illustration by Frank Stockton

Abusing Social Media

How companies abuse tech's latest tools and embarrass themselves.

Thanks for nothing, Web 2.0. With each sexy bit of social media that catches fire with users, lame companies get another fresh opportunity to pretend they know how to connect with customers without understanding what they're doing. No business is abandoning traditional advertising in favor of these gimmicky, halfhearted efforts. They're just abandoning any self-respect they once possessed. Whee!

Twitter's popular with gen Y, right? So how can companies join the discussion? Should it be interesting insights — the stuff that makes the best CEO blogs work? (Blogs, of course, were 2005's Net-marketing panacea.) Or maybe one-sided customer-service-rep transcripts? Comcast's one-man Twitter band (twitter.com/comcastcares) has sure made me feel differently about the company, thanks to such bons mots as "I have confirmed with your package MSNBC should be on any TV with a cable box. Channel 114. I have sent a signal to the box."

Some companies tweet out the occasional press release. Or, in the case of EDS (recently acquired by HP for almost $14 billion), it's not so occasional. Ten out of 11 of its Twitter posts begin with either "Release" or "Press Release." How can it be that this cool company has only nine Twitter followers?

One of my favorite adventures in dystopia is when the corporate Twitter feeds talk to one another. Just this morning the Wachovia Twitterer responded to the Starbucks Twitterer. Starbucks had said, "It's possible to make a Vivanno with soy, but there is dairy in the whey base. Nutritional info is for standard drinks only." Get this. Wachovia replied, "On behalf of my fellow bankers, thanks for keeping us moving along!" You had to be there: It was like having a seat at the Algonquin Round Table.

On the plus side, Twitter doesn't cost these facile marketers anything. Widgets — you know, the kind of applications good for cluttering up a Facebook page — can get expensive. The six most-dreaded words in corporate America in 2008 have been "After we release our Facebook app... ." Yes, once these beautiful butterflies are released into the world, pots of gold and unicorns for all! Building a widget can cost a company between a few thousand dollars (for something simple like a countdown clock) to $100,000 or more (for, say, an elaborate game).

For that kind of investment, the apps should both reinforce a company's brand and ideally convert usage into sales. Hard to get a return on investment, though, with 34 active users. That's how many Facebookers have added Papa John's Order Online Widget. The widget lets customers "place their order up to 21 days in advance of their preferred delivery or pickup date and time." Remember that time you got a pizza craving for two weeks from next Tuesday at 7 p.m. and couldn't act on it?

In Papa John's defense, at least that widget theoretically makes sense. Ford Movie Challenge & WIN! is one of Facebook's corporate-app success stories. In late summer, 40,875 monthly active users were playing this game that lets users predict how movies will perform over the upcoming weekend. Unless the folks at Ford have single-handedly brought back the drive-in, I can't see how this is on message.

You know what's next: iPhone apps. Yikes! "Soon, the iPhone will be ruined as a platform for advertising," says Adrian Ho, a partner at Zeus Jones, a marketing firm that's created digital campaigns for Nordstrom and Bobbi Brown Cosmetics. "Hopefully, we can launch ours before that."

illustration by Frank Stockton

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