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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  • J Graham Brock

    For companies to try something new is commendable, they may not always get it right but at least they are trying. Growth is all industries is related to experimentation and adaptation. Without these efforts a company will stay stagnant and eventually die. I do agree with the any company should use the technology to their advantage and not just try it like Ford did, but these early efforts might just them wading into the waters before they dig deeper with more direct applications. I give companies a lot of credit for adapting and trying new media and services, they should not be chastised for the efforts but encouraged.

  • Carrie Kerpen

    This kind of feels like when a teenager is mad at their parent for using acronyms like OMG. Sometimes it feels like early adopters are so pissed that corporations have invaded their space. The truth is, if the company takes the time to LEARN how to use sn, and is authentic and appropriate in their approach, it's a huge win. Slapping up a Facebook page, or tweeting about silliness will get you nowhere. @comcastcares is an AMAZING and unusual (and something with questionable sustainability as it grows) approach, and should be celebrated.

  • Rick Sebok

    Good article. There's no doubt that social media outlets are a high growth industry and potential opportunity for companies to interact with consumers. On a larger scale, I'm wondering how many big brands (like those mentioned in the article) are actually evaluating the financial impact of their social media investments on sales? How do these results compare to other marketing and media investments? If "34 Papa John downloads" is an indication of whether consumers really want to interact with big companies, then perhaps these companies really don't belong on facebook or twitter. Its really tough to come across as 'authenic' when the motive is purely commercial.

  • allan branch

    Big companies only suck with social media when they're not transparent with their motives. @comcastcares rocks because you know it's just one guy helping out. He doesn't pretend to be anything more than he is. More and more companies will "get it" and start acting like humans. Twitter by itself is powerful check out http://WeAllHateQuickbooks.com see what people on twitter are saying about Quickbooks. It's amazing to watch.

  • mike donovin

    its inevitable....the only thing faster is sex to new tech applications

  • A. Lapre

    Twitter, etc., all good, but need to start making money. Maybe they should require commercial entities to pay to use them. They need to see them as tools to engage - not just shove info at people.

  • Kate Hobbie

    This was laugh out loud funny - for such a new medium social takes itself awfully seriously - and Caroline you did a great job of pointing out the silly awkwardness of this new form of communication. Question - Why can't we click through to your profile?

  • Phill Barufkin

    Thought provoking, but "Abuse" is somewhat of an overstatement. I laud companies for trying to stay out in front by using social media, but caution that they should not jump into using these tools without thoughtfully plotting a course of action. If the company has a learning culture, which is what I encourage with my clients, than even if they stumble along the way they will make adjustments. Of course, there will be wrong turns and mistakes when venturing into uncharted territory. But nothing ventured, nothing gained. Perhaps, the bigger lesson is to apply a strategic process and rigor when deploying social media to attempt to elevate the consumer experience, especially when there is a significant investment involved.

  • Jason Rysavy

    Gimmicky halfhearted efforts? Wow. I commend companies for trying something new. I don't think anyone ever said we should abandon traditional advertising, but if companies continue to move like dinosaurs and ignore the non-traditional side, they will fall behind. And some of them have. Certainly companies will make mistakes along the way, but don't blame them for taking a chance on something. That's what it's all about. I mean c'mon, look at all the terrible traditional advertising out there...of course companies are going to do some terrible non-traditional stuff too. The challenge will of course to create a "smart" non-traditional marketing plan that supports the companie's brand. Sorry, but this article sounds like it's written by someone who runs a media placement company. I'm disappointed.

  • gary koelling

    not exactly a scathing indictment of abuse. frivolity on twitter? gasp. facebook apps - they suck yes. but facebook itself sucks pretty hard lately. it acts more like a paranoid boomer capitalist than the gen y touchstone it pretends to be.

  • Adam Lipkin

    Good article, but I think you blew it on the Comcast twitter. It's not just "I have confirmed" messages thrown into the ether. There's very much a two-way conversation, in which folks who have gotten fed up with Comcast's over-the-phone "service" contact the account via Twitter, and get responses (and the public responses encourage other folks to do the same). The companies that use Twitter well are the ones who recognize that it has to be at two-way medium.

    Aside from that, wonderful article (here via Kathy Sierra's Tweet, by the way).