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Turning trending topics on Twitter into ads is a tricky marketing strategy. Especially when there's an international conflict going on. British furniture retailer Habitat got into trouble this week for trying to use the Iranian protests to drive users to its site.
Using hashtags lke #Iran and #Mousavi, the retailer added notes about its products into the stream of tweets about the Iranian struggle.
Needless to say, Twitterers weren't happy to see those ads.
Twitter users searching for content related to Iran were also shown messages like this: "#MOUSAVI Join the database for free to win a £1,000 gift card."
The retailer insists that it did not realize the practice was happening, and has since apologized: "The top ten trending topics were pasted into hashtags without checking with us and apparently without verifying what all of the tags referred to."
The strategy of turning trending topics into hashtag spam is dubious for exactly this reason. Twitter users looking for news on popular topics are not likely to respond to advertising for random content online. But in the case where the topic is political or serious, it is likely to turn into incredibly bad press. Plenty of Twitter users are talking about Habitat right now, but most of the comments remain negative.
Alex Burmaster, communications director at research firm Nielsen Online, tells the BBC: "Advertising in social media can be like gatecrashing a party. People who use social media are much less tolerant to have their conversations interrupted by advertisers."
When a backlash to the tweets started on Twitter, Habitat pulled the offending messages and replaced them with product related tweets sans hashtags. They've responded quickly and are trying to make amends, but it was at first unclear who posted the spam tweets.
The company's initial apology seemed to blame an outside source: "This was absolutely not authorised by Habitat - we were shocked when we discovered what happened."
That makes it seem like there was an outside agency involved with the decision, but a more recent tweet makes clear that there was no outside party involved: "In response to speculation, we would like to clarify the hashtags were not uploaded by an agency."
Apparently, it was not an experimental strategy on the part of Habitat, but the work of an overenthusiastic Habitat intern, who has subsequently been fired. in this situation, it looks like Habitat has tried to quickly make amends for its misjudgement, but the outcome demonstrates how tricky mass Twittering can be for a company.
FOXNews estimates that approximately 10% of Twitter messages are now spam. But companies should think twice before blindly repurposing content as a marketing strategy. The disjuncture between Iranian protests and furniture selling might cause outrage, but other misalligned tweets are likely to meet another fate marketers don't want. They'll just get skipped over.