Hashtag Hijacking: the McDonalds Rollercoaster

Hashtag Hijacking

Hashtag Hijacking

What do you do when you’ve crafted a well thought out social media campaign, designed the key messaging, decided on the desired outcome and wrapped it all up with a clever hashtag, and then your hashtag gets hijacked?

Hashtags are designed to bring people together on Twitter around topics of interest. They help you filter information and find other people who are talking about similar things to you.

How does a hashtag get hijacked?

Many brands now create whole campaigns around hashtags in the hope they will go viral and spread their advertising message far and wide. Whether these get picked up or not is more a function of luck than of science.

Brands use hashtags in competitions (#qantasluxury) or as a way to engage with their audience and encourage user-generated content about their brand (#littlethings). These can be paid advertising campaigns or they may be organic campaigns in the normal Twitter feed.

McDonalds runs hashtag campaigns regularly and invests large sums in promoted Tweets for campaigns. In case you don’t know what they are, Promoted Tweets are words or hashtags bought and given top-line placement in the trending stream beside organically trending topics. They work in a similar way to Google AdWords where you buy keywords and search terms. This generally costs more than $100,000 a day.

Last week, McDonalds started out with a paid campaign using #meetthefarmers. In this campaign, the promoted Tweets featured videos of farmers who produce food for McDonalds. The stories are human and well produced, and the campaign kept people focused on the positive. There was little scope for hijacking.

Here is the first Tweet:

Then some inspired person at McDonalds thought they’d change the hashtag to #McDStories, whilst still using the same videos as stories. This shifted the focus from the positive human aspect to a free for all about what people really think of McDonalds. Not the smartest move for such a controversial brand. Here’s where it all went wrong.

Almost immediately thousands of people started Tweeting about their horrible McDonalds experiences. Here are just a couple:

Within hours, McDonalds had removed the campaign. Too little, too late.

What can you do to ensure your hashtag doesn’t get hijacked?

The short answer is: nothing! When you launch a campaign on Twitter, you are propelling it out into the big wide world. Anyone can take your message, share it, change it or ridicule it. Social media is about letting go of some control for great reach. This is the payoff.

There are, however, some things you can do to influence how your hashtag and key messaging may be received:

1. Stay away from emotive topics. If you have any negative sentiment about your brand online already, you need to think through any cheeky or clever campaigns very carefully! If people feel negatively about your brand, any campaign aimed at talking yourself up or making you look good, will quickly be hijacked.

Suggestion: Keep the focus on what you do well or things that evoke a positive emotion. In times of crisis, keep it simple. Make it about your followers, not about you.

2. Don’t use promoted Tweets. If your brand is controversial or experiencing negative sentiment, placing your brand front and centre for the world to comment on is asking for a hashtag hijacking.

Suggestion: If you can afford promoted Tweets, save these campaigns for the good times – when you have a new product launch, a success story or a tested campaign that is warmly received.

3. Make your campaign focused and specific. McDonalds’s campaign was too vague and encouraged the whole Twitterverse to have an opinion. Knowing that they have many people who dislike their company and their products, this is an open invitation for their detractors to open fire.

Suggestion: target the campaign at your fans. McDonalds have more than 300,000 people who follow them on this Twitter profile. Engaging their supporters would have far more chance of positive sentiment.

4. Don’t backtrack. Once you have launched a campaign, you are best to ride the wave – the good and the bad. When things take on a life of their own, and the originator deletes it, it just makes people more determined. This advice doesn’t take individual circumstances into account and is just how we approach it. McDonalds obviously has a strategy that if it goes pear-shaped, pull it down.

Suggestion: If your campaign receives negative comments or criticism, focus on shifting the sentiment rather than removing the campaign. If you shift the focus onto something more positive, people will forget. It also shows that you have conviction in your brand and are not afraid of active debate or receiving feedback. Just make sure that you listen to the feedback, acknowledge it and then do something about it (if appropriate).

It’s not all doom and gloom for McDonalds. The company has since launched another campaign that is going really well! This campaign demonstrates all the things we just listed on getting it right.

This is the kind of response they are getting:

And pretty quickly after that they launched an advertising campaign that they got absolutely slammed for. And so it continues. The life of a social media manager.

I’ve been pretty quick to criticize brands for getting it wrong on social media in the past. I’m being a little less critical nowadays.

Without these brands willing to take a risk and have a go on social media, all we’d be hearing about is what people had for lunch (and not just McDonalds!). The people and brands behind these campaigns are the pioneers in the wild, wild west of social media, and can teach us smaller brands a lot so that we can get it right!

Often these social media ‘disasters’ only become known to those outside of Twitter because mainstream media picks up the story or the social media industry starts commentating. The psychology of it is very interesting. But that is another blog post!

Hopefully McDonalds learned that some stories are better left untold and maybe getting people to talk about what they had for lunch, would be better for their brand!

Got any other tips to share or seen campaigns that have got it right or wrong? We’d love to hear about them!