For those unfamiliar with Twitter, it's a "microblogging" site that was designed to be compatible with the short messaging service (SMS) text messages of cell phones. As a result, Twitter messages are 140 characters or less.
One characteristic of Twitter is "hash tags." These are key words, preceded by the "#" symbol. People interested in following a particular subject, can sort through the myriad of Twitter posts by looking for the hash tag of interest.
Habitat, an upscale UK furniture store decided to jump into Twitter. Great! An overly aggressive marketer with Habitat or working on the company's behalf, noted the popularity of certain hash tags and inserted them into the store's promotional messages.
Let's just say this was a mistake.
Habitat used hash tags related to Apple Computer, its iPhone, the True Blood series, and other popular topics. Worse, the store used tags related to the Iranian election.
The Twitter "community," if community's the right word, responded immediately. Habitat got blasted. So Habitat backed off, deleting the Tweets, and pretended like nothing happened.
The blogger Tiphereth commented on Social Media Today that "The way the @HabitatUK page looks now, is typical of a traditional, push marketing, corporate PR approach. Admit nothing, apologise for nothing, do not engage in conversation, advertise, advertise, advertise. You have to wonder why they’re even bothering being on Twitter in the first place."
The uproar was picked up by a copy of major UK papers, ultimately prompting Habitat to issue an apology.
"The top ten trending topics were pasted into hashtags without checking with us and apparently without verifying what all of the tags referred to," apologized Claire from the head office in London. "This was absolutely not authorized by Habitat. We were shocked when we discovered what happened and are very sorry for the offence that was caused. This is totally against our communications strategy. We never sought to abuse Twitter, have removed the content and will ensure this does not happen again."
In other words, it's the ad agency's fault. Pardon me, but this seems like a non-apology.
Habitat should have followed Tiphereth's advice...
1. Individually @replied everyone who complained to them publicly, and apologized for the spammy behaviour
2. Apologized in public. They could have sent out generic tweets to say sorry for not knowing what they were doing when they hijacked the trending hashtags for their marketing tweets
3. Given Twitter followers a special offer discount voucher that could be redeemed via the web.
4. Asked Twitter followers what kind of information/offers HabitatUK could offer, that would give value and build interest.
5. Its ok to fail. Do it quickly and apologize publicly. People are a lot more forgiving when you admit to your mistakes rather than deny any wrongdoing.
Frankly, if Habitat had acted quickly, sincerely, and provided a special discount as Tiphereth advised, the company might have turned this into a net positive.
Ignoring the culture of a social media site will backfire. I know people who hype, hype, hype, all of the time. Predictably, their forays into social media have backfired. Their hype is labeled as spam.
Hype is for the yellow pages, newspaper, and broadcast. If you can't help but hype yourself, avoid new media. You're going to do your brand more damage than good.
With social media the key is to inform and engage and to be genuine and human. This isn't easy if you're a huckster or a corporate suits.
(c) 2009 Matt Michel