Social Media Case Studies

Social Media Stunts Do More Harm Than Good

We don’t love companies, we tolerate them.

Only 48% of Americans trust business, according to the most recent Edelman Trust Barometer. Especially in this social media age, where corporations’ missives are displayed cheek to jowl with those of our family and friends, it’s easy to think of business involvement in social as a necessary evil – paying the freight so it remains free for people.

Businesses try to counteract our distrust by behaving more like citizens, with snappy status updates, grainy Instagram photos, and lots of pronoun usage. Even Facebook acknowledges that Timeline (and the corresponding kill-off of default landing tabs) was intended to force companies to be more human on that platform.

The high art of the humanization gambit is the seemingly random stunt that smashes our expectations for a how a brand should behave. These usually involve some sort of over-the-top gesture on the part of the company, perhaps most famously epitomized by Peter Shankman’s interaction with Morton’s steakhouse at Newark airport last year. Other examples include KLM’s Surprise program (we’ll be running a whole blog post about KLM’s social programs this week), and recently, DoubleTree Hotels’ birthday for A.J. – chronicled by the folks at Digital Royalty.

Does Social Media Stunt Marketing Hurt Brands?

In the Doubletree example, a reservations agent for the Doubletree Cocoa Beach (Florida) discovered that a father was taking his son to the area for his 4th birthday, and proactively delivered cupcakes, a birthday card, a boogie board and other goodies to the room before arrival. There’s almost nothing better than making little kids happy, and this incident promptly went big on, accumulating some 4.5 million views.

It’s a neat story. It generated a lot of exposure for the brand. It’s a human tale that went viral. All of that is true. It’s a great example of employees that are able to work off-script, doing something special for no apparent reason. After all, social business is about actions not words.

But it’s still a one-off stunt, and for me customer service is about scalability and consistency and reliability, not about randomly delighting kids when an opportunity presents itself.

More to the point, do the 4.5 million people who viewed this story have a markedly different opinion of Doubletree Hotels that will eventually manifest in bookings and brand loyalty? Or, has the brand just set itself up to disappoint 4.5 million people who won’t find a boogie board in their hotel room?

In many ways, this type of social media stunt epitomizes our modern culture, where we use technology to present to the world a curated and improved version of ourselves and our lives. We share pithy quotes on Facebook, not the thousands of mundane things we think in-between. We share interesting photos on Instagram that make us seem worldly and fascinating, not the thousands of mundane images that flitter across our retinas in-between. We upload airbrushed versions of ourselves on (or so I’m told) and claim an interest in white water rafting that is a grand exaggeration.

Are brands doing the same thing? Are they making us think that they’re different – and that we will be treated special – when in reality they aren’t and we won’t?



Facebook Comments


  1. OliviaWenger says

    Really liked this one, Jay. As a brand owner, I can empathize with the temptation these brands have to pull a stunt for quick, viral broadcasting.What I struggle with is how to remain genuine while actively working toward expanding our small business’ influence. I find myself constantly conflicted like I’m being corporate or unreal when I try to think of ways to engage and expand our customer base through social media. Have you ever worked with brands that have the same concern?

    • says

      OliviaWenger Every brand has that concern Olivia. That’s why we talk so much here about “being” social instead of “doing” social. It has to ring authentic, even if you’re trying to generate revenue (or loyalty). 

  2. says

    Oh, yeah, Jay! Scalability is so crucial. That Doubletree story seemed a little over the top to me, too. But also, not only does it smack of the “millionth” customer confetti party, but what if the customer doesn’t want the attention, the late night sugar buzz, or whatever else goes along with being randomly pulled from the crowd! I don’t mean to sound like a wet-blanket here, but companies need to be careful with these tactics on many levels. 

  3. says

    I think you correctly pointed out in the last Social Pros podcast that this type of stunt should be classified as PR, not customer service.  Hopefully we’ll achieve some type of equilibrium soon, and brands will remember their Seinfeld…there was a whole episode devoted to the timing and appropriateness of gifts.  You have to build a relationship over time; you can’t force it with a big gesture off the bat.

    • says

      rosemaryoneill It’s not customer service just because the customer service team executed it, because it’s not repeatable or scalable. Great Seinfeld reference!

  4. says

    Not sure I agree with this. Businesses, particularly customer-facing businesses like Doubletree, are always looking for “wow” moments to go above and beyond for their customer. It engenders brand loyalty and positive word-of-mouth, which are both powerful long-term growth components. The Doubletree example has been happening for decades; the critical difference is now we have a storytelling platform that can display these “wow” moments instantaneously to massive amount of people. So, the problem isn’t really scalability; people who expect fireworks during every consumer experience will never be satisfied, anyway. There are two problems/dangers here as I see it: Legitimacy and humility. Brands that use clever pr stunts on Facebook or Reddit, et al. do tremendous long-term harm to their brands for a short-term engagement bump. In order to be perceived as legitimate and trustworthy, these “wow” moments need to be organic and spontaneous. The average time a brand can fool a diverse internet community shrinks by the day. Brands are well-served to be honest in all their marketing efforts; digital is no exception. Likewise, there is a fine line between informing fans and followers about a “wow” event, and bragging about it. Simply pointing out a these events and moving on is better than talking about it for a week. Even better if you can get a champion or proxy to do it for you. Sometimes the conversation can last for a while, and sometimes it dies on the vine. That’s the chance you always take with community management. but the consumers need to be the judge of what’s relevant, not the brand. 

    • says

      Kenneth James Great comment Kenneth. Indeed, in this case the primary viral element was from the father, not the brand. My concern is not that these wow moments don’t add branding value – they do. My concern is that they are created a false expectation among every other customer that’s now thinking “why don’t I get a free boogie board in my room?” I would much rather devote the company’s resources to making EVERYONE’s experience 5% better, than to make one person’s experience 50% better. Long-term, they’ll be better off. It’s not sexy, and it’s not viral, but it’s good business.

  5. gonzogonzo says

    I couldn’t agree more, Jay. Awesome post! There is indeed a difference between customer service and marketing, in particular like in this case when it’s more of a PR stunt than true, scalable customer service. I mean, heck, it’s great to see actions like these, just like it’s great to those stunts by KLM, based on the “surprise & delight” principle. But they are just that: stunts. No more, no less. Provides great social chatter, makes people talk about the brand, so in that way it acts a bit like awareness advertisement. However, it’s not really customer service per se, since you don’t know if you will get that kind of service next time around as a customer, whether at Double Tree, KLM or whichever company indulges in these stunts…By the way, small typo in the second-to-last paragraph, where it’s written “word” but I believe you meant to write “world”.Cheers,Frederic

  6. peterdutoit says

    Jay I may be missing something but how can one call the Doubletree example a social media stunt? If it were Doubletree that posted the picture I would say one could but in this case the father posted the picture on which was then picked up on Reddit. For all we know the Doubletree team does this all the time, but what’s changed is that their clients (in this case the kid’s father) have tools at their disposal to amplify their experience at Doubletree.What I think this should do is help the Doubletree team understand that there is no going back and if they don’t keep amazing their guests then that too will be amplified.I do, however, 100% agree with your comments about social media stunts. The Old Spice example being a classic in my thinking. I think  happen because many brands are not social businesses yet. They are approaching “new media” with “old media” thinking.

    • says

      peterdutoit It’s a good point Peter. In this case, the viral spark was from the customer not the brand. However, the same was true in Shankman’s case. My issues are that this is not customer service because it doesn’t scale, and that the brand is creating a false sense of expectation among other customers. I certainly recognize brands will continue to engage in these “wow” moments (as Kenneth describes below), and perhaps this type of thing will even accelerate as more and more companies bake Klout scores and similar into their CRM systems. I’m just not certain it’s a smart move long-term. 

  7. says

    One question in mind, would Double Tree do that same spontaneous act of generosity without sharing it via social media? If anything, that might go farther for generating more customer loyalty on the long run, and 4.5 million people won’t be left hanging with no boogie board.

    • says

      TonyEscobar I think they do. As Tom Martin suggests above, Doubletree is not proactively doing this for exposure. They didn’t promote it, the Dad did. 

  8. ginarau says

    Great post, Jay and I totally agree that social media and the assumed power of influencers (whether “influencers” as defined by Klout, Kred, etc or not) is setting up false expectations. I guarantee that I will not be delivered a Morton’s steak or boogie board gift pack on my next trip. I will not be treated like a Disney Mom on an upcoming visit to Disneyland. We will not be driving a Ford car on our road trip or be put up in a nice hotel at not cost. Should I expect those things?  Brands need to do a better job of managing consumer expectations. Perhaps scaling back and delighting all of your customers is a better strategy than over-the-top engagement with a few with high follower counts.

    • says

      ginarau What’s interesting about this particular case Gina is that I don’t believe the Dad in question meets the generally accepted standard of an “influencer”. Thus, perhaps Doubletree did it just to be awesome? In which case it’s less objectionable on grounds of trying to Trojan Horse brand reputation, but still – in my opinion at least – a far from efficient way to build your business. As mentioned in a comment below, I’d rather ensure EVERYONE’s experience was 5% better, than this guy’s experience be 50% better. 

  9. TomMartin says

    Quite an interesting post Jay. I have two reactions. First, I wonder if
    it is fair to classify this as a Stunt – as others have said and you
    have agreed, the spark here was a Dad… though no one says if the dad
    had any specific social media credentials that would have tipped the
    Doubletree employee of a pending social media viral opp. Second,
    I guess I have to quibble a bit about scalability. IF by scalability
    you’re meaning folks expecting freebies, then yes, that certainly isn’t
    scalable. But what if we step back a bit and see this episode not in its
    specifics (what was done) but in its generality — that something was
    done. If we do that, then the stunt goes from “gave 4yr old free
    stuff” to “took steps to ensure a memorable experience was had” which
    is certainly scalable. For instance, I stayed at two different
    Doubletree properties this past weekend on a baseball trip to the NE
    with my son. Our first stop was Fenway and we were arriving on game day.
    Unfortunately, our flight was delayed by a few hours to the point where
    we seriously got nervous about making it to Fenway in time to see
    batting practice. We contacted the Doubletree in BOS and asked
    for help. The GM not only assured our room would be held but also
    contacted a car service and arranged for them to pick us up at the
    airport, drop us at Fenway and then double back to the hotel to drop our
    luggage. He called us back with the solution, told us what the charge
    would be and bingo — memorable trip back on schedule. I’d say
    that what he did wasn’t all that different than what this employee that
    you referenced did — they proactively took steps to try and make sure a
    guest got the memory they were after. If that is the message
    the stunt (if in fact it was really a planned stunt) was supposed to
    deliver, then I’d say yes, it is scalable. Oh and one more
    thought — even if it was a stunt, who was the target of the stunt? Was
    it the general consumer or could Doubletree be using this stunt as an
    employee training tool? More on that here As
    always, good stuff buddy…. got me thinking. Drop over to that link if
    you get a minute… would love to have your 02 on it as your post was
    the genesis.   @TomMartin

    • says

      TomMartin I love your post Tom (ya’ll should read it). Here’s the comment I just left you: I think you’re on to something in theory, but perhaps not quite in the way you suggest. Indeed, this type of gesture goes a long way toward building cultural values and giving employees the expressed or inferred permission to work off-script. I don’t know that I would characterize that as “training” but rather cultural boundary-setting (or perhaps more accurately, removal of boundaries).If that’s their intention, I applaud it. It was not characterized as such in the original post on Digital Royalty (who is their social media agency/training firm). It was characterized as “customer service” which – in my estimation – it isn’t because it’s not repeatable. 

      • TomMartin says

        JayBaer Totally agree. Like the Shankman episode… makes for great theater, lots of “free” mentions but I’ve got to think folks see these stunts and either say, “That’s BS — that would never happen to me” or “I better get some of that on my next trip.” — neither of which is especially helpful unless the brand intends to actually deliver the above and beyond service regardless of what form that takes. And thanks for the props on the post — and adding your 02.

  10. markwschaefer says

    Great post but I think you are maashing together two different topics. I think “humanization” is different than a stunt. Does something liek “brand loyalty” exist? Of course. How does that accrue — much the same way a friendship develops, though many small interactions over time. To the extent we can humanize those interactions, and I certainly believe you can do that without creating a stunt, I do believe you can help build business benefits. Thanks again for the thought-provoking post Jay.

    • says

      markwschaefer Right, but does every customer then expect loyalty-creating humanization? They are not giving boogie boards to every guest. Does that then create an expectation that – when not fulfilled – creates a reverse loyalty effect?

      • markwschaefer says

        JayBaer I think that is highly dependent on the industry structure.  There has always been a theoretical limit to a customer satisfaction efforts where the resources no longer creates a benefit. Those are the people known as “haters!”  However, many companies should take advantage of the gaem-changing ability to at least personalize, if not humanize, a brand.

      • markwschaefer says

        JayBaer I think that is highly dependent on the industry structure.  There has always been a theoretical limit to a customer satisfaction efforts where the resources no longer creates a benefit. Those are the people known as “haters!”  However, many companies should take advantage of the gaem-changing ability to at least personalize, if not humanize, a brand.

  11. buzzilinear says

    People kind of know they won’t get the boogie board. It’s almost like traditional ads on TV and “brand awareness” campaigns. It gets the companies name out there, but it’s the every-day customer service and experience that impacts the brand in the long run.

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