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Social media growth continued to accelerate this year, with more brands integrating social channels into their marketing campaigns. There are some amazing examples of truly innovative, forward-thinking brands that have effectively used social media to connect with their customers, build engagement and create buzz. 

However, with just as many companies jumping on the proverbial bandwagon (in an arguably over-hyped space), it’s clear that some brands still “just do not get it".

Here we look back at some of the best (and worst) examples of social media in 2009.

Before we look at the examples themselves, it’s important to keep in mind some social media ground rules. The number one rule to remember is that social media are above all, a social tool. Our usual social norms apply just as well in the offline world, and this means treating customers with respect, being open and transparent, and being interesting and engaging. 

Although these social media basics may seem like common sense, as companies continue to experiment, it’s inevitable that they will make mistakes. But that’s okay, even the best of us slip up sometimes. In social media (as in life), it’s crucial to openly admit you made a gaffe, apologise to your customers, readdress their bad experience and most importantly, learn from those errors in judgement and not make the same mistake twice. 

Let’s start on a positive note…

The best of 2009
1) Obama 
We all know about the “First Social Media President’s” grassroots approach to winning that oh-so-important election, but it’s remarkable that Barack’s brilliant use of social channels has continued. Despite a two-month lull post-election, Obama used Twitter (@barackobama, @WhiteHouse) to send regular updates. Post-inauguration, the activity on the President’s Facebook page is non-stop, with new videos, news, comments posted regularly. Finally, all of this is supplemented by a strong blogging presence with two dedicated blogs that keep users regularly posted on the latest happenings at the White House. 

Why it works: Informative, adds value and builds engagement with a brand that advocates feel passionate about. And, it’s transparent and open; even if it’s not the man himself, we know who is posting and when. The lesson here is that social media is not about short-term gain, but rather about long-term relationship building. 

2) Compare the Meerkat

You know your social media campaign is successful when kids are repeating your catchphrases in the playground – even if it does relate something as mundane as car insurance. Yes, in 2009, we were graced with the presence of Aleksandr Orlov. Compelling offline TV advertising was combined with an amusing Twitter account and a regularly-updated Facebook fan page.  The clever play on words has been further developed through the dedicated microsite, which provides a highly entertaining user experience, and even allows you to actually compare meerkats.

And let’s not forget the soon-to-be must-have gift of 2009 – the official Aleksandr Orlov cuddly meerkat toy will be on sale at Harrods this Christmas. With only 5,000 available, grab one while you can. 

Why it works: It’s not about the tools. At the end of the day, content is king, so be interesting! If you provide compelling and inventive content, your brand aficionados will naturally be encouraged to distribute it through viral channels. Simples. 

3) Zappos on Twitter

More companies are now using Twitter as a marketing tool, but if there's one company who really shows how it’s done, it's Zappos. Zappos’ Twitter account is managed by the CEO, and the face of the brand, Tony Hsieh. By sharing the day-to-day routine details of his life, and by posting regularly without a “hard-sell”, Hsieh offers customers a deeper level of engagement with the Zappos brand. This relationship-marketing approach is highly effective in building employee and customer loyalty. 

Why it works: By putting a human face on the company, customers build a level of intimacy with the brand. CEO, Tony Hsieh, understands and exemplifies the values of the Zappos brand: transparency, customer-centricity and honesty. Zappos also uses Twitter as an effective customer service tool, and by enabling them to communicate with the company at the highest level, customers feel they are listened to and taken seriously. 

4) Beat Cancer Everywhere

A more recent example of good social media comes from last weeks’s #beatcancer campaign on Twitter. For each mention of the #beatcancer hashtag on Twitter, eBay / PayPal and MillersCoors pledged to donate one cent to breast cancer research. Initiated by the site Beat Cancer Everywhere (and announced at BlogWorld Expo 2009), the campaign was successful in beating a Guinness World Record for the “distribution of the largest mass message through social media within 24 hours”. 

Why it works: The campaign demonstrates the potential to “use social media for social good”. This is an innovative use of Twitter, and fundamentally relies on understanding passion points, or understanding what is important to the community. There is clearly an opportunity for non-profit organisations to use collective people power as a force for social change. 

5) Skittles (?)

This has a question mark because the jury is still out on whether it was a tremendous success or a fail. The site is innovative as instead of a corporate entity, consumers get a healthy dose of social media through Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, Wikipedia and Flickr. The campaign generated incredible short-term buzz and online PR. Skittles was praised for experimenting and embracing social media and giving consumers control of their brand reputation. 

Why it works: Everybody was talking about it. It allowed Skittles to engage with customers who may not normally visit their home page. In fact, traffic increased by 1,332% in one day. This was a brave move for a big corporate brand, and in the early stages of social media, to some extent, it’s about experimentation and taking risks to better understand what works and what doesn’t.  

We’ve had the good news. Now for those social media campaigns that fared less well in 2009…

The worst of 2009

1) Motrin Twitter moms

Motrin offended moms with their ads that encouraged women to use their babies as “fashion accessories”. The ads were the subject of heated discussion and negative comments on Twitter, with the majority of people saying they would no longer use Motrin products. 

Key take-home point: Who are you marketing to? What is important to your customers? At the end of the day, social media is a new tool to facilitate old-school marketing principles. The fundamental importance of understanding your target audience can never be underestimated. 

2) Habitat 

A high-profile epic fail was Habitat’s decision to use Twitter’s hashtag functionality to drive users to its products. However, exploiting the controversy over the Iranian election (by using the hashtags #iranianelection and #mousavi) was not well-received by Twitter users, who accused Habitat of piggy-backing on popular topics to market their products. 

Key take-home point: Take some time to understand the medium and the rules of engagement. It’s important to listen and monitor before you engage. Having the right people is key; ask yourself, is it really wise to allow the lowly “Twintern” to communicate your brand values to your customers and influencers? As the Zappos example shows, allowing customers to connect with senior members of your team increases trust and improves the credibility of the brand. 

3) Ryanair

After blogger Jason Roe wrote a post about the poor functionality on Ryanair’s site, employees of the budget airline responded by calling him “a lunatic”, “an idiot” and “a liar”. Needless to say, customers were appalled and amazed at Ryanair’s rudeness and aggression. 

Key take-home point: Be nice! It’s important to consider the mainstreaming of social media; remember, bloggers are not “geeks in anoraks”. Bloggers are you, me, and everyone; they’re the people who spend money with you and will influence your brand reputation. Welcome negative feedback, take it on board and act on it. Above all, respect your customers and they’ll respect you. 

4) Dominos

Bored Dominos employees not only decided to film themselves performing rather unsanitary acts with sandwiches; they also thought it wise to share their disgusting exploits with the world on YouTube.  The video became a viral hit as the number of views grew exponentially. In response, Dominos produced their own video apologising for their employees’ behaviour, and promptly fired the pair, whose faces are now notorious on the web. 

Key take-home point: We’re all famous for 15 seconds now. From an organisational perspective, your employees represent your brand, so it’s important to have appropriate social media guidelines and policies in place. Buzz monitoring is crucial so at least companies can see what’s being said online before the shit hits the fan. From an employee perspective, if you don’t want anyone to know about it, don’t do it, and even if you DO do it, don’t put it online!

5) Skittles (?)

We’ve already heard what was good about the Skittles campaign, now for the bad news. Although the site did generate short-term buzz, as interest dropped off, in the long-term the site does not engage with customers or offer them content of value. By merely pulling in the streams from different social media sites, neither Skittles nor Mars are actively participating or contributing to online conversations. 

It’s also important to consider Skittles' target market, which includes families and children. The Twitter feed, in particular, contained pranks and offensive language that may have been unsuitable for younger site visitors. 

Key take-home point: Do not jump on the social media bandwagon. Social media is a tool that must be integrated into a wider marketing strategy that has clear goals and objectives. The questions for Skittles should be: are Twitter users really adding value for the company as a brand, and does the site facilitate a two-way conversation that results in a deeper level of engagement? 

A final point is that truly successful buzz marketing campaigns cause your customers to talk about your brand, not just those working in the industry, such as social media marketers and online PR specialists. 

So there we have it. Hopefully, there are some key social media lessons here to be learnt from both those who get it, and those who don’t. We can look forward to plenty of exciting new developments in 2010, but also, inevitably, a whole lot more social media #fail…

What do you think were the highs and lows of social media in 2009?  


 Photo credit: Adapted from tsand via Flickr.

Aliya Zaidi

Published 23 October, 2009 by Aliya Zaidi

Aliya Zaidi is Research Manager at Econsultancy. Follow her on Twitter or connect via LinkedIn or Google+.

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Matthew Phelan

Matthew Phelan, Director and Co-Founder at 4Ps Marketing

A very interesting list.

A few to add to the list; Apologies for them being a bit Twitter centric

Good campaigns. I hate to say it but BT’s customer service through Twitter is awesome. If you moan about BT through Twitter (which I have done twice) they get back to you and sort the problem.

World Cancer Research Fund have started doing some good stuff with their Twitter account www.twitter.com/wcrf_uk

Bad Campaigns:

Carphone Warehouse are trying but failing miserably to match the BT with the Twitter customer service options. It just proves good ideas are useless without good delivery.

All the best

Matt

almost 7 years ago

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Lee Smallwood

Brilliant read! And amplifies the how to and how not to do it. Your comment, "However, with just as many companies jumping on the proverbial bandwagon (in an arguably over-hyped space), it’s clear that some brands still “just do not get it"." is more than just accurate, it is a true reflection of the current state of affairs!

In my day-to-day role, I get to speak with quite a few marketing managers who are keen to implement social media but haven't grasped the importance of understanding where their customers are and what they are talking about. Until businesses understand this basic stage I feel the list of 'fails' will cast a shadow on the successes; causing more companies to hesitate in exploring an amazing opportunity to hear first hand information that can benefit company growth and ultimately provide their customers with a product and service that they are actually looking for.

Thanks agin for posting the above. It will be interesting to see what the coming months will add to the list...

almost 7 years ago

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KerryMG

Nice round up, I particularly like the evaluation of Skittles, though I'd like to see figures that point to the huge uplift in website visits being echoed in its sales for that week. Compare the Meerkat is an excellent campaign but I think the TV adverts are the reason why kids, and grown ups, now include Simples! in their everyday vocabulary. Online is excellent for spreading the word but you still can't beat TV for mass reach. Finally, and this is really picky I know, but Motrin Moms was in 2008, mid-November I think. I think I'd substitute the recent anti-daily Mail campaign off the back of the Jan Moir article, not a brand but a self-organised mass response to a brand - key take-home point is that reacting online takes less effort which conversly means it it's easier to get lots of people to band together and create offline impact.

almost 7 years ago

Mark McGee

Mark McGee, Director at InfoJuice Ltd

Excellent summary of the best and worse - my personal experience, especially on Twitter, gives pretty much the same conclusion, "it's clear that some brands still just do not get it". Two successes were when I had a little moan about not receiving a particular issue of Wired UK magazine and having problems setting up an account in Ning. Both companies DMed me (not public replies, which made a lot of difference) and worked to solve the issues I had. Good times.

My main gripe is when brands spot I'm talking about them and start replying to me in the public timeline without offering any benefits to me - when it's a simple marketing attempt I'm not interested in engaging with that brand (BnJ Strawberry - I'm looking in your direction!). Bad times.

almost 7 years ago

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Ben Carter

Great list and good to see that brands are starting to not only get social media but are also using it in interesting and innovative ways and that some are starting to realise that it's not a tactical channel, it's constant, requires dedicated resource and ongoing engagement. That said i'm not convinced Compare the Meerkat is a social media campaign; it was an idea that two creatives came up with and which worked very well on TV. Social media is just one channel of the campaign, which has been used to activate/add another element to the campaign but I wouldnt say its roots were in social media. I'd add Coke to the list of interesting activity- like Skittles, they've realised that there is value to engage with external communities dedicated to their brand and so they've integrated their Facebook fan group into their corporate website. It's an interesting first step and it will be worthwhile watching to see how they expand on that and start interacting with that community.

That said -for me, there still aren't enough companies who wholesale are either adopting social media or are adopting conversational approaches as part of their braoder brand and marketing strategy. I'm hoping 2010 will be a watershed year for this.

almost 7 years ago

Aliya Zaidi

Aliya Zaidi, - at Mrs Aliya Zaidi

@KerryMG 

Re: Motrin, yes, good spot. This was indeed in November 2008, and in the spirit of being open, honest, and transparent, I'll admit this was an oversight on my part, so apologies for that :-)

With regards to Jan Moir, I think this is another example of the failure to recognise the power of social media and the interaction between traditional media and digital.

The argument that was put forward about a campaign being orchestrated online is a clear example of "not getting it". The point about social media is that it is organic, and distribution occurs naturally. It is impossible to "orchestrate" buzz (negative or positive), and this could even be a key learning for brands. 

@BenCarter Compare the Meerkat may not have originally been a social campaign as such, but the way social channels and the microsite were used to further drive engagement was highly effective. 

I agree that not enough companies are adopting social media or making the most of opportunities available to them, but it's also about understanding what works for each brand. Setting up a Twitter account isn't right for every company, and organisations shouldn't jump on the bandwagon just because everyone else is doing it. 

almost 7 years ago

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Nigel

Ryan Air is an interesting case - I think we'd all agree the company was spectaularly rude and unashamed in its response to the blogger in question - but I'm not sure it actually did have a negative effect on business for them (be interested if anyone has any stats)....

At the time, CEO Michael O'Leary was highly arrogant (surprise) about the fact people didn't care how rude the company or its spokespeople were - they were cheap and that's all people cared about. Ryan Air has made rude arrogance part of their brand values...and unfortunately, it seems people don't care...

For everyone else, of course, such a misunderstanding of social mores online would have been suicide.

In terms of companys at large embracing social media, my experience is that many still find it hard to see how and where to allocate budget to it and are still worried about dipping their toes in the water.

Maybe this is why people make the mistake of letting their 'twinterns' take control of powerful customer engagement tools like Twitter without giving any thought to strategy or how and why they are communicating...

almost 7 years ago

Aliya Zaidi

Aliya Zaidi, - at Mrs Aliya Zaidi

Hi Nigel, 

I think you're right. In fact, you could even argue that Ryanair's approach DOES fit well into their wider brand strategy ;-)

On a more serious note, if there's anything we can take away from Ryanair, it's that many companies are deluding themselves into believing that bloggers are a minority that they can afford to ignore, and that the influence they have is minimal. That is simply not a true reflection of today's media landscape, and this idea deeply underestimates the wider influence that online has on brand reputation. 

almost 7 years ago

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Max

Thanks a lot for sharing the list! Nothing to add - I also see Obama's campaign on #1.

almost 7 years ago

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Jessica Gottlieb

So, oops and what is the #1 for 09? Since Mortin was so 2008.

almost 7 years ago

Aliya Zaidi

Aliya Zaidi, - at Mrs Aliya Zaidi

Hi Jessica, 

This post contains 5 of the best and 5 of the worst but not necessarily in order of priority. I happen to think the Dominos example was certainly one of the most damaging. What do you think was the worst?

almost 7 years ago

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Tamara Littleton

Some excellent examples here Aliya and I personally agree that the Compare the Meerkat campaign is a fantastic example of an integrated campaign and the tweets are very funny.

I published a whitepaper with some more examples called "Interaction in Advertising" if it's ok to link to it here:

http://www.emoderation.com/about/publications

The brands that have a two way dialogue and listen via buzz monitoring as well as continuing to be innovative in the use of social media are the ones that will succeed.

almost 7 years ago

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Jeff Bode

Hey great list of best and worst... sometimes social media works and sometimes it doesn't, it's best to be personal and provide entertainment and I think that is what separates the best from the worst.

almost 7 years ago

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Busi Buchan, Marketing Co-Ordinator at Training for life

 I am fairly new to the twitter-verse and found this best and worst of article very informative. Also, heads up to Tamara for the link up to your whitepaper, some great examples and overall well written. 

almost 7 years ago

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Damian Doman

Today's wisdom is to know how to use modern tools to become popular.

It should really be unacceptable not to keep up with the changes in online marketing and business.

However, if everyone knew how to do it, the tools would be useless. Good for those who lead.

almost 7 years ago

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J. M. Berry

Aliya.. very true words... It's obvious you get it...

"On a more serious note, if there's anything we can take away from Ryanair, it's that many companies are deluding themselves into believing that bloggers are a minority that they can afford to ignore, and that the influence they have is minimal. That is simply not a true reflection of today's media landscape, and this idea deeply underestimates the wider influence that online has on brand reputation."

almost 7 years ago

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Facebook Application

Hey great list of best and worst... sometimes social media works and sometimes it doesn't. It's all about peoples' interest.

almost 7 years ago

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Ben Carter

@Aliya- totally agree, it's not the holy grail for every company and also some things will work for some brands, some won't. That said, there is value in having a proactive online reputation approach listening and reacting to what is being said 'out there' and as part of this process work out where companies can actually add value. I.e- through Twitter for customer facing organisations, it's a great channel for customer service, customer insight and encouraging customer-led innovation.

almost 7 years ago

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Tom Ollerton

All these stories are old news and it's getting a little tiring to hear about brands either using common sense and succeeding and not being sensible and failing. If you have an established brand and use social media to have a conversation, be open and honest and then actualy do something with the insights gained - you will win.

But this is SO obvious, I'm sorry but there are agencies skinning brands dry for a fluffed out version of this. I'd liek to see a whitepaper on how small brands can benefit from social media. A facebook and twitter page cost almost nothing to set up but can take a large resource to monitor, engage in and act upon.

almost 7 years ago

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Ethan Lyon

Including the worst is incredibly helpful because too often we focus only on the brightspots without learning from those that have mistepped. Also - great analysis.

I've created a similar list of innovative social media campaigns (in video format) that serves an update to this post. I'd be interested to get your opinion:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nlRgrfiSXC8

Thanks!

Ethan Lyon 

Senior Writer

Sparxoo

A Digital Marketing and Branding Agency

about 6 years ago

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