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5 Cringeworthy User-Generated Campaigns and 3 Tips to Avoid Those Mistakes

by Adriana Howell

public relations social media twitter

User content is a great resource for brands. For our client Iceland Naturally, we hold monthly Facebook contests where users submit their photos of Iceland, and we’ll feature one as our cover photo. We also ask our Twitter followers to tweet using the #WhyILoveIceland hashtag and include one fan tweet in our monthly e-newsletter.

When done right, user-generated promotions can engage your audience and strengthen your relationship with them. Plus, you gain access to genuine content that you can leverage to further promote your brand. But it’s not all engagement and rainbows. Brands should tread very carefully when planning for a user-generated promotion as they can go terribly awry. The anonymity of the web opens doors for users to be especially critical and willing to bring up even the most controversial (and potentially brand-ruining) topics. As BIGfish president David Gerzof Richard told CBS Boston, “All you need is one bad apple to get in there, and they can completely hijack your campaign.” Here are a few of the most cringeworthy campaigns from the past few years:

1. Chevy’s “write-your-own-ad” (April 2006).

Users were asked to create their own Chevy Tahoe commercial. Chevy provided the video clips, which featured the Tahoe driving through various natural landscapes, and asked users to narrate the ad with text. Users submitted ads with text like:

“$70 to fill up the tank, which will last less than 400 miles. Chevy Tahoe.”

“Like this snowy wilderness? Better get your fill of it now. Then say hello to global warming.”

“Our planet’s oil is almost gone. You don’t need GPS to see where this road leads.”

2. McDonald’s #McDStories (January 2012)

McDonald’s asked their Twitter followers to share their #McDStories as part of its #MeetTheFarmers campaign promoting the restaurant’s use of fresh produce. Some not-so-positive and completely off-topic tweets followed.

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image-13. New York Police Department’s #MyNYPD (April 2014)

“Do you have a photo w/ a member of the NYPD? Tweet us & tag it #myNYPD. It may be featured on our Facebook.” tweeted @NYPDNews. The response was certainly not what the police department had in mind.

The Washington Post, ABC, Buzzfeed, and more news outlets published stories about the negative response to the campaign, ultimately resulting in a PR disaster for the NYPD.

4. Bill Cosby’s “Meme me!” (November 2014)

After asking Twitter followers to create memes of Bill Cosby, the 2006 rape allegations against the comedian resurfaced in a big way.

Screen Shot 2014-11-24 at 9.31.31 AM

The next day, Cosby refused to answer questions about the allegations in an interview with NPR’s Scott Simon. Since then, various news outlets, like CNN to NBC have revisited the story, NBC and TV Land pulled re-runs of The Cosby Show, and Netflix cancelled its Bill Cosby at 77 special that was scheduled to air on November 28th. As a result of a seemingly lighthearted campaign, Cosby’s career is severely damaged, if not completely ruined.

5. New England Patriot’s TwitterBot (November 2014)

In an attempt to become the first NFL team with 1 million followers, the Patriots offered to create “custom digital Pats jerseys” for all users who retweeted them. Unfortunately, their automated system thanked a username with an offensive racial slur.

The Patriots deleted the tweet and issued an apology minutes later, but once again, the media picked up on the mistake and quickly spread the word about the team’s blunder.

Watch BIGfish president David Gerzof Richard discuss this Patriots mishap on CBS Boston:

Did those failed campaigns make you cringe? Us, too. The worst part is that most of these situations are avoidable. Here are a few tips to make sure your user-generated promotion doesn’t backfire.

Tip #1: Recognize brand weaknesses ahead of time.

Play devil’s advocate. Be honest about your brand’s weaknesses and most sensitive areas. Think about how the public could use your campaign or hashtag against you. Remember, just because you created a hashtag, doesn’t mean you can control it and how people use it.

If there is a controversial topic related to your brand (i.e. anything in your brand’s past, or any recent events, that attracted or might attract negative attention) and you foresee users bringing it up and taking advantage of your campaign, try using a third-party contest platform instead of a Twitter hashtag. Then, you can personally vet and review all submissions before sharing them with the public. Still, that won’t stop some users from talking about it elsewhere. If there are weak spots that you’re not prepared to address publicly, then a user-generated promotion is not for your brand.

Tip #2: Have a human review and vet all submissions.

Never use an automated service for your promotions. As BIGfish president David Gerzof Richard advised on CBS Boston, “Make sure there’s a human watching what’s happening and it’s not left to automation.”  While it’s much easier to have a robot do everything for you, it can end in disaster. Having a human run your promotion is absolutely worth the time and effort.

Tip #3: Be ready for speed bumps.

Even after you’ve properly prepared for a campaign, there’s always the chance that something will go wrong. As soon as you see a negative comment, be sure to monitor the conversation closely and determine the best course of action. In some cases, it may be best to reach out directly to a disgruntled user and address their situation. If it’s someone trolling your promotion, it’s often better to ignore them than to respond and instigate them. If the comment or submission pertains to a larger issue and you notice it gaining attention, the best option may be to immediately stop the promotion and apologize publicly. Regardless, you should have a crisis communications plan ready before your promotion launches.

Have another campaign-gone-wrong you’d like to share? Have more tips for avoiding these situations? Tweet us @BIGfishmarket and let us know!

Brigid Gorham

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