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?



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