Abject Lessons Learnt from McDonald’s Social Media Disaster

David Amerland
David Amerland owner/founder, DavidAmerland.com

Posted on January 24th 2012

Abject Lessons Learnt from McDonald’s Social Media Disaster

The image of the Golden Arches was tarnished thanks to a mishandled social media campaignWhen you are a company whose products are synonymous with fast food and poor nutrition and whose job posts have made it into the Oxford English Dictionary as a byword for "An unstimulating, low-paid job with few prospects, esp. one created by the expansion of the service sector,” you might, understandably, want to use social media to get a different message across.

This is exactly what McDonald’s did when it decided to pour some cash into Twitter and buy some Twitter hashtags to promote its use of fresh produce, inserting paid-for tweets into the streams of Twitter users with the hashtag #MeetTheFarmers.

The campaign was intended to last 24-hours and it was well-intentioned enough and, initially, at least, appeared to work. When McDonald’s however changed the hashtag to #McDStories things went south very quickly. The hashtag was hijacked by angry customers who posted Tweets like:

"Fingernail in my BigMac once #McDStories, McDonald's Twitter Hashtag Promtion, Goes Horrible Wrong," said user @capnmarrrk.

"Ordered a McDouble, something in the damn thing chipped my molar. #McDStories," @PuppyPuncher said.

"Hospitalized for food poisoning after eating McDonalds in 1989. Never ate there again and became a Vegetarian. Should have sued #MCDStories," @Alice_2112 said.

"Watching a classmate projectile vomit his food all over the restaurant during a 6th grade trip #McDStories," @jfsmith23 said.


Within an hour McDonald's social media director Rick Wion (who in my book should not be holding that job) said, in an interview, that they saw the promotion wasn't going as planned and "set about a change of course".

It’s early days in 2012 but this kind of stuff made the cut in my video of last year on Top Social Disasters and, like in those cases, lessons need to be learnt from this one too:

#1. Words are evocative. Words are vehicles which act as shorthand which unfurls in the reader’s mind. Wion said that their #MeetTheFarmers hashtag received a mostly positive response so it is incredible that no one saw that a change would have a potentially different response by widening the field. If you are going to use social media hashtags tread carefully, think about what the words evoke and retain the strength of your conviction.

#2. Retain control. Social media is a notorious vehicle for losing control. As a matter of fact the very definition of social media is that you give up a certain measure of control of your brand to its followers (and hope for the best). So it makes sense to try and create some kind of guidance and scope by controlling what can be discussed. The #MeetTheFarmers hashtag was inspired because it focused the mind upon what was the true message of the McDonald’s Twitter campaign and limited any scope for widening the field to anything beyond the current conversation. By changing it McDonald’s threw the field wide open to anything which had to do with its stores and there the feedback was bound to be less than positive.

#3. Do not fail to respond. While the #McDStories hashtag (which was negative) was taken off the #MeetTheFarmers one (mostly positive) was allowed to remain in a move which is cynical, fools nobody and only highlights the fact that McDonald’s may have a Twitter account and a social media manager but has no sense of what social media actually is. Yet.

The year is still young and horror stories will abound. The social media bandwagon is too sweet to resist, so expect more abject lessons in the next few months.

David Amerland

David Amerland

owner/founder, DavidAmerland.com

David Amerland is the author of seven best-selling books including "Google Semantic Search: Search Engine Optimization (SEO) Techniques That Gets Your Company More Traffic, Increases Brand Impact and Amplifies Your Online Presence" and "Google+ Hangouts for Business: How to use Google+ Hangouts to Improve Brand Impact, Build Business and Communicate in Real-Time."

He helps multi-national clients and start-ups to organize their SEO and Social Media strategies. He is a business journalist, author and international speaker. He blogs about social media and search engine optimization, writes for a number of prominent websites including Forbes, and advises a handful of corporations on their social media crisis management techniques.

His books on SEO and Social Media demystify the complexity of the subjects they cover for readers around the world providing an accessible blueprint to better understand and take advantage of the opportunities offered by the connected economy. Follow him on @DavidAmerland. or find him on G+

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Comments

I'm waiting for Mickey D's to turn this into lemonade. There's an opportunity here.

Social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, while not exactly hostile places for high profile brands, they do tend to attract and encourage an irreverent humour which can sometimes be quite ruthless depending on the target. To say that it operates outside the comfort zone of many large corporations is an understatement and they need to tread carefully before embarking on a campaign such as the one above.

On the flipside, one of the most interesting and engaging aspects of social media for consumers is that it levels the playing field to a certain extent by holding companies accountable for every misstep. To put the McDonald's case in context, it was an embarrassing slip-up but there's unlikey to be any prolonged backlash. And as you've already noted, companies need to be wary about using hashtags as they're so often hijacked and subverted to undermine the efforts of well-intentioned corporate community managers. The important point is to prevent escalation of the problem and avoid any long-term reputational damage.

As a cheeky aside, I should declare my interest in the issue and point you towards Digimind.com, for anyone interested in managing their social media engagement.


Orlaith, well said. There has to be a certain amount of vigilance along the way. Any company that thinks "social media is easy" is only going to end up giving us more case studies to read about.

Interesting post, David - thank you. It strikes me that fishing for compliments is a poor use of Twitter in any case. Not exactly a sound footing for a relationship. It's a shame because in the world of sustainability - which culturally has huge overlaps with the ethos of social media - McDonald's has managed to rebuild its reputation, addressing many of the issues around sourcing, nutrition etc, often hand in hand with the NGOs. But this activity negates much of that.

Deborah, thank you for taking the time to comment here and you are quite right. Twitter is a poor tool to use to acrue flattery. It is excellent however in creating communication about what you do and in this regard the Mc Donald's campaign, initially, was right on target. It provided information which could be used to engender conversation. The problem arose when the very specific way of doing this was changed halfway through the campaign, throwing the door (and the hashtag) wide open to abuse, which happened. 

I do not think this is anything which will have a long-term impact on the McDonald brand and, as you say, they are a company which has learnt to listen in the hardest way possible. Not too long ago I wrote a piece which ended with them and their example, holding them up as an exemplary way to market yourself and get your message across, against the tide. If you are interested it can be found here

David - you should post Can You Get Past The Obvious at least once a month - it's first rate and I'm glad you've pointed me to it.

I have been in marketing for 3 1/2 decades and some things remain forever simple. NEVER PUT SOMEONE WHO HAS A LIMITED LIFE EXPERIANCE IN A POSITION THAT IS WORKING DIRECTLY WITH THE COMPANYS CLIENTS. I see this over and over again, a company puts there company trust in hands of a person that is ill equipped to handle the task at hand. Social Media has has a huge impact on customer perception.

It's seems that if someone is social and personable then they must be good at being social... It's all good till there is conflict then is when you need a skill set that comes with experience. That experience is hard won in today's social economy and I for one wouldn't like to have someone practice on my brand. I see a need for companies to take social media serious and to realize what impact it can have and to adjust itself accordingly. 

Robert, thank you for this. You are quite right that social media has a way of wrongfooting most people. It is an unfortunate paradigm of marketing that the moment we jump on a particular bandwagon we forget everything which has gone before and have to, unfortunately, re-learn everything all over again. 

David:  I am really surprised at a couple of things about this post.  

1. Your second "abject lesson" is that brands should "retain control."  What?  Social media is all about brands needing to learn how to give up control.  You can't "control" a conversation, you can, at best, hope to manage it or influence it.  

2. You see fit to interject your opinion that Rick Wion "should not be holding his job."  What do you base that opinion on?  Do you know Rick personally?  Are you privy to the full scope and responsibility of his job?  Perhaps you've even seen his performance reviews?  If so, then you're breaking HR confidentiality rules.  If not, then I would suggest that we as bloggers focus on debating ideas and actions, without resorting to name-calling or even suggesting that someone lose their job.

Disclosure:  I interviewed Rick Wion on this topic and wrote a blog post about it for The Realtime Report yesterday http://therealtimereport.com/2012/01/24/lessons-from-the-mcdstories-promoted-trend-controversy/.

 

Tonia, thank you for taking the time to comment here and, polemic tone aside, I commend the fact that you defend Rick Wion so strongly. To be frank if I had an inkling that my call for his head (professionally speaking) on a platter had any traction at all I would not have written those words. They are there simply to illustrate the pressure anyone in Rick's position must face and how high the stakes really are. 

I did read your interview and the second point you made after the interview was to "Choose your words (and battles) carefully". Similarly, in my post, I clarified: "... the very definition of social media is that you give up a certain measure of control of your brand to its followers (and hope for the best). So it makes sense to try and create some kind of guidance and scope by controlling what can be discussed." 

I do not see anywhere in my post any name-calling of any description. If there was anything in it however which made you, personally, object to it, for that I apologise. It was completely unintentional. 

Thanks, Rick -- and yes: it is definitely a high-pressure job for anyone -- the line between control & manage is a very tricky tightrope to walk!

Hi David,

Following on Tonia's first point about retaining control, I'd really be interested to know exactly how you would have handled this campaign to reach a different (and better) outcome, or at the very least how you would have handled or contained the negative backlash once #McDStories broke loose. 

I love the insights that you and other bloggers provide on cases like these, but I think sometimes there's a gap between what the general lessons are and what specific actions could have been taken in such cases. For example, you mention that the hashtag should have been more thoughtfully chosen or that more control mechanisms should have been put in place - what names/ controls would you have employed? How would you have publicly responded to the event? It's a loaded question, I know ... but I'd be interested to hear any ideas you might want to share. Especially since it seems to me that in some cases, if people are motivated enough, they can manipulate any UGC-driven campaign to backfire against a brand. That's just the risk you take when you invite the masses to participate in a branded social event. 

What research are you using to classify this as a disaster? If you would have read articles about this, Rick Wion and the folks at McDonald's came out and said the "negative" tweets only made up 2% of total conversation. Hardly a disaster. We focus on the negative and are quick to label something a failure. I suggest doing more research.

P.S. I drove by McDonald's today and there were still cars in the drive-thru. Guess it wasn't as big of fail as people are making it out to be, huh?

Kasey, thank you for taking the time to comment here on a post that's drawing a lot of attention. By definition anything which fails to deliver on its avowed goal is a disaster. The initial paid-for campaign for McDonald's was intended to help focus on the company's health-conscious produce campaign, generate media interst as well as a feel-good factor and sway perhaps any nay-sayers which always lurk about. In this respect it had to be shut-down early and the first flush of success (which was really good to see) notwithstanding what everyone remembers from it is the hashtag hijack. 

This is a social media lesson and nothing more. Social media, as a concept, is radical enough to have wrongfooted many, much larger companies, last year, something I highlighted when I wrote my Top Ten Social Media Disasters of 2011 post. I have no doubt that McDonald's, like any intelligent company, will rebound from this. I have huge respect for what they do and how they do it and actually, some time ago I wrote a lengthy post ending with them where I held them up as an example for imitation when it comes to authenticity and what I call, Truth Marketing. If you are interested it can be found here

I'm still trying to figure out why "Learnt" is in the title. I was hoping it was a play on words within the article. Please tell me I'm being dense and it's not a glaring typo the editors of SMT missed.

Apparently you haven't spent any time in England. It's not a typo.

Nein!

I haven't seen a promoted trend work out really well yet. It confuses the majority of users as to why something is trending. So this is a risky, risky endeavor for a brand to spend money on a promoted trend that I seriously doubt they are getting positive ROI on.

Alan, thank you for commenting here and yes, in a nutshell, you have stated the entire social media challenge. 

Disaster is perhaps an overstatement, but this does highlight the danger of using something like Twitter for what can easily come across as abject self-promotion.

Social media isn't about relinquishing control entirely, but as toniaries says, at least managing a conversation and ideally influencing it.

We put out a blog post earlier that was mainly about how Snickers is being investigated by the ASA for having celebrities promote it on Twitter without making it clear they were advertising, a story we ended up comparing to this one.

Both stories involve big brands annoying people over Twitter! And both make me hungry, so I guess it'll take a lot more than a social media faux pas to damage these companies.

Full post can be read here: http://bit.ly/wwnr18

Mickey D's taking to Twitter to extol the virtues of produce? To quote Daffy Duck, "it is to laugh!" 

And, stealing a line from Al Franken, "lying liars who lie" should not take to social media at all if they're not able to withstand the heat in the drive-thru.

It would be newsworthy if Mickey D's and the rest of Fast Food Nation would make a move toward actually serving healthier food out their plexiglass windows. #meetthefarmer might seem charming to the uninformed - undoubtedly the demo the campaign was aimed at - but it certainly wouldn't shift anyone's view who has any knowledge of fast-food sourcing.

To your point in the post, though, they started out with a potentially charming vehicle. They then re-tooled it into a bus that ran 'em over. 

Ooops. #fail!

 

I'm a sucker for social media "disaster stories" - not because I relish seeing a brand or social media director dragged through the mud, but because social media is such a new and emerging field we are all learning as we go. It makes sense to closely examine relevant case studies and learn from others' mistakes.

In this case, I agree with a couple of the other commenters in that using the word "disaster" is a bit strong. Sure, individuals during the campaign chose to hijack the #McDStories hashtag - but if it's true that this accounted for only about 2% of the tweets and that McDonalds responded quickly (you said within the hour) then what is the problem? Heck, I'd do even as far as saying this was a social media SUCCESS story. As a social media manager, you can put every plan in place to ensure things will go well but social media puts the power in the hands of the people -- and you can't predict what the reaction will be. And that's why you listen and respond. Which is exactly what McDonald's did.

One last point: I too was very surprised at the potshot you took of the social media director, Rick Wion. While you are entitled to your opinion, this comment seemed to come out of nowhere and was offered without basis. Your personal feelings about him don't strengthen or detract from your arguments; but disclosing them in this post to me seems mean-spirited and unprofessional. That is my opinion and we don't have to debate it but it just seemed so out of place I had to say something.

This post reinforces the main point of my latest blog post, Social Media: From Novelty to Utility:

Saying social media is “just” a communications tool is like saying
a nuclear power plant is “just” a way to turn on the lights

Saying social media is “just” a communications tool is like saying a nuclear power plant is “just” a way to turn on the lights

Learning best practices in effective management is so critical, and though I agree that this situation doesn't qualify as a disaster, it still offers an important lesson.

I appreciate the additional layers of learning offered by the commenters, who offer constructive criticism on the post and its arguments. Nicely done.

 

I read your post and I would strongly encourage anyone who is active in social media marketing to spend the required few minutes and take a look. I love your comment on the value of the comments made here increasing the depth and value of my original piece with insights which create an entirely new layer of value to the conversation. In this regard my original post became a catalyst which unlocked hidden depths through the comments made. Something which in the pre-social media age, would have been unthinkable. 

Thanks, David! I just re-read the post myself, and I was reminded that I had the recent McDonald's fiasco in mind when I wrote about the power of social media to cause damage. So our two posts are even more strongly connected than I first realized. : )

So, does this mean that social media isn't a good promotional mean?

MailaK, quite the contrary. Social media is an excellent channel for amplfying your marketing signal, creating engagement and reinforcing brand loyalty and awareness, but it is not an easy sell. A campaign still has to be crafted with care and some thought.