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Social media marketing isn’t always easy to get right, especially when it comes to rapidly developing and changing platforms such as Twitter. However, it is very easy to get wrong, as UK pest control giant Rentokil found out this month.

To give Rentokil its due, it tries hard. The company has a fairly decent blog,  ‘deBugged’, written with the search engines in mind while trying to retain a sense of humour, which is no mean feat when your business is destroying bugs.

Admittedly, it’s not the most personable blog out there, but it’s a vast improvement on what most large firms are offering.

Unfortunately, it has had less success with Twitter – partly based on a lack of understanding of what people want from the platform, partly because of its bizarrely belligerent response to criticism.

Here’s what’s been happening:

Rentokil on Twitter

The pest control agency has been following people on Twitter fairly indiscriminately, essentially engaging in follow spam.

Understandably, this caused a lot (a LOT) of people to ask why they were being followed by Rentokil - I mean, the company serves a much-needed market but it is hardly a brand most people want to be associated with. It sounds a bit, well, infested.

So Rentokil created a blog post, ‘Why is @Rentokil following me?’ in which it tried to explain its motivation.

Yes, it admitted, it’s trying to boost its social media marketing. ‘Phase one of our twitter campaign was to find pest control related people to follow. Tick, complete.’

Phase two, it claimed, is to find ‘experts’ and interesting people outside of pest control and follow them – although it doesn’t explain why.

To make matters worse, the blogger then wrote: “We have had a few nice messages, but also a few rude ones – which personally I think is a little bit unnecessary.”

Look, if people aren’t responding positively to your marketing efforts, you re-evaluate them and consider changing them. You don’t gently chastise them like a tired mother with a sulky toddler.

Then the blogger urged people to be “flattered” that Rentokil had chosen to follow them, which is a bit like being told you should feel complimented that your inbox is so attractive when someone fills it with spam.

Could the post get worse? Oh it could:
“The beauty of Twitter is that you get to meet all kinds of people online, and not all of them with something in common with you. And that’s why you need to start talking to people, a bit like when you go to a party and know no-one but the host. Remember that thing called mingling? Try it, you might like it!”

Rentokil social media team – it isn’t your job to re-educate the users of Twitter, it’s your job to market to them. Patronising them is a ghastly mistake.

What is Twitter spam?

Twitter defines follow spam as “the act of following mass numbers of people, not because you're actually interested in their tweets, but simply to gain attention, get views of your profile (and possibly clicks on URLs therein), or (ideally) to get followed back”.

Users hate it, Twitter frowns upon it and it gives online marketers a bad name.

To be fair, though, Rentokil has now apologised and I admire its candour. A later post admitted: “In retrospect, it feels as though we may have been a bit clumsy.”

Ben Goldacre

Now, it is not the purpose of this blog to comment on science, research and the inherent flaw in trying to conceal lies from the online community.

However, Twitter has not been the only PR disaster for Rentokil this week – see Dr Ben Goldacre’s blog post and the company’s subsequent response. Judging by the comments, it has not gone far enough.

It’s a shame, really, because Rentokil is trying its hardest to engage with customers by the web and I can only applaud its intention – shame about the execution.

Hopefully what doesn’t kill it will make it stronger and Rentokil can learn from both the Twitter backlash and the PR crisis brought about by Goldacre’s column (and his tweets prior to the column).

This beautifully illustrates just how wide-reaching Twitter can be but also how dangerous a flawed online marketing campaign can be to a company’s brand.

Kevin Gibbons

Published 16 March, 2010 by Kevin Gibbons

Kevin Gibbons is UK Managing Director at digital marketing agency BlueGlass. He is also known as an SEO speaker and can be found on Twitter and Google+.

102 more posts from this author

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Michelle Goodall

Michelle Goodall, Online PR/Social Media Consultant at EconsultancySmall Business Multi-user

OK, so let's use this article for positive purposes. Which brands and organisations out there are using Twitter well and on what basis? List them and let's take a look. Any thoughts?

over 6 years ago

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Fraser Edwards

Got to admit that I don't get the paranoia about being followed on twitter.  I just don't see it the same as being sent spam email etc.  If I'm maintaining a public twitter stream then it's there for anyone to read.

over 6 years ago

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Mike Robb

I agree with Fraser.  Someone may follow you but you can just choose to ignore them.  I don't see why people get so pent up about Twitter 'spam' - in my mind, there's no such thing.

Every user chooses what they do and do not receive.  If Rentokil follow me I won't follow them back and, therefore, will not see their tweets.

It's a different topic if we're discussing a company's strategy in terms of getting their messages out there via Twitter, and whether or not following mass (and potentially irrelevant) users is the right/wrong thing to do.  But people who make a song and dance about 'spam' on Twitter simply have too much tim on their hands.

over 6 years ago

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Mark Jennings

Personally I thought the blog post 'Why is @Rentokil following me?’ was quite forward thinking. Irrespective of the wording which we could all do an editing job on it is to me a real question - unusually insightful for a brand in a space where many of their competitors are just auto following any word that comes up with no value to either side. In terms of Ben Goldacre's comments - he has to fil la column each week and this was as good a cause as any other. The silly press release, with theoretical information not meant for publishing was a mistake but it happens. The majority of this seems to have been stirred up by Goldacre fan boys (don’t believe me, read the comments - some sounded like school kids tittering) who expected a huge monolithic corp like Rentokill to respond that instant to their Twitter requests. The PR was wrong but are we not expecting too much from large brands to allow them to fail? I wrote about this a few weeks ago http://www.clicktoexit.com/journal/2010/3/1/the-concept-of-a-brand-as-a-veneer-is-dead-but-are-we-expect.html

over 6 years ago

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Nigel

There are plenty of times and places where it is entirely appropriate and indeed welcome for brands to follow someone. There are even times where it is the socially responsible thing to do. Let me give you an example. A few weeks ago a Eurostar train failed late on a Sunday night in Kent. Inevitably a lot of people on the train started tweeting and I believe Eurostar owed it to those passengers who were sitting in the dark, in every sense of the phrase, to follow them and enable a dialogue and provide the latest situation information to those passengers and have it shared it to others on the train. After all it's the not knowing that's the worst part of a delay isn't it? Instead Eurostar didn't update their Twitter account until the middle of the following morning. Both Sky and the BBC meanwhile immediately starting following passengers on the train to get first hand accounts. Were those news organisations spamming? A less extreme example is Vodafone who are offering a fairly active customer support function via Twitter and having experienced endless frustration with one of their competitors where I called out in vain on Twitter for help, I would have welcomed someone actually listening and maybe coming up with a solution. If Rentokil have been crass in their approach then the criticism is fair enough, but like everything, there are shades of grey. If I had an infestation in my home that was causing me horror, perhaps after normal business hours, I might quite welcome knowing that someone with some expertise is now available to contact. Whether I go on to contact them or buy is up to me. I'm an adult, I don't need protecting from brands promoting themselves and I do have a 'block' button and a 'report for spam' button as well as the ability to Tweet endlessly about how I feel I am being spammed. On balance I think I'm way better tooled up than the brand. For the purposes of disclosure I don't have any links with any of the brands mentioned inthis post but I do have a professional interest in seeing more brands engage with consumers via social media, so I have not used my full name to reply here nor linked my post to my site.

over 6 years ago

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Joel Hughes

Hi Fraser/Mike,

I agree that your public Twitter account is there to be followed but if a big brand starts following you then this will attract attention - and should a brand be doing anything which can attract attention which has not been properly thought through? Probably not.

Furthermore, as this article quite rightly points out (and cites Twitter's only policies) - this has all the appearance of spam with all its negative connotations. If they were trying to engage with individuals from outside their topic area then they need to do more than just follow...they need to engage.

Saying that this is small fry compared to Habitat's fiasco and I'd much prefer companies like Rentokil have a go and learn from mistakes...with the right handling they can always turn this into a big PR win.

@Joel_hughes

over 6 years ago

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Colin Gilchrist

I find this story quite amusing - the blogger in question has possibly been justifying his existence by boasting about his knowledge of social media tools and yet it is quite apparent by his / her lack of judgement that they've been doing it for a hmmnn, lets say a year.  Clearly not long enough to get to grips with the vageries of human behaviour when it comes to using social media.

I do however approve of their subsequent admission of... mistake - best policy.

If you will hire someone that's been doing it for a year or so, make damn sure they've had a great mentor, or be prepared for the consequences.

over 6 years ago

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Deborah Lewis

Just because really good friends will help you paint a spare room or clear out a basement doesn't mean you should go out there, pretend to make friends in order to get a house cleared or decorated. And that's why I think corporates get it wrong on social media - they're not being social, they're being commercial. In the case of Rentokil it's really transparent and becomes comical. Some years back I worked with one of their big competitors - Terminix - on the PR side, so I know that pest control companies are full of brilliant and fascinating stories that people would want to hear about, given they are told in the right way, and I guess also in the right spirit. 

over 6 years ago

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Anonymous

You have to admire Rentokil for coming out with such a ballsy blog response! Twitter spam is not great and it is clearly ill advised to start shotgun following, the issue is that brands really struggle to see the true value of twitter and do make mistakes trying to find out. You live and learn!

over 6 years ago

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Gareth Holt, Head of Technology at London & Partners

@Nigel above - there's no need to follow all the Twitterers in this kind of case. It's pretty likely they'll be using an identifiable keyword or even a hashtag (if someone has the foresight to start using one) - like Eurostar. Merely searching on this,and seeing real-time updates, will tell you most of what's going on without any other noise.

If someone in that stream looks particularly interesting, then by all means follow them. You can also add them to a list without following.

over 6 years ago

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Lisa Rogers

What annoys me is all the companies jumping on the twitter bandwagon, when they clearly do not understand its raison d'etre. They are signing up and following "people of influence" in the hope they will be followed in return. Rentokil should stick to killing bugs, and others should stick to selling widgets or whatever they do, and stop abusing the social blogosphere. 

over 6 years ago

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Krissy C

Interesting that no-one has picked up on Michelle's point about which companies use twitter well. The reason is that so few do !

over 6 years ago

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Tom Batey

Rentokil's Twitter strategy is poor (if you can call it a strategy) and the follow spam is certainly frowned upon but I agree with Joel Hughes, I think that they could turn this around by learning from their mistakes.

Just look at the amount of Twitter buzz shown in the column to the right and how many people are going to come into contact with the fact that Rentokil are trying to do something with a blog and some social networking. They are getting it wrong at the moment but I'm sure they will listen and begin to get it a little bit right.

Oh, and Rentokil are following my personal twitter account @TomBatey. Does that mean they think I am an expert or interesting in some way (hope so on both counts)? I certainly hope it doesn't mean they think I am related in some way to pest control.

I also would like to see some examples of brands using Twitter in a good way.

over 6 years ago

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Ling Valentine

I must say, if I was running PR for Rentokil I would be VERY PLEASED. If I was MD of Rentokil, I would be ecstatic! My Twitter has been full of people retweeting what they think is a negative assessment of Rentokil, but is in fact simply raising their profile.

Is is bad publicity?

Not necessarily, and anyway, no one has died. Enough people have been outraged and indignant about these “tactics” (I think it was more accidental) to give Rentokil a credibility in a Great British underdoggish kind of way. I’m building a real respect for you pest-control chaps. One bug company, so obviously staffed by humans, who while making some basic Twitter “errors” – and I’m not sure which rule book everyone reads – manages to mobilise the whole UK it seems, and the whole English speaking online world (if the locations of the re-Tweeters are to be believed), against them.

But all Rentokil has done is publish a harmless (almost funnily outrageous) story about buses and trains being potentially infested with thousands of cockroaches and bed bugs, and make some bullish replies, and follow a few thousand people on Twitter – to create a PR news storm.

Getting your company name in so many reports and Tweets is GOOD. Nothing but good. The “crime” is trivial. Next time anyone who has seen all this unfolding – and millions have – next time they have any pest problems (over the next many years), the name RENTOKIL will certainly be top of the list, and I can’t see anyone not using them due to the “crime” of following too many people on Twitter. It takes some balls to respond robustly against the lynch mob.

Well done Rentokil PR! I just know you will be partying over this, and how you managed to excite the world over bugs and rats is amazing. Top marks from me… and still the Tweets from people who *think* you have boobed and are revelling in it, keep on coming. Like a Tsunami of name-checks. Your Google Alerts must be in overdrive!

Next, mildly rebuke these Twitterers. Do some online pest control. Defend your position as the underdog! It is text-book stuff. It can only increase the storm of righteous indignation (over WHAT?). Someone at Rentokil deserves a massive pay rise and a promotion. You have created a not-so-bad story with your company name in EVERY mention, for peanuts, must be worth £250,000 of advertising in my book.

Brilliant laugh, no harm done, massive profile created. Excellent!

Ling
LINGsCARS

over 6 years ago

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contrast_design

Like it or not, It seems this has turned out to be a master stroke of PR.

over 6 years ago

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Mark Jennings

Hear hear Ling. No one died - you are so right. This rush by people to slap a company trying to do the right thing in social is such an ugly trend. Everytime a mistake happens companies learn from it. And for that matter I don’t see the mistake on Twitter. Anyone who thinks a giant company can move at real time from a standing start is deluded and the fact that their head of rentoill.com is even on Twitter and tweeting as a person is rare. Some of the comments over this were so personal I felt like I was back at school. The real issue here was a bit of bad PR, and as Ling mentions, obviously bad. It happens, get over it.

over 6 years ago

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Nigel

@Gareth Holt I take your point about the alternatives to following (and leaving aside the fundamental problem that Eurostar were simply off-line throughout) I'm of the view that following is a certain action whereas as hashtags etc assume that everyone is using them and using one or two as opposed to a variety of different ones eg #brandname, #brandnamefail, #brandnamecomms, #brandnamePR, #brandnamesuck etc.. I think Vodafone get it right by replying to expressed needs and problems, but this assumes that the recipient is using a client like Tweetdeck or Twitteriffic which shows the reply, otherwise you run the risk of an offer of help being overlooked in the Twitter homepage. The key to it is to have human beings rather than machines making triage judgements on response. My various tweets in the last couple of days mentioning Rentokil have not resulted in a follow so I guess it's not automated. Not sure whether to be flattered or concerned by this....

over 6 years ago

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Gordon Rae

@Ling @Mark The reason that 'no one has died', as you so charmingly put it, is because public transport isn't really infested with vermin. Rentokil and Brands2Life cooked up a scare story based on a hypothetical worst case scenario which was then pitched to journalists as normal or typical. The result is that thousands of people who read the papers are now scared of the health risks of using public transport (like my elderly mother for example) and several bus and train operators - TFL in particular - are very angry with Rentokil.

Now, how many of you can actually name the new product that Rentokil was trying to promote, or describe its USP? That brand name has only 377 matches on Google. People aren't talking about it; they're talking about the lousy marketing and the fact that the company spread bullsh*t and then tried to cover its tracks.  

Rentokil now gets really strong brand name recognition for being big, old fashioned, heavy handed, out of touch, and contemptuous of its prospective customers.  Nice work, guys. To describe this as @Ling does, as an occasion to feel ecstatically happy, suggests that people in PR have their heads too far up one another's a*ses to understand how the rest of us see them.  I thought that was what you were meant to be good at?

over 6 years ago

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Ling Valentine

Gordon, Hahahaha, you do make me laugh. No one cares about the new heat-based product, they care about the RENTOKIL name! And no one is "scared of the health risks of using public transport" - that is just nonsense and childish. Half the stuff in the papers is spun or made up, more fool on people who read it. Lazy journalism is the greater idiocy, for publishing it. What is a cockroach going to do? Bite you on the leg on the bus? I can imagine the PR agency taking bets on which paper would be daft enough to publish the nonsense "cockroach infestation" story. People are simply talking everywhere in the blogosphere and Twittercloud about "RENTOKIL". That will do, they have hit the target, 100% success. To get so many people talking about them (with no massive jeopardy attached - ie death, fraud, illness or poisoning) attached is a dream for any PR effort. I happen to think a lot of it has been by accident, but that does not detract - this has been a storm of name references, recognition and profile building. No one is offended really, it is all hysterical self-feeding Twitter indignation and bluster. You are wrong. This is a terrific result for RENTOKIL. And the Twitter-nits are looking pretty stupid for promoting it relentlessly. Ling LINGsCARS

over 6 years ago

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Andon

*grins* Ling, the coverage you recieved after Dragons' Den may have helped your minor brand become a slightly-less-minor brand - but this is a major PR fail from a major player. I don't think it can be considered a success.

Interestingly, I think many of these comments are missing the point of the article - Kevin Gibbons was talking about Twitter spam, barely mentioned the Goldacre debacle.

I have to say, very frankly, I would not choose to do business with any PR agency that considers the recent Rentokil coverage to be a success!

Andon

over 6 years ago

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Ruth Shearn

Love it, love it, love it. Three things. 1) The initial 'scare' press release - brilliant. Did exactly what it was intended to - got published everywhere, got people talking and raised Rentokil's profile while conveying the message of what it does - KILL BUGS. 2) Everyone who's has been offended by the massaging of facts in that initial story appears to be in the marketing profession - surely you should know better. Consumers - yes, those people Rentokil is seeking to attract - will now be aware of the name and what it does. They will not be indulging themselves in theoretical/philosophical talk about the actual figures - they will be scared witless about bugs and moved to pick up the phone to Rentokil. Surely, all you marketeers out there get this? 3) What's the big deal about being followed by Rentokil on Twitter? I get followed by strange, salacious people (are they really people?) sometimes. I'm not offended - I just block them. Job done. 4) Sorry, four points. Somebody has heaped further criticism on Rentokil for releasing it's scare story just before it announced it had won a huge contract with London Underground. Again, call me old fashioned, but isn't this a superb bit of strategic PR??? Raise awareness of the horrible issue of bugs then come in like a white knight to solve it. Brilliant. This whole debate has shown people up as small minded, jobsworth and - biggest crime of all - humourless. Where the hell has a sense of fun and self-depracation gone? Good on you Rentokil and your agency. You put your heads above the parapet - you have dared to be different in your industry. Good on you. As soon as I get an itch, I'll be on the phone ...

over 6 years ago

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John Hillman

I think that this story neatly, but inadvertently, illustrates the problem that has grown up around social media, in that it has been hijacked by Social Media etiquette nazis who hang around online sneering at people who don't automatically 'get it' straight off. Social Media is supposed to be an open conversation, yet online there are now thousands of these self proclaimed gatekeepers who are giving social media a bad name. Basically, I can follow who I want and so can anyone else be they brands or individuals - that's the point of Twitter. There's no such thing as a real social media expert anyway - it's all bs.

over 6 years ago

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Huxley

@Ling, So Ling, if  I promoted my used car cleaning service by claiming that all used cars that were sold were filled with 1,000 cockroaches , you'd be fine with that? Or, maybe, you'd fine it to be an incredibly dishonest and morally dubious practice?

over 6 years ago

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mrt

To make matters worse, the blogger then wrote: “We have had a few nice messages, but also a few rude ones – which personally I think is a little bit unnecessary.”

Worse ? He was right to think some things were unnecessary. Like this article.

I see no point in bashing the company with a humour that could only fit in Tutti-Frutti. 

Sorry, I dont think you can pull off the "How Not To" not even close. Remix it!

over 6 years ago

Claire Thatcher

Claire Thatcher, Marketing Consultant at Loud & Clear Marketing

Hear, hear @RuthShearn! Well said, I'm now following you :0)

over 6 years ago

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411 New York

This is why we will not jump on the Twitter band waggon. Same gor for Facebook and MySpace.

Does MySpace still exist? It use to be in TV ads but not anymore.

over 6 years ago

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Google Gurus SEO

I totally agree with Ruth, I think this could well have been intentional, as she said to raise brand awareness. If this is the case, its a very smart piece of marketing, its certainly got people talking as this post proves!

over 6 years ago

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video izle

I agree with Fraser. Someone may follow you but you can just choose to ignore them. I don't see why people get so pent up about Twitter 'spam' - in my mind, there's no such thing.

over 6 years ago

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video

Like it or not, It seems this has turned out to be a master stroke of PR.

over 6 years ago

David Robinson

David Robinson, Managing Director at Red Evolution (Aberdeen) Ltd

Perhaps there should be a new metric, your followers to following ratio. Mine's 20 as the inventor I'm going to suggest that's the optimum number ;) My point is in general you want to be followed by a lot more people than you are following and simply following people to entice them to follow you seems silly. d

about 6 years ago

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Pavimento Hormigon

I think the same laws that apply to traditional marketing should be applied to online marketing, and of course twitter, and autenticity is one of the inmutable laws of marketing.

Thank you for your posts,

Pavimento Hormigon

almost 6 years ago

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Impreso

Totally agree with Fraser and with Pavimento Hormigon. You just have to focus on your public and content.

almost 6 years ago

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Eric Strate, Owner at SEO GURU

Great article. It is hard to get natural Twitter followers, but I agree, do it right and you will be rewarded. I've seen tweets on autobot and it does just make Twitter hated. I follow only people and companies I really want to keep up on. As for my followers, I try to keep my blog content fresh with a new perspective.

over 5 years ago

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Newcomb

Is our cat in danger?. . We used it twice over a few
days. Now I am reading it is highly toxic to cats.
She even slept on a treated bed last night. She us showing no signs that she has been affected by it, but
I am paranoid..

about 4 years ago

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Leonardo

Good post. I learn something new and challenging on websites I
stumbleupon every day. It will always be helpful to read content from other writers and use something from other websites.

over 3 years ago

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