Avoiding Tone Deaf Social Media Strategies

Updated on June 16, 2020
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John is a fervent writer, gamer, and guitar lover. Former automatic-transmission repairer, welder and hobbyist game developer.


Social media has created an unprecedented opportunity for brand growth in recent years. With billions of people checking their social feeds regularly, you will be hard-pressed to find a way of getting your brand out there as effectively as you can with an excellent social media strategy, and certainly not as inexpensively. A full-bore, cross-channel marketing campaign can cost orders of magnitude more than a single well-run social media account, with a proportional ROI far from guaranteed.

Of course, a broader reach is a double-edged sword. You have just as much opportunity to hurt your brand as you do to help it. The battlefield of social media campaigns is littered with the fallen remnants of poorly-judged tweets and ill-advised Facebook posts.

Learn From Other's Mistakes

Failure is a great teacher, but it doesn't have to be your failure. By identifying examples of social media branding gone wrong, you can begin to understand why it went wrong and avoid the same pitfalls yourself. Let's take a look at a few examples.

UPS' unfortunate tweet about shredding children's letters to Santa did not go down well with the parents.
UPS' unfortunate tweet about shredding children's letters to Santa did not go down well with the parents.

The Parcel Service Who Stole Christmas

Social media strategy often requires factoring in many elements beyond just your target demographic. UPS found this out the hard way when they tried their hand at a bit of biting comedy probably seemed fine at the time.

Their ill-advised tweet read, "If your child addresses a letter to the North Pole, you can leave it with us. We do shredding."

It's easy to see how the social media team at UPS made this mistake. After all, nobody of believe-in-Santa age is sending parcels via UPS. Unfortunately, that's not how it panned out, and the subsequent backlash from parents concerned that their young children might see the tweet caused UPS to delete it.

Snapchat's "Slap Rhianna" Gaff

While the offending article wasn't Snapchat's ad, it was displayed on Snapchat's platform and, ultimately, it was the social media app that paid the price.

In 2018 they allowed an ad onto their platform for a game called "Would You Rather?". The game is simple enough; the player has to choose between options, the idea being that neither option is something you would want to do, but if you had to pick one, which would it be? The options presented in the advertisement were "Punch Chris Brown", or "Slap Rhianna".

The ad was referencing an incident of domestic violence between the two celebrities and was not received well. It was received so poorly that it reportedly cost Snapchat $800m in market value, despite the immediate removal of the ad and an unreserved apology.

It's hard to see how anyone could have thought that making light of a particularly severe domestic abuse case could have been a good social media strategy, let alone how it could have passed Snapchat's quality control, but this was a prime example of tone-deaf social media strategy.

Chase Bank's Lack of Self-Awareness

A popular trend on Twitter is #MondayMotivation. As the name suggests, this hashtag is all about getting people up and at 'em for the coming week. Monday's can be tough for the average working person, so some gentle encouragement from your Twitter feed can be a nice morning pick me up.

Unfortunately for Chase Bank, their attempt to join in by berating people for not saving more money backfired when many of those people pointed out that Chase Bank received a substantial taxpayer bailout in the 2008 financial crisis.

Chase subsequently took down the tweet and apologized, but the public's already-tattered faith in banks had taken a further beating—the exact opposite of what you want from social media branding.

Chase Bank showed an astounding lack of self awareness—chiding people for not saving their money after requiring a substantial taxpayer bailout.
Chase Bank showed an astounding lack of self awareness—chiding people for not saving their money after requiring a substantial taxpayer bailout.

The Impact of Social Media Failures

As you can see from the above examples, social media can hurt a brand just as easily as it can help, and it isn't limited tone-deaf tweets and poorly thought out gimmicks.
The impact of these incidents is not always as quantifiable as it was with Snapchat, but every visible instance of a brand making this kind of slip up on social media hurts their bottom line eventually, especially in the current climate of "cancel culture".
Social media audiences are far more cynical than more traditional consumers and are far less forgiving and considerably slower to forgive. Once goodwill has been lost online, it is much more challenging to get back.

Avoiding Social Media Mistakes

At a fundamental level, any social-media facing plan, be it a support team, an advertising campaign, or anything in between, should be prodded and probed from all angles. Have a diverse group explore all of the potential outcomes—the more perspectives, the better.

Look at the example of Uber, where they fell victim to a malicious troll online gaming their automated system. It is easy to feel sympathy for them, but many social media users will only have seen the initial story, and that will be their lasting impression of the company. A simple word filter would have prevented it from happening if they had only considered this possibility beforehand.

Similarly, any proactive behaviour on the part of a business needs to be carefully considered from multiple perspectives. It is not easy to vet every tweet, and Instagram post your brand puts out—design by committee rarely breeds the best product—but at the very least your social media team should be thoroughly versed in your brand and, perhaps most importantly, the current state of culture online.

As demonstrated in a recent video in which celebrities got together to make what they no doubt assumed would be a safe message, even the best of causes can result in a significant backlash.

Know Your Business

One problem that many social media strategies run into stems from thinking that all businesses are created equally in the eyes of social media users. There is a distinct difference between business to consumer (B2C) and business to business (B2B) when it comes to social media strategies.

B2C companies are chasing leads in the form of individuals and, as such, their content should be geared towards sharability. You don't need to convert every person who sees your social media posts into a customer, but every one of those people who shares your content increases the chance of gaining leads. B2C can be more casual, more personable, whereas B2B companies must keep it professional.

Posting a funny meme to Facebook might drive more customers to your business, but viral videos and funny pictures do not sway businesses themselves. For B2B, you need to consider your audience, and your audience is more concerned with what you can do for them. Consider sharing white papers and case studies, or posts that provide information useful to your target market. Infographics are a great way to achieve this in an easily digestible manner.

The medium you choose is also important. There is no hard rule for where you can find success, but in general B2C companies tend to succeed more on Twitter and Instagram, whereas LinkedIn is a stronghold of B2B. YouTube and Facebook are incredibly useful to both kinds of business.

For further information on the difference between B2C and B2B social media strategies, have a look at this post on three differences between the two.

Relationships Are Key

Ultimately, the key to success lies in building a good relationship with your audience. B2C businesses should aim to build community engagement and awareness. A SproutSocial study found that 91% of people believe in social media's ability to connect communities, and that building customer relationships on social media improved a brands bottom line in the long run.

The relationships that suit B2B are far more dependency driven. By placing itself as an authority, a B2B company will garner a considerable amount of traffic purely from their usefulness as a source of information. It is important to develop a content marketing strategy to achieve this authority status, and just as important to have it in writing. A 2016 B2B Content Marketing report found that, of the 80% of B2B businesses that had a content media strategy, only 32% of them documented it. The same study found that B2B marketers who documented their strategy get better results from their social media platforms, as well as paid content distribution.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 John Bullock


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    • beagrie profile imageAUTHOR

      John Bullock 

      2 weeks ago from Yorkshire, England

      I agree catnaper2. But the thing about "tone deaf" advertising is that it doesn't necessarily matter if you have a good a point. Chase should have predicted the backlash they received. It's kind of like being told you need to go on a diet by someone twice as heavy as you.

    • profile image


      3 weeks ago

      LOL well The Chase Twitter ad was actually pretty good! They were just pointing out how money gets wasted. You work so hard and then let it slip away. Good Monday mornng wakeup call.


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