Lessons from #McDStories, a Social Media Campaign Gone Wrong

Change is the only constant. So, it should come as no surprise when companies launch campaigns to rebrand themselves or highlight products and services in an effort to make or keep themselves relevant to demand…which was exactly what McDonald’s was aiming to do through a new Twitter campaign last Wednesday (January 18).

The Campaign

Consumers are ever-increasingly becoming health-conscious and economically and ecologically responsible. When it comes to food, consumers want fresh produce and meats that have been responsibly grown and raised. In response, McDonald’s planned a Twitter campaign using the hashtags #meetthefarmers and #McDStories as a way to highlight where their food comes from and generate a feeling of community among farmers, the franchise and Big Mac lovers.

#meetthefarmers was met with success. Some farmers joined the conversation with impromptu tweets sharing their positive experiences with the fast-food giant. #McDStories, on the other hand, took on a McDonald’s-bashing life of its own. After only two tweets from McDonald’s social media team, the new hashtag was hijacked by angry and disgusted McDonald’s customers with horrific #McDStories of their own. In just two hours, #McDStories generated a peak of 1,600 conversations, an overwhelming majority of them negative.

The Lessons

While news reports had a field day pointing out McDonald’s Twitter campaign gone wrong, those reports are largely exaggerated. Yes, #McDStories generated thousands of negative tweets from customers, but those tweets accounted for only 2% of all McDonald’s mentions (a total of 72,788) throughout Twitterverse on the 18th. Actually, McDonald’s social media director, Rick Wion, was proactive in “damage control,” and this campaign snafu offers valuable lessons to apply to your own social media campaign.

    Make a plan…and a backup plan.

    Never enter the social media sphere without an intention, a goal. If you want a Twitter presence, know who you’re tweeting to and what you want your tweeting to accomplish. If you want to be found on Facebook, what do you want people to do once they find your page? Your messages should be tailored to your audience and your purpose.

    Once you have a strategy for your social media usage, develop a plan for what you will do if your campaign doesn’t perform the way you anticipated. Your backup plan should be something other than just stopping a current campaign. You don’t want to just leave the Twitterverse or social network. You want to be able to redirect—shift the focus of your followers or fans to something new, something positive.

    Monitor your social media campaign’s performance.

    If it’s taking a negative direction, act fast. Although the headlines suggest otherwise, McDonald’s was actually very effective in minimizing the impact of the hijacked #McDStories hashtag. The hashtag was only up two hours before McDonald’s pulled it. In two more hours, conversations using the hashtag fell from over 1,600 to just a few dozen.

    Choose your words carefully

    McDonald’s launched a paid Twitter campaign using hashtags. And based on the response to #McDStories, one of those hashtags wasn’t very well-chosen. #McDStories was ambiguous—it gave tweeters the option of sharing both positive and negative stories…and the headlines give you an indication of which kind of response is more likely to generate buzz.

    Whether you are using hashtags, creating a slogan or motto or writing organic tweets and posts while interacting with your audience, choose your words carefully. Consider other ways a reader may interpret your words. Be specific and eliminate any hint at an invitation to share negative feedback. Imagine how different McDonald’s Twitter campaign may have gone if instead of using #McDStories, they used something like #McDPride or #McDQuality—something with a positive connotation.

    Focus on your target audience

    It’s not possible to please everyone. And that’s especially true when “everyone” can potentially include the entire Twitterverse or all 800 million+ global Facebook subscribers. Focus your efforts on keeping your customers/followers/fans engaged and happy.

    Learn from your mistakes

    If what you thought was a well-planned social media campaign doesn’t go as expected or produce the results you had hoped for, don’t let that convince you that social media marketing doesn’t work. The sheer number of people on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn, etc. makes it very difficult to predict what exactly will get viewers’ attention or how they will respond to it. If something doesn’t work, try to figure out what and why so that you can improve for your next approach.

Again, McDonald’s is a good example. Rather than focusing on the negative responses they have gotten (on Twitter, especially), McDonald’s continues to put themselves out “there.” PETA accusations and hijacked hashtags don’t make McDonald’s pack in their social media presence. They know there are just as many double cheeseburger devotees out there to interact with, too.

Social media marketing isn’t an exact science. It may take a lot of trial-and-error before you find an approach, a tagline, a channel that really works for you. But the process can be simplified if you are willing to learn from the successes and failures of other companies. And McDonald’s “#McFail” on January 18th has some meaty applications for your social media campaign.