Much Ado About #McDStories – Nothing But A Cautionary Tale

There is no doubt that social media is a key component for brand messaging and the non-moderated two-way communication it brings leads to larger messaging complexities. As we’ve seen time and again, the programs with the best intentions can go awry.  The latest is one by McDonald’s and even though the #McDStories component was a relatively small blip, it provides a cautionary tale for those companies who feel they can dive into the social media landscape without the proper staffing or strategy.  

McDonald’s launched a campaign last week touting the freshest ingredients through the sponsoring of the trends #MeetTheFarmers and #McDStories.  It seems that everything was going fine on Thursday with #MeetTheFarmers until they moved to the vague hashtag – #McDStories.  It seems that they were trying to frame it as an opportunity for suppliers to share their stories about working with McDonald’s (never mind questioning whether suppliers are actively tweeting while working with produce) with a sample Tweet of: 

“When u make something w/ pride, people can taste it,” McD potato supplier #McDstories

Unfortunately for them, users twisted the meaning as a call to bash the company. Some strong examples were captured by  The Daily Mail:

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This reiterates the fact that companies cannot be assured that users will respond to social campaigns in the way you would like them to.  Another lesson is that you’ve got to act quickly with campaigns that don’t work and even with ones that do. And, ultimately, hopefully it illustrates how you may not be able to get by with one person doing all of your social.  It definitely depends on the size of your company, but also the strategy of your marketing.  Companies cannot get away with saying that social is key to their marketing and not support the actual execution – that’s good for neither the company or the staff charged with running social.

In the case of McDonald’s, they are a huge company that is constantly being barraged by fans and detractors in this environment.  As such, the company has a seemingly aggressive social media staff that is able to monitor communications and make changes quickly.  It seems that within hours, they moved away from the campaign. But even with a large team, they are not able to control the life of the hashtag.

In addition to the quick campaign change, McDonald’s Social Media Director, Rick Wion, went into high-gear to try to manage things.  There’s a few different nuanced responses he made based on the different outlets. The first one is more explanatory of what happened and the second one comes off as a little defensive:

Last Thursday, we planned to use two different hashtags during a promoted trend – #meetthefarmers and #mcdstories.

While #meetthefarmers was used for the majority of the day and successful in raising awareness of the Supplier Stories campaign, #mcdstories did not go as planned. We quickly pulled #mcdstories and it was promoted for less than two hours.

Within an hour of pulling #McDStories the number of conversations about it fell off from a peak of 1600 to a few dozen. It is also important to keep those numbers in perspective. There were 72,788 mentions of McDonald’s overall that day so the traction of #McDStories was a tiny percentage (2%) of that.

With all social media campaigns, we include contingency plans should the conversation not go as planned. The ability to change midstream helped this small blip from becoming something larger.

Here’s the one with a little more of a defensive tone:

The #McDStories tactics was part of a larger campaign to share our stories about the farmers who grow McDonald’s food. As soon as we saw that #McDStories was not going as planned, we made the decision to pull the hashtag and replace it with the more positive and successful #MeettheFarmers. Within that two hour window from launch to pull down of #McDStories, the number of tweets about it jumped to a peak of about 1600 but then fell off to only a few dozen.

It is also important to keep those numbers in perspective. There were 72,788 mentions of McDonald’s overall that day and #McDStories was a tiny percentage of that–roughly 2%. The tweets that were used for the video an article are very negative, but given that McDonald’s is mentioned on Twitter more than 250,000 times each week, it is very easy to cherry pick negative (or positive) tweets that are not representative of the overall picture.

Bottom line–the negative chatter wasn’t as much as today’s headlines have lead people to believe. This happened almost a week ago and the hashtag is only living on because many media outlets are using the chance to push a provocative and tweetable headline.

Part of being in social media is knowing that you can’t control the message 100 percent of the time.

As Twitter continues to evolve its platform and engagement opportunities, we’re learning from our experiences.

The keys here were that McDonald’s is taking chances and has prepared themselves to quickly respond.  Some would question whether the tone of the second response is needed, but we can all understand what a frustrating position Wion was in. Again, it has to do with a larger social strategy – if their goal is to respond to every concern, then they’ve got to be consistent with that.  It seems their strategy is to be active along many fronts with the promotion of many trends (#flavorbattle, #LittleThings and #ChickenMcBites) so the offending trends could easily be mitigated and forgotten.

So, what is the cautionary tale other than users will take advantage of social media the way they see fit? Maybe a little bit… But the larger lesson is that companies are wasting money if they don’t have a clear social strategy and the staffing to support it. Social is not a box to be checked on a marketing plan or an execution that can always be managed by one person with a Social Media Dashboard (i.e. HootSuite, Seesmic, Radian6 and many more).  Things happen too quickly and there’s hardly ever enough time to act upon user sentiment in effective ways without the resources to do so. 

As an aside (or an example), there is a company who completely missed the opportunity to leverage the #meetthefarmers buzz – Caretrace owns @meetthefarmers and they made absolutely no moves to drive traffic to their own site.

No matter how big or small you are, a real social strategy needs to be put in place and that strategy needs to weigh staffing issues to be able to deal with the realities of the social media environment.  On the surface, it may seem like you can get away with as little support as possible. Even if you don’t have the target on your back that McDonald’s has, the relevant level of support needs to be there to not only engage socially, but to optimize opportunities to drive more business for the company.

All this does not preclude you from having the issues that McDonald’s had, but this event highlights the ways in which the perception of a big error can be weathered or mitigated by a proper strategy. In the end, it probably is much ado about nothing and we will passingly refer to it in a matter of days and forget about it in weeks.  But the underlying learnings are certainly not a cautionary tale to be ignored…

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