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Social Issues

Twitter can #backfire on companies

By Aaron Rathbone
arathbon@uwo.ca

Late last month McDonald’s encouraged its Twitter followers to tweet about their experiences at its restaurants, using the hashtag #McDStories. The hashtag quickly went viral on the Twitter-verse, but not for the reason the company surely hoped for.

Tweets like “haven’t eaten there in 30 years. Growing up we called them gut bombs #McDStories” became a typical shot at the fast food chain.

The whole event serves as proof that companies venturing into the world of social media do so at their own risk.

Alex Sevigny, program director for the master of communications management program at McMaster University, says Twitter’s anonymity can result in a barrage of cynicism. “A good policy is expect the worst when it comes to social media.”

He says for a successful social media strategy it is necessary to encourage a culture of respect rather than criticism.

Larry Lau, marketing manager of ATMOS Marketing
Photo by ATMOS Marketing
Larry Lau, marketing manager of ATMOS Marketing, says companies should build relationships with their customers over social media, not sell them products.

Larry Lau, marketing manager and co-founder of ATMOS Marketing in London, Ont., agrees. He suggests businesses should use social media to build a better rapport with customers.

“Social media is meant to engage with customers, not so much to advertise and promote products and services.”

Lau says his company often uses the #LdnOnt hashtag in order to remain in the loop of what is trending in the city, and that way it remains an active participant in the online community.

“I think that social media can be done effectively for any company no matter the size. There are a lot of companies that target a specific demographic or region for a specific brand. A national campaign can get out of hand if you don’t have people monitoring it constantly,” says Lau.

Sevigny says the best way to look at media like Twitter is to think of it as going back to the town square, where everybody knows everybody and you do business based on trust and credibility.

“Twitter is not a medium that you do the hard sell over, or take a traditional marketing approach. Twitter is a medium for relationship building and trust building. And that’s much more a public relations function than a marketing function,” says Sevigny.

Tweets
Photo by Aaron Rathbone
The online conversation explodes over the #McDstories hashtag.

An example of this, interestingly, comes from McDonald’s with its #MeetTheFarmers Twitter campaign introducing some of the people who supply the restaurant’s products. This strategy allowed the company to put out its message with less of a chance for subversion by Twitter users, while communicating a sense of the company’s values.

Lau does not believe the poor Twitter response will hurt McDonald’s. “Whatever happens on Twitter is not going to change the revenue or business that they’re going to get from their customers.”

Sevigny agrees that this hiccup will not hurt the fast food giant, but does see the potential devastation that could result from one poorly managed tweet.

“They’ve had challenges before with food myths so this is not a new narrative for McDonald’s. But if you think about a charity or a hospital and you’re trying to build an online community and something goes terribly wrong on your Twitter strategy and people start saying the most heinous things about your charity – you could be decimated.”

Read more stories like this at UWO’s The Reporter. For more of Aaron’s work, check out his blog.

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About Western Journalism

We're members of the University of Western Ontario's master of arts in journalism program. Our blog represents a common theme in stories through our third term.

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