customer service? Instead of asking people for generic “stories”, a better strategy might have been to ask people to share stories about employees who provided outstanding service, a memorable late-night snack with friends, or a happy family outing at the restaurant.

Putting the hashtag into context, and asking people for specific kinds of stories might have helped. Market research that identified problems and allowed marketing to use Twitter to focus on topics most likely to draw positive comments might have helped more, of course.

Social Media Policies Matter

The second lesson that can be learned from McDonald’s bad experience is that every company needs a social media policy. One thing that happened in the hours after the #McDStories hashtag was introduced is that some current and former McDonald’s employees used it to share their own gripes about bad bosses, working conditions, and even health and safety issues.

Companies that have clear and easy to understand social media policies that are communicated to every employee, from the new part-timer to the executive suite avoid a lot of social media problems. If you are in a regulated industry – as about a third of American businesses are – you are probably very aware of the alphabet soup of regulatory agencies that set rules for what you and your employees can and cannot say in social media, email, or other digital communications.

But even if you don’t fall under regulations like FINRA, FERPA or HIPAA, you’re subject to more general rules from the National Labor Relations Board and the Federal Trade Commission. So having a social media policy is the first step towards compliance – and training all employees in that policy is a big step towards social media success. Why?  Because it tells employees that you’re serious about social media, and shows them how they can become part of the process without fear that they’ll become part of a problem someday.

Planning for Success

Most importantly, whether you’re a multi-national corporation or a local business taking its first steps into social media, your social media marketing strategy needs to be built around a solid plan. The plan starts with plain-English objectives, outlines the strategies and tactics you will use to meet those objectives, and the measurement criteria or analytics you’ll use to measure your success.

If you need some help getting started with your social media and digital marketing plan, download our free online marketing plan for growth-oriented business. Or give us a call. We’re always happy to help.


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