A super-sized McDonald's fail on social media

McDonald's had has its fair share of criticisms throughout its history, especially during recent years. While the company was quick to embrace social media, it has not been all that successful, especially given its reputation amongst Americans. So, it was not too much of a surprise when its Twitter Promoted Trend campaign backfired on itself in January 2012.

It started when McDonald's used two Promoted Trends, #MeetTheFarmers and #McDStories, in an attempt to "raise awareness of the Supplier Stories campaign." After a while, many "customers" on Twitter started twisting what the hashtag was about, posting tweets such as:
So PETA and McDonalds got into it today on Twitter. I was surprised I didn't know there was actual meat at McDonalds. #McDStories (@johngarrettX
Hospitalized for food poisoning after eating McDonalds in 1989. Never ate there again and became a Vegetarian. Should have sued. #McDStories (@Alice_2112_)
#McDStories I lost 50lbs in 6 months after I quit working and eating at McDonalds (@JKingArt)
That is a small sampling of the thousands of horrific, and downright disgusting, tweets that flowed through the stream that day, even after McDonald's immediately reacted and took the Trend down.

And it seems like other companies haven't learned from McDonald's mistake, as shown by Microsoft's even worse recent social media fail where it promoted #DroidRage, asking Android users to share their bad Android stories for a chance to win a Windows Phone.

These campaigns were posed to backfire for both companies. Looking at it in hindsight, there are many things McDonald's could have done to prevent the catastrophe from happening.

Twitter: Target for All
First, unlike other networks such as Facebook and Google+, Twitter content (especially Promoted Trends) is available for anyone to see and contribute to, while Facebook and Google+ allow for brands to communicate with and target just those that designated they were a fan through a Like or +1.

Even though they don't have to be a fan to take such action, many people probably would not deliberately go out of their way beforehand to have "Liked" or "+1ed" a page of a brand they disliked. Twitter may not have been the best place to conduct this activity, especially when its known for the legion of users who use Twitter specifically for complaining.

Instead, this campaign may have worked better on Facebook and Google+, where McDonald's could have directed it at their fans, asking them to re-share stories onto loyal fans' individual Timelines.

Specific vs. Vague
Second, the #McDStories trend is generic and vague, allowing Twitter users to use it however they'd like to their own advantage. It doesn't specify what the trend is for and whether it is asking users for good or bad stories.

To fix this problem, McDonald's probably should have marketed the hashtag heavily beforehand, giving Twitter users context as to what it was for. But more importantly, the hashtag should not have been used at all. Instead, a more specific hashtag, that could not be manipulated as easily, should have been used.

Know Your Market Position and Reputation
Third, McDonald's incorrectly gauged how customers, and Twitter users specifically, perceived McDonald's. The hashtag only promoted the skewed view customers have of McDonald's, probably the opposite goal McDonald's had. As a company that is seen as an "inferior good," McDonald's should have crafted its campaign carefully.

Just like Microsoft, McDonald's should not have asked for consumer content when many customers see the company as a joke. It should have tried effectively changing its reputation before asking customers to comment on what they think of McDonald's.

Social media is still a relatively new environment where many companies are just getting started and experimenting with the waters. Still, companies should be more careful and objectively think about how a campaign could be misconstrued and used to the advantage of customers who may have had a bad experience with the company.