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.