Watch Out for Social Media Potholes

Braden Kelley
Braden Kelley Innovation and Content Marketing Strategist, Business Strategy Innovation

Posted on January 10th 2012

Watch Out for Social Media Potholes

Despite the fact that Twitter has been around since 2006 and Facebook has been around since 2004, social media is still the bright shiny object in the room (it's still the current marketing fad). People still think they are being innovative if they use it, and unfortunately many people still approach it as something separate and scary instead of treating it as just one tool in the toolbox of anyone working in marketing or innovation. Yes, I linked social media to innovation in the last sentence and that's because in the same way that social media is a tool that all marketers must learn how to use as part of an integrated marketing campaign, innovation managers must also learn how to use social media properly as part of their innovation efforts.

So let's get to our latest case study of how not to do social media by taking a look at a poorly run Facebook contest.

Back in July I wrote an article about the effect of social media on contests called - Does Social Media Corrupt Contests?

This article was written from an outsider's perspective looking in. Well, in December I decided to dive into the Facebook contesting world and enter a contest for an energy-efficient big screen television hosted by the NEEA in hopes of winning a 55" Samsung LED TV. Here is a quote from their Energy Efficient Electronics micro-site about what they do:

The Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance (NEEA) is a private non-profit organization funded by Northwest utilities, the Energy Trust of Oregon and the Bonneville Power Administration. NEEA works in collaboration with its stakeholders and strategic market partners to accelerate the sustained market adoption of energy-efficient products, technologies and practices. NEEA's market transformation efforts address energy efficiency in homes, businesses and industry. Its mission is to mobilize the Northwest to become increasingly energy efficient for a sustainable future.

My local utility, Puget Sound Energy, is a member of this organization.

Now let's get to why my experience with this contest makes this an example of how not to do social media.

Background

The contest organizers - MartketShift Strategies (on behalf of NEEA) - operated the contest on Facebook. It was only open to people living in a handful of states and involved submitting captions for up to five photos provided by the contest organizers for public voting and judging of the finalists. Five televisions were up for grabs as prizes. There were two example captioned pictures - one using humor, and one focused on energy-efficiency. I decided to focus on humor. The rules stated that the five entries for each picture receiving the most votes would then be considered the finalists and would be judged, and that nobody could win more than one prize.

Here is a quick chronology of my experience highlighting some of the strategic failure points:

  • I never saw the contest mentioned anywhere - including in my utility bill - a friend of mine who enters contests as a hobby suggested that I enter - so I did

  • In order to enter the contest I had to "like" the Energy Forward page (and allow the contest app access to my Facebook account) - which I was hesitant to do

  • Anyone who I asked to vote for my entries would have to also "like" the Energy Forward page and then also allow the contest app access to THEIR Facebook account. This is a big hurdle, and in fact most contest entries ended up with ZERO votes or one vote - including some of the ultimate 'winners' - but more on that later.

  • I'm assuming the contest was run to support of some sort of educational goal or action goal around some televisions being more energy efficient than others, but the benefits of one TV over another were not immediately clear or integrated into the contest

  • My wife and I each voted for my entries ONCE PER DAY and I picked up a few votes from other people. Meanwhile, apparently there was a hole in the application that allowed some individuals to cheat and vote for themselves lots of times per day by refreshing the page and voting again or whatever. The end result was that on the leaderboard you could clearly see that most of the leaders had many more 'votes' than 'views' (a legitimate vote registered both a view and a vote while a page refresh vote did not increment the view counter).

  • When the votes versus views issue was brought to the attention of the contest organizers, instead of disqualifying the offending entries they chose to hide the number of votes entries had received

  • Tweets to @nwalliance with concerns about the contest went unanswered

  • The gaming behavior was allowed to stand and so three of my entries did not qualify as finalists, but even with the gaming behavior two of my entries did qualify as finalists

  • The contest organizers then chose to not even follow their own rules, and when the winners were announced there were two 'winners' who were not even finalists - in fact one of the 'winners' was not even in the Top 14 vote getters - meaning that their entry probably did not even receive any votes (most entries had zero votes). This of course caused a huge uproar.

  • Then probably most shockingly, the contest organizers in response to the public outcry responded "NEEA has full discretion...to change the rules at any time if needed for the best interests of the Contest and the participants."

  • In the end the contest organizers decided to award two more televisions, but ended up awarding them to people who gamed the contest (more votes than views), so the end result was that of the seven televisions awarded, five went to people who gamed the system (more votes than views) and two to non-finalists.

So what can we learn?

The most important thing to learn from this example of how not to do social media is that when utilizing social media as a tool to help you achieve your innovation or marketing campaign goals, you must keep those goals front and center in everything you do and ask if each campaign component supports your goals and your strategy. This is also a great example of how lots of people will tell you they are social media experts, and not really know the first thing about how to utilize the tools properly to support innovation or marketing campaign goals.

You can also see from this example that contests can be a hornets nest and that more often than not people try to game the system. This is why some people who provide idea management software solutions have chosen not to have badges and other similar elements (or to allow for those components to be turned off). This is also why if you choose to have any kind of voting component, particularly where any kind of prize is involved, that you set very clear guidelines for voting and do so in a way that maximizes the chance that the voting ends up being about the quality of the submission and not about the size of the entrants' network.

'Viral' doesn't come for free. Social media experts will try and convince you to use the tool to go 'viral' and get the crowd involved, but when you choose get the crowd involved and let them vote, you need to be ready and willing to let their votes count, otherwise you'll destroy trust (and even brand equity). If you choose to engage the crowd in a public way you need to use their input, otherwise you'll suffer very public consequences. If you're looking for a higher level of quality in your submissions from a large number of people, consider using a more expert crowd instead (Innocentive, Hypios, Idea Connection, Nine Sigma, 99 Designs, TopCoder, etc.).

And last, but probably most important in my mind is that you need to walk the experience and look for potholes. The Marketshift Strategies folks definitely fell down on the job here. There were far too many barriers to participation in this contest, very little strategic integration, they should have anticipated the gaming of the system and written the rules better, and they should have actually followed their rules and the spirit of the contest a little better so that the people who didn't game the contest and instead legitimately gathered votes were rewarded. The good thing is that without examples to dissect of how not to do social media, we wouldn't all be able to learn how to use this powerful but dangerous tool in our innovator's and marketer's toolbox.

Braden Kelley

Braden Kelley

Innovation and Content Marketing Strategist, Business Strategy Innovation

Braden Kelley, Innovation and Content Marketing Strategist, has been advising companies on how to increase their revenue and cut their costs since 1996. He has maximized profits for companies while living and working in the UK, Germany, and the United States. Braden earned his MBA from London Business School. Braden works with global clients to begin their innovation journey, or to address specific innovation strategy, marketing strategy, or other business improvement needs. Braden specializes in B2B Content Marketing and social business design. Braden has worked with a variety of industries including: financial services, healthcare, marketing, technology, retail, online services, mobile telecommunications, and more. Braden is also a co-founder of Innovation Excellence. He is passionate about innovation and has published several white papers and case studies for his web site and more than 650 articles for Wired, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, Texas Enterprise, and the American Express OPEN Forum. Braden is a leading innovation voice on Twitter (@innovate) and is the author of "Stoking Your Innovation Bonfire" from John Wiley & Sons. His international clients include Microsoft, Misys, HomeAway.com, Roche Diagnostics, Millicom International Cellular, Wunderman, and more.

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