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Five Notes on Newsjacking in Social Media

oreo superbowl newsjackingTopical tweets are a fascinating anomaly on the social media landscape. Done right, they can achieve massive reach and coverage. Done wrong, your reputation can suffer a beat-down, losing you followers in the aftermath. Divisive or potentially sensitive news stories are the high stakes gambling of real-time content marketing, and while time is of the essence, you do need to think through those tweets before you pull the trigger. So with the Superbowl approaching, and hands hovering above keyboards, waiting to produce the next ‘Dunk in the Dark’ moment, it’s worth taking a moment to consider a few notes before you go rolling the dice.

  1. Know your audience – This is true in all aspects of social media marketing, knowing your audience is crucial to your content success. This is heightened even further in real-time marketing. Consistency is key to maintaining and growing a solid supporter base, so you can’t just tweet out any joke you feel as you're watching events unfold. You need to be sensitive to how your audience will react and understand what works best, based on past experience with your followers. If it won’t work, there's little point trying to bend the news story to fit your brand message (this has been referred to as ‘buzz wedge’, trying to wedge the message you want into a trending, 'buzz' story).
  2. Avoid political and/or potentially sensitive issues – It’s hard to rule these out completely – and obviously some brands make their living off such issues – but if you don’t have to, if it’s not something you’d normally get involved with, I’d recommend staying away from political and sensitive issues. There are countless examples of brands mis-stepping on these (Golf Channel's 'I Have a Dream' tweetSpaghetti O's 'Pearl Harbour' effort, American Apparel's 'Hurricane Sandy sale) and the risk/reward is too imbalanced for the majority of brands. In the case of a disaster, putting out well-wishes is fine, but you need to be very careful about any messaging being interpreted as an attempt to generate brand coverage. If you are going to newsjack a potentially divisive issue, I’d recommend a two-step verification process. You know how in the movies they always require the go-ahead from the commander and second in charge before launching a nuclear strike or self-destruct sequence? I’d suggest establishing a similar process, requiring an ‘I concur’ from a secondary party before a tweet goes out.
  3. Be informed – Make sure you stay on top of evolving events to avoid possible mis-steps. While not a newsjacking event, the American Rifleman 'Good morning shooters..' tweet, which came the morning after a mass-shooting in Colorado, highlights the importance of being aware of the news when you send out brand content. You need to operate in a newsroom type atmosphere, staying up on changes as they occur.
  4. If you do make a mistake, own up and apologise – And do this as soon as possible. The longer you don’t respond, the more it grows – the best policy is to admit error before it spreads. The recent Justine Sacco case was made all the worse because Sacco was on a plane, unaware of the controversy she’d set off. The story was growing by the second, till it was a giant monster staring her down when she finally did hit the ground. Had she been able to respond faster and own up to the error, the story may not have become the globally trending topic it did.
  5. ‘There’s a fine line between clever and lame’ – This is not as significant an issue, but if you monitor the trending hash tags during any major event, you’re going to see some major 'buzz wedging' going on, much of it very lame. While a mis-fired joke probably won’t hurt your brand (and you could argue that any way you can get into a trending conversation increases brand exposure), forcing a tangential segway towards your business could increase the chances of a Twitter fail, as you're often wading into unfamiliar subject matter. I’d recommend a two-step verification process for this also - if you’re not 100% sure of a joke or comment, probably worth having someone else take a look. And be wary of potential insensitivity to others. Denny’s recent '47 chances to win on the way home' tweet included a map highlighting all the Denny’s restaurants on the way home for Auburn, who'd just lost the BCS National Championship game. In itself, it was harmless enough, but it unnecessarily poked fun at a team of heart-broken players and fans and just seemed a bit cruel in the end.

As noted, real-time marketing can deliver major benefits when done right, and many experts have highlighted this as a trend to watch this year, but keep in mind that those who do it best often to have large teams working on their campaigns, with checks and double-checks in place. Keep in mind your audience and all possible angles to your messaging. And keep in mind that while you should always be listening, you don’t have to newsjack. It might be better to wait for the perfect opportunity, rather than forcing something that maybe won't work out as well as it did inside your head. It’s high stakes and you need luck, spontaneity and wit. Hopefully the dice rolls your way.

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