It wasn’t the first corporate blunder in social media, but it was one of the scariest (or funniest, depending on how you look at it). In January of 2012, McDonalds created the Twitter hashtag #McDStories, inviting followers to “meet some of the hard-working people dedicated to providing McDs with quality food every day.”
Rather than embracing the positive personal stories the restaurant was trying to promote, Twitter users came up with their own stories—and they weren’t so nice.
While social media gives your company the chance to promote itself, as well as an outlet to give customers extra information, the downside is that users can easily turn against you like the situation with this McDonalds “bashtag.”
With some self-awareness and a willingness to care about your followers rather than simply your own interests, you can prevent this. Here are four tips for avoiding social media reputation disasters.
Don’t strictly promote your company.
The easiest way to drop followers or fans from social media accounts is to send out an endless string of promotional material. Just like the ads you find in the mail, which more often than not go straight into the garbage, people will drop your account if all you have to say is how great your company is.
That isn’t to say that you shouldn’t promote your company at all. However, it’s best to assume that your followers or fans are already interested in your products or services. You want to offer them something new.
Remain focused on your company’s specialty, but find other ways to tie in that material. For example, if you are a company that sells cold remedies, you could give health tips or remind your followers to get a flu shot. You can also link to relevant information on your website that might be otherwise overlooked:
Not great: “We are CoughSyrup4U, your source for medicine to prevent the common cold! www.coughsyrup4u.com”
Great: “Want some tips for preventing a cold this season? Check out our latest blog post: blog.coughsyrup4u.com…”
So if your company is going to commit to using Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms without blatant self-promotion, what do you post? Even if your company’s tone is a professional one, social media is a place where you need to remind your clients and customers that you are human.
A popular method of achieving more personal posts is the employee spotlight. Take a picture of your employee in his or her work environment and write up some details about his or her life. When you put a face to the company, people will get an idea of who they are communicating with.
Don’t forget to throw in posts about holidays (perhaps a picture of your employees in costume on Halloween?) and current events that your office is interested in. The Super Bowl might not be related to your company, but that’s something that will get people talking.
Join in the conversation.
Instead of simply throwing your information out into the Twitterverse, you should engage with your customers and other users across all social media platforms. Add polls on Facebook, whether they are industry-related questions or regarding current events. Join in on Follow Friday by suggesting some Twitter accounts that your followers might enjoy. Try adding a clever comment to a popular hashtag like #LiesIveToldMyParents.
Also, from a purely marketing-centric standpoint, be aware of how your company is perceived by customers and the population in general. If McDonalds had recognized that the brand is not exactly known for its “quality food,” they might have tried a less detrimental approach.
You should also ensure that you know what’s going on with the rest of the world. The NRA was called out for a tweet that read, “Good morning, shooters. Happy Friday! Weekend plans?” This wouldn’t normally be a problem considering the association’s purpose—but this happened the morning after the movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado. Be tactful in referencing any situations that may be sensitive or controversial.
Serve your customers.
Zappos.com has been acclaimed as one of the best companies for customer service, and this is never more apparent than on their Twitter account. Make that accounts. The primary account, @zappos, is run by the company’s CEO, Tony.
But the most impressive feat is the account @Zappos_Service. Twitter users can tweet or direct message the account, and diligent employees—who usually identify themselves when they go online—answer. In a study carried out by STELLAService in June of 2012, Zappos.com was one of two companies to answer every customer concern that came through. It was also the fastest, getting back with a response in under an hour.
As for the other accounts from Zappos.com, the company has tried to cover all of the different topics their customers might be interested in. @ZapposStyle, for example, shows the latest fashion trends (including their own products, of course).
The lesson to learn from this company is that you should always cater to your fans, followers, and ultimately, customers. According to Nielsen.com , 47% of social media users turn to these websites for customer service. So make sure that you have someone there to answer their questions in a prompt manner. Give your followers what they want: monitor your accounts to see which posts are more popular, and implement that kind of content.
There’s no exact pathway to success when it comes to social media. But in order to avoid disaster, use Facebook, Twitter, and other sources with the intention to help your customers and show them another side of your company. #happyposting
Shannon Williams  is an expert in local internet marketing. She graduated with a degree in English and editing, so she’s thrilled to have a job where she can use her writing skills to help other businesses.