10 takeaways from high-profile social media wins and losses

Sometimes the big brands nail it on social media. Sometimes they fail big-time. Learn key lessons learned from 10 brands whose social media presence over the past year (or so) scored a notable success — or, in a few cases, landed a belly flop.

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Send your followers out into the physical world. Take a stand — but be sure you understand your audience first. Tell a story with data — but keep it simple. And think twice about encouraging flirtation and romance, especially if you’re an airline.

These are a few of the key lessons learned from 10 brands whose social media presence over the past year (or so) scored a win — or, in a few cases, landed a belly flop. What follows is a deep-dive into three successful brand social media campaigns, a quick look at four additional success stories and three social media misfires, each followed by top takeaways you can use to up your own social media game.

3 social media wins

1. hbo game of thrones HBO

1. HBO #ForTheThrone

Generating yet more excitement about the final season of the insanely popular show “Game of Thrones” (aka “GoT”) may seem nearly impossible. And yet, HBO pulled it off with a multi-pronged social media campaign.

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Send your followers out into the physical world. Take a stand — but be sure you understand your audience first. Tell a story with data — but keep it simple. And think twice about encouraging flirtation and romance, especially if you’re an airline.

These are a few of the key lessons learned from 10 brands whose social media presence over the past year (or so) scored a win — or, in a few cases, landed a belly flop. What follows is a deep-dive into three successful brand social media campaigns, a quick look at four additional success stories and three social media misfires, each followed by top takeaways you can use to up your own social media game.

3 social media wins

1. hbo game of thrones HBO

1. HBO #ForTheThrone

Generating yet more excitement about the final season of the insanely popular show “Game of Thrones” (aka “GoT”) may seem nearly impossible. And yet, HBO pulled it off with a multi-pronged social media campaign, #ForTheThrone.

To crank up the excitement, HBO gave fans three calls-to-action: “bleed,” “quest” or “create” for the throne.

Fans were asked to donate blood during HBO’s “Bleed for the Throne” event at Austin’s South by Southwest conference in March for prizes and product discounts. Alternatively, fans could donate through the American Red Cross. Donors dressing as GoT characters were entered into a contest for a trip to see the season’s premiere.

For the “quest,” GoT fans participated in a scavenger hunt for six Iron Throne replicas, each hidden in a remote location, such as a forest or desert, around the globe. Location clues were embedded in a series of 360-degree YouTube videos. Fans shared their theories about the thrones’ locations via social media. Those who found the thrones won a replica of King Robert Baratheon’s crown (which sells for $370).

For “create,” HBO asked international artists to reimagine 18 show props. The results were revealed on Twitter and HBO’s #ForTheThrone microsite, and fans were asked to share their own GoT-inspired work for a chance to be featured in the campaign.

“As we get deeper into social media, our expectations are more sophisticated about what to expect from brands, and HBO really delivered,” says Zontee Hou, co-lead of consulting at Convince and Convert. She says few brands have done a good job of using 360-degree videos on YouTube. “HBO used the medium to engage fans in creative ways, getting them excited and sharing their thoughts about what the clues to the thrones’ locations meant,” Hou says. The “Throne of the Forest” video, for instance, has racked up an impressive 642,113 YouTube views.  

Top takeaways: “HBO took a multi-modal approach, looking at many different ways to generate excitement and share content,” Hou said. “Its success with this campaign shows that brands have a powerful opportunity to connect their social media initiatives to the real world and bring people together in physical spaces. Even people who couldn’t hunt for the thrones in person followed those who did. The campaign also shows how powerful it can be to turn your fans into your brand’s storytellers.”

The GoT campaign also illustrates the potential value of sending your social media followers into the physical world to engage with your brand in new ways.

2. nike Nike

2. Nike #DreamCrazy

In our highly divisive times, is it smart — or crazy risky — for brands to take a stand?

Nike is no stranger to controversy. And its September 2018 Dream Crazy advertising and social media initiative, designed to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the brand’s “Just Do It” campaign, certainly brought the controversy, in spades.

The campaign kicked off with a tweet from controversial former San Francisco 49er quarterback Colin Kaepernick, featuring a black-and-white closeup of him along with the text “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”

The campaign was anchored by a two-minute video featuring inspired voice-over messages such as “don’t be the best basketball player on the planet; be bigger than basketball,” with accompanying clips of everyday people and star athletes (such as Serena Williams) striving, stumbling and succeeding. The video concludes by revealing its narrator: Kaepernick.

Kaepernick’s many vocal critics, including President Trump and some NFL fans, were quick to denounce the campaign. Some Nike loyalists shared social media videos of their Nike shoes burning amidst a trending Twitter hashtag #BoycottNike. Nike’s stock fell by nearly 4%, according to AdNews.

On the other hand, the campaign has been a huge social media success. The video has racked up nearly 30 million views on YouTube, with far more likes (187,000) than dislikes (22,000) and plenty of positive comments mixed in with the negative.

In the immediate wake of the campaign launch, Nike’s brand exposure across TV, radio, online and social media was worth $163.5 million, CNBC reports. Nike’s social media mentions increased 1,400 percent in just one day, Talkwalker estimates. Online sales at Nike.com dipped briefly but then grew 31% compared to 17% for the same period a year earlier, according to MarketWatch. Ad Age even named Nike marketer of the year, in part because of the Dream Crazy campaign.

Top takeaways: When you truly understand your core audience and what matters to them, taking a stand is not taking a risk. If fact, depending upon your customer base, it may be risky not to take a stand.

“Political and social issues are what consumers are talking about today, and more and more, many consumers appreciate brands that take a genuine stand,” says Kathleen Celano, social media director, Brownstein Group. “They can tell when brands are being genuine about it, too. Nike stood by its beliefs and backed them up with integrated campaigns and charitable donations.”

Nike’s risk earned it rewards because the company “really considered who their audience is and what they were trying to achieve,” Celano adds.

Nike reportedly designed the campaign with Generation Z consumers in mind. “Much like millennials, over two-thirds of this generation craves brands that support social causes in an authentic and meaningful manner,” observes Pavone Marketing Group in its analysis of the Dream Crazy campaign. Nike is the most trusted brand among Millennials (65.2 percent) and the second-most trusted brand among Gen Z (69.3 percent), according to research from Ypulse.

Market research from YouGov shows that Nike customers are more likely to support Kaepernick than the general public is. “These customers say they prefer brands that get involved in social issues, have a moral message and express views even if they are controversial,” The Wall Street Journal notes.

3. google year in search Google

3. Google #YearInSearch

Wondering what’s on our collective minds at any given minute? Google knows. Its search engine is often the first place we turn to with a question or concern.

All Google queries are crunched into global and national Google Trends. Since 2011, Google has created a rousing YouTube video dramatizing themes from its annual Year in Search list of top-trending searches. The videos are a powerful piece of content marketing, inviting us to reflect on the year past while reminding us how integrated Google searches are in our lives.

When Google released its 2018 Year in Search video on YouTube, Google marketers — in an effort to drive traffic to the video — created a series of simple graphics, each highlighting a topic that trended in 2018. The graphics were sent to the trending brands or people, many of whom then shared the graphics with their followers.

For example, “A Star is Born” was 2018’s top-trending drama film based on Google searches. So, Google marketers created a graphic illustrating that point and sent it to the movie’s social media team. The team shared the graphic on Twitter and Instagram along with a link to Google’s #YearinSearch video.

Thanks in part to all the brands and celebrities that shared similar graphics from Google, the 2018 Year in Search video has gained a significantly larger viewership than in years past. The 2018 edition has been viewed 113 million times on YouTube, a big increase compared to nearly 20 million views of the 2017 video and 16 million views of 2016's video.

Top takeways: “Hundreds of influencers across many industries received graphics from Google showing their prominence in 2018 searches, and they shared those graphics with their followers,” says Hou. “Google’s campaign is a great example of a brand taking the content they create (e.g., the Year in Search video) and making it relevant to many different people who might not otherwise have found it. And turning your data into simple but compelling graphics that are easy to share on social media can help your content go viral. Finding relevance in the data your brand owns gives you a special and interesting story to tell.”

4 more social media standouts

4. hanacure Hanacure

4. Hanacure has excelled at user-generated content in the form of before-and-after Instagram photos from customers of the South Korean skin care company’s face mask.

Top takeaway: Hanacure wisely launched an Instagram account, @hanacureeffect, dedicated to the before/after photos and separate from its company account, @hanacure, Hou notes. Separating the two accounts enables Hanacure to showcase the stories, experiences, and engagement of its fan base.

5. amazon prime Amazon

5. Amazon Prime Video US cleverly uses internet memes, GIFs, pop culture references and humor to keep its Twitter account lively. Example: When a Christian group mistakenly demanded that Netflix cancel “Good Omens,” which is an Amazon Prime show, the Amazon Prime Video US Twitter account cheekily suggested it would cancel Netflix’s “Stranger Things” in return.

Top takeaway: The “Strangers Things” tweet is a good example of a brand with a consistent tone on social media. In Amazon Prime Video US’s case, the tone is light, fun and a tad provocative, which is illustrated by the tweets posted immediately before and after the “Good Omens” tweet, notes Thibaud Clement, CEO and co-founder of social media content management service Loomly.

6. heinz Heinz

6. Heinz posted a poll on Twitter: Should it release its mayonnaise/ketchup hybrid product — then only available in the Middle East — in the U.S.? The #mayochup hashtag/poll earned Heinz 1 billion impressions within 48 hours, according to Twitter, and Mayochup — along with other Heinz condiment mashups — is now available in the U.S.

Top takeaway: Asking for input on Twitter is sometimes akin to asking to be trolled (to wit: ALDI Australia). But the rewards can outweigh the risks if, like Heinz, you know your customers and their interests and you’re giving them a voice in what you do, notes Ashley Keller Nelson, Professor of Practice for Communications and Social Media at Tulane University's Freeman School of Business

7. ihop IHOP

7. IHOP teased during summer 2018 that it would change its name to “IHOb” to call attention to its burgers. The proposed name change, a publicity stunt that IHOP shared on social media, wasn’t real. But the campaign was a success in many regards, according to CNBC: IHOP’s campaign generated 1.2 million tweets in the first 10 days and helped the chain sell four times more burgers.

Top takeaway: When your store traffic has declined for 10 consecutive quarters, as was the case with IHOP, it’s time to make bold and clever moves, and the chain succeeded in that regard. However, it’s also important to keep social media followers focused on your call-to-action — in this case, getting them to eat at IHOP. “It seemed like more people were discussing whether the name change was real instead of talking about the actual point of the campaign, which was IHOP’s burgers,” Celano says.

3 social media fails

8. wendys Wendy's

8. Wendy’s has a highly engaged Twitter following. But the account often throws shade at other fast-food brands, notably Burger King and McDonald’s; the other brands fire back; and the flame wars continue. Even consumers get flamed, as People points out.

Top takeaway: Though some love the fast-food fights, Hou wonders if social media snark actually motivates customers to buy a brand’s products. “And if all the fast-food brands are sassy on social media, how can anyone tell them apart?”

9. dolce Dolce & Gabbana

9. Dolce & Gabbana, which has often stirred social media controversy, promoted its upcoming Shanghai fashion show last year by posting videos of a young Chinese woman attempting to eat a cannoli with chopsticks. Some Asian viewers were offended. Making matters worse, leaked private messages reportedly from Stefano Gabbana revealed strong anti-Chinese sentiments. The fallout was swift and severe. (Gabbana’s PR team said his account has been hacked, “a claim many do not believe,” according to The Daily Beast.)

Top takeaway: Being cheeky on social media is one thing. But being cheeky with cultural stereotypes often backfires, notes Keller Nelson.

10. delta Delta

10. Delta Air Lines teamed with Coca-Cola Co. for what seemed like a fun, flirty way to raise brand awareness — distribute Diet Coke-branded napkins on Delta flights that encouraged passengers to write their phone number on the napkin and slip it to their “plane crush.” While some passengers posted on social media that they found the napkins amusing, others felt the encouragement of unsolicited flirting in a contained airplane cabin was “creepy.” The reaction on social media prompted an apology from both companies and removal of the napkins.

Top takeaway: The napkin wasn’t part of a social media campaign per se — but it quickly turned into a buzzworthy social media topic, underscoring the importance of brands constantly monitoring what’s being said about them online and reacting as needed. Also, in the #MeToo era, brands should thoroughly consider all possible ramifications of content that encourages flirting or romance.