Thanks to JD Hancock for the great Star Wars photo!
When it comes to marketing, some of the strategies and tactics companies use are, shall we say, questionable. There’s the generally recommended way of doing things, also known as white-hat, and then the dark side of it, very aptly named black-hat. Black-hat tactics are generally unsustainable and Google usually neutralizes them with every algorithm update.
There’s a white-hat/black-hat distinction in every aspect of marketing, and this holds true for social media marketing, too. In broad terms, black hat social media marketing means using dishonest methods on social media to gain attention.
What exactly are these dishonest methods? That, of course, is debatable. There are some methods that can be said to fall in the grey zone. For example, is it dishonest to set up automated tweets or auto-replies? How about using your Facebook cover photo to display promotions? On the other hand, there are methods that are clearly underhanded. Buying social media followers and posting fake reviews are common examples.
One of the most dishonest methods, by far, has to be social media hoaxes. Some companies misuse the trust and influence they’ve already gained to trick followers into buying their latest product or service.
Let’s take a look at some of the most famous examples.
The hashtag is what makes Twitter so easy to use. It’s impossible to read every single tweet in your feed, so the hashtag is a simple way of filtering them around certain topics.
Many companies create their own hashtags for promotions or events they are running. This is perfectly all right. It’s a great way to engage with followers on Twitter and get them to participate. Using hashtags the right way can boost a company’s online presence.
Hashtags are also great for bringing attention to political or social issues. Passionate people can rally around their causes over Twitter by using a relevant hashtag. They are especially powerful during a crisis, allowing people to keep a finger on the pulse of things.
So what happens when a company hijacks a trending hashtag that’s not related to it? It steals a part of the limelight and quickly attracts a lot of attention from people following the hashtag. Unfortunately for the company, the attention is not necessarily positive. Especially not if they hijack a topic that involves a national revolution and bloodshed.
Habitat, a furniture retailer in UK, found this out the hard way when they hijacked the #Iran and #Mousavi tags during the Iranian protests in 2009. There must have been thousands of people following those tags out of concern for what was happening only to be interrupted by Habitat’s promotions. Needless to say, they were not happy and Habitat received a lot of negative press for it.
You’d think one example would be enough to dissuade companies from using this tactic. You would be wrong. In 2011, fashion retailer Kenneth Cole decided to try its hand at hashtag hijacking, this time with the protests in Egypt. Maybe they thought the Twitterverse had changed and people would be more understanding this time around. No dice, same result.
…To getting hijacked
Burger King and Jeep had their Twitter accounts hacked earlier this year. However, contrary to what their hackers might have hoped for, the companies’ Twitter followers actually grew. It turns out getting hacked simply brings you into the spotlight of greater news and in turn attracts more followers.
Following that, some other companies thought it would be a good way to quickly boost their own Twitter followers. MTV and BET got into the act pretty early on. They fake hacked each other’s accounts as part of a marketing act. They later came out and admitted that it was an elaborate prank.
Chipotle followed a similar strategy fake hacking their own account and sending out random tweets. They too admitted later that it was part of a publicity stunt.
In both cases the reaction seems to have been more positive than negative with most people choosing to play along rather than getting offended at being tricked. Tactics like this might work in the short term but it does nothing for the company in the long term. It doesn’t build trust, it doesn’t engage followers, and it certainly won’t be remembered for too long.
Speaking of fakes
Faking a hack might not get you into a lot of trouble, but what about fake blogs? Successful blogs can build a dedicated following and even influence their purchase decisions. So when companies take advantage of this, it borders on the illegal.
Journal de Ma Peau is one such example. It was started back in 2005 and was supposedly written by a Claire, who had been using L’Oreal products and documenting how well they worked. It turns out Claire was a total fabrication and the blog was just a way for L’Oreal to promote its products.
L’Oreal found itself at the receiving end of a lot of negativity for this. They certainly learned their lesson but, as we’ve seen earlier, other companies always think they can get away with it.
Walmart was next in line with Walmarting across America. Two people who travelled across America and detailed their experiences at each Walmart store on their way wrote the blog. It was later revealed that Walmart had paid them to write it. One might argue it’s not a complete fake but it’s still pretty shady.
Sony got in on it as well towards the end of 2006, setting up a blog called “All I Want for Xmas is a PSP“. They ended up getting more than that. You guessed it; the blog was a complete fake, including the gangsta-rap writers who kept posting about how they wanted their parents to get them PSP gaming consoles as Christmas gifts.
It’s so easy to create fake blogs, fake followers and fake reviews these days. As the Internet becomes more open it will be harder to keep fake blogs a secret for too long. Eventually, when the truth comes out, it ends up doing a lot more harm than good.
Who watches the watchmen?
Twitter has its own verification system which brands and celebrities use to assure followers that it’s a real account. They also have a system in place to block fake users and spam-bots.
It’s great that Twitter is trying to play watchman over their social network, but what happens when the watchman abuses the system? In a recent product launch, Twitter used fake tweets from actual users to promote the product. Nothing related was actually tweeted from those accounts, but Twitter just decided to use their names as spokesmen for the new product, without letting the users know.
This sounds similar to Facebook using users in Sponsored Story ads in 2012, again without their permission. They basically tracked what you “liked” and used that as sponsored ads for the product you liked, essentially getting paid for something you did without letting you know. They ended up getting sued for it.
Black-hat tactics might bring a company a lot of attention in the short run but there will always be consequences. The consequences grow larger as the tactics become more dishonest as Facebook found out.
On the other hand, the benefits of gaining attention don’t last long. Sure, a company gets a few thousand more followers, but what does that mean? Why would any of these new followers purchase something from the company if they only became followers because they were tricked?
The Bottom Line
The size of your social media following doesn’t bring the money in. More followers do not mean more sales. Trust and engagement with the brand does. That’s why white-hat marketing is superior to black-hat social media, because while black-hat only focuses on quantity, white-hat focuses on quality.
Do yourself a favour and treat your audience well. You won’t regret it.
Have you ever felt tricked by larger corporations? I personally felt a bit disappointed when Chipotle pulled off their recent stunt — I’m a big fan of their carnitas burritos, but this left a bad taste in my mouth. What about you? Let us know in the comments.