Social media fails and wins – 10 lessons for us all

Man liking stuffOver the past decade, social media has matured from being something that many regarded as a fad, to something that those same people are now checking constantly through the day.

With Twitter, Facebook and YouTube taking up a lot of our day, and the likes of LinkedIn, Pinterest and Google+ also screaming for our attention (not to mention the Reddits of the world) it isn’t surprising that we’ve seen our fair share of marketing mishaps and personal embarrassments.

Such shambolic fails hit the headlines because, while social media is now a common part of life, it is still a new and exciting thing to newspaper editors, who like to leap on any calamity that befalls a Twitter twit or a Facebook fool.

More recently, we have seen the likes of Eric Bristow apologise for behaviour on Twitter, and Shilpa Shetty being lampooned over her book reviews.

In this article, I’m taking a look at some of the most popular fails of the past few years. These are lessons here for us all.

Lesson 1: There’s no such thing as private on the internet

When it comes to posting something privately, there are two camps. First, those people who use online services that offer privacy – such as people posting on Apple’s iCloud, or private messages on Facebook. Second, there are people who make the mistake of inadvertently posting in public.

As the celebrities whose naked photos were leaked from iCloud have discovered, though, anything private online is in danger of becoming public. We can only feel sorry for those people, because they weren’t being stupid. Lesson one, though, is that if it is live on a server somewhere, there is no guarantee that it is safe.


The people who really need to be saved from themselves are people like Anthony Weiner, the appropriately-named US politician who hit the headlines after he sent a young woman a link to a picture of his very own weiner (concealed by underwear) via Twitter. After initially claiming his Twitter account had been hacked, he later admitted it and resigned from Congress. Amazingly, he then was ‘exposed’ again two years later while trying to run for New York Mayor.

Social media fail - Anthony Weiner admits to #Weinergate

Weiner is just one member of a growing company, as a number of high profile people have hit the headlines for sharing rude snaps on social media, including Brooks Newmark, the Conservative politician who resigned this year for the same thing.

Embarrassing Admission

This foolish person thought that Facebook would be a good place to say something negative and sarcastic about a college application form, only to find that the college also has access to Facebook.

Social media fail - Ivy college admission application


What about this poor unfortunate fool who set out to amuse his friends by posting a Facebook picture of himself licking tacos at work in a Taco Bell restaurant. The company was not quite so amused and he was fired.

Social media fail - Taco Bell fires employee for licking shells

Lesson 2: Don’t try to fake a personality

A number of celebrities have been criticised for handing over their social media profiles to brand marketers. Katie Price, for example, thought it was fun when Snickers posted a series of times on her Twitter account in what was obviously a bit of surreptitious sponsorship.

Snickers posts on Katie Price's Twitter

Coming clean

That’s nothing, though, compared with Barry Scott. Remember him? The Cillit Bang guy. Several years ago Barry Scott started his own blog, which would be fine except for the fact that he isn’t real. He is a character played by actor Neil Burgess.

Barry Scott blog - Cillit Bang

Even a fake blog isn’t so bad, but the marketing agency went too far when they started posting comments in discussion groups as Barry Scott. That caused people to expose the whole thing as a scam.

Gem of a fail

This Facebook fail is an absolute gem. A jeweller called Skillens ran a Facebook giveaway – where the prize was a valuable ring. The winner was announced on the page along with a photograph of the prize-giving ceremony. But followers became suspicious when a message was posted by the Skillens page that appeared to be from  the competition winner.

Skillens Facebook fail

It seemed as though the person running the Facebook page and the competition winner were the same person, or at least they were using the same computer. You can read all about that incident here.

Lesson 3: Think not what your audience can do for you. Think what you can do for your audience

Many brands still like to use social media as a broadcast channel, but a better use of it can come when you adapt your behaviour to that of the audience. People don’t always want to be told to buy insurance or to read your latest press release. They will play along, though, if you are willing to have fun.

Honda did a good job with this approach when it ran a challenge on its Facebook page, inviting people to use the Honda logo in inventive ways. One man had a tattoo on his forehead (fake, hopefully), of the Honda logo. In return, one of Honda’s bosses took a photo with that person’s name ‘tattooed’ on his own head.

In this example, a user mowed the Honda badge into his lawn, so Honda replied by mowing that person’s name into its lawn in front of the corporate headquarters.

Honda carved a Facebook user's name into its lawn

Old Spice guy

Who can forget the Old Spice guy? He started out in a TV commercial and then became the star of a YouTube channel that’s still going strong today. Not only did Old Spice give us the videos for our entertainment, but the Old Spice guy also made video responses to questions that were posted by YouTube users. Thus a growing army of fans was born. Watch the video below.

Lesson 4: Don’t feed the trolls

Sometimes you create your own car crash by walking into a Twitterstorm of your own making. McDonald’s experienced this when it came up with the idea of a hashtag to encourage people to share their stories. The #McDStories hashtag attracted the wrong kind of responses, which sparked many more people to join in with the brand bashing.

McDStories hashtag fail

Nervous Bakedown

When the trolls arrive for a bashing, the worst thing you can do is encourage them by getting angry. Trolls love an angry reaction, as Amy’s Baking Company in New York discovered. The account holders angrily reacted to trolls on their Facebook page, which is like pouring petrol on a fire.

Amy's Baking Company Facebook meltdown

Lesson 5: The law can work against you

You might think that the law is the best way to make people cease and desist, but on social media legal threats are the last thing you should try. Portuguese mobile phone shop Ensitel learned this lesson the hard way a few years ago. A disgruntled customer, who had been struggling to get decent customer service, wrote a scathing blog post about the retail chain. The business responded by getting its lawyer to send a letter demanding the blog post be removed.

Ensitel versus customer

The blogger not only refused but also published the details of the legal letter, sparking a reaction so fast and so wide that, for months afterwards, most of the top 20 results on a search for “Ensitel” linked to articles about the company’s own goal.

Lesson 6: If you do stupid things, people will laugh at you

Think before you post. Spearmint Rhino in Melbourne posted a baby picture of one of its dancers. Eagle-eyed followers worked out that the date on the photo showed the dancer could only be 15.

Facebook fail - Spearmint Rhino

Pepsi Max page rage

The Swedish marketing team for Pepsi Max decided it would be funny, during the World Cup qualification campaign, to produce a series of photos depicting Cristiano Ronaldo voodoo dolls in precarious positions. Tens of thousands of Portuguese fans signed up to a rage page pledging “never drink Pepsi again”, prompting the company to apologise.

Cristiano Ronaldo Pepsi Max ads

Lesson 7: Don’t fear open communication

Brands have had mixed successes with public chats on social media. British Gas’s first experience ranks as one of the worst. Using the hashtag #AskBG, the company put up a manager to take part in a chat on a day when it announced massive price hikes. He was ill-prepared, ill-experienced with Twitter and probably, by the end of his ordeal, just ill.

AskBG Twitter chat

JP Morgan bottles out

Not long afterwards, JP Morgan planned to hold a chat, using the hashtag #AskJPM. Once that chat was announced, trolls piled in to have their fun and the bank bottled out altogether, causing the trolls to fill the void.

Bank of England shows the way

Spencer Dale, Chief Economist at the Bank of England, held a Twitter chat shortly after the #AskBG fail, but he didn’t bottle out. He also held his own by answering questions in a factual way – prompting this commentator to tweet some praise:

Ask BOE Twitter chat

Lesson 8: Have fun. Whether you like it or not

Many brands are afraid to go outside of their comfort zone, or allow themselves to be seen in any light other than their carefully planned persona. Many others say yah-boo-sucks to that and they encourage customers to have a laugh.

Take Harvey Nichols, for example. An up-market shop in Knightsbridge poking fun at women who have to do the walk of shame the night after a party? Yes, they did it, and the result is great. See the video below.

Chatter Cakes

Tesco Mobile got into some banter with a few brands on Twitter on one occasion – debating with Jaffa Cakes as to whether they were cakes or biscuits. The fun chat no doubt benefited all involved.

Tesco Mobile and Jaffa Cakes chat

Crap commercial

Poo-Pourri is a real product with a marketing slogan that reads: “Spritz the bowl before you go, and no-one else will ever know.” This video ad is a testament to the idea that it’s better for you to laugh at your own product rather than try to take yourself too seriously.

Blunt and to the point

Musician James Blunt gets a lot of stick. Instead of crying into his soup, he uses Twitter to hit back in comical fashion. The Poke compiled a good round-up of some of his best tweets.

James Blunt on Twitter

Lesson 9: Lock it down before you fire your team

When you are about to fire loads of people, make sure they don’t still have the keys to the kingdom. HMV’s Twitter account was hijacked by disgruntled employees because they were all  being laid off. Using the hashtag #HMVXFactorFiring, they had a little rant:

HMV fires social media team

Lesson 10: It’s a great customer service channel

While social media is good for community management, it is also a great customer service channel. In the old days, companies would receive letters or emails from customers looking for help. Those letters would be dealt with and only the customer would know. Nowadays, companies can be seen helping customers, because it all takes place on Twitter, or Facebook.

JetBlue customer service

In conclusion – the three things to remember

All those lessons can boil down to three core things for us all to remember when it comes to social media marketing.

  • Be real
  • Don’t try to sell
  • Have a laugh
Steve Masters profile picture
Steve Masters

Steve (RIP) was Services Director for Vertical Leap. He started professional life as a magazine journalist, working on music magazines and women's titles before becoming a web editor in 1997, then joining MSN to work purely in online publishing. Since 1999 he has worked for and consulted to a broad range of businesses about their digital marketing.

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