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.