Lessons for brands sucked into the News of the World Twitter boycott

In this guest post, Mediacom’s Nic Hodges observes the Twitter blowtorch turned onto brands advertising with the News of the World

What a day to be in London. James Murdoch’s announcement that after 168 years, this Sunday’s News of the World will be the last ever has ricocheted around the internet faster than a fake celebrity death. And if you’re an advertiser in any category in any country, there is a lesson to be learned from today.  

Already the twittersphere is buzzing with retweets of retweets pointing out that The Sun will simply take up where News of the World left off. There is uproar about Murdoch taking “the nuclear option”. I have been steadily watching a stream of tweets and Facebook posts flow past calling for the boycotting of advertisers, calling for heads to roll, and spreading each breaking piece of this story around the world faster than Rupert Murdoch could ever have dreamed even a few years ago.

I could now go on about how in the year of the Twitter Revolution(TM), this is not at all surprising. How a small but significant chunk of a great media empire has been brought down by the heaving masses of this “new” social media.

But that’s not really true. Yes, the news did spread faster than we could ever conceive in a world before Twitter. But the seriousness of the allegations against News of the World are such that there was no social media revolution required here.

The lesson for any brand and every marketer today, is that social media is clearly no longer an optional extra. Social networks, in whatever form they take, are now the rivers through which our information flows. No brand is an island, and no brand is immune to the huge financial fallout from the stories and events that take the digital social world by storm.

Early this morning reports of brands pulling ads from News of the World were being replaced by reports of brands that weren’t. That’s social media dynamite right there – allowing people to convey their righteousness in 140 characters by proclaiming theiroutrage at these terrible, terrible brands.

By midday Tesco had been singled out, and the Twitter Revolution(TM) was on. At one count there was a tweet containing “#NOTW” and “Tesco” rolling by every 6 seconds.

And their Twitter profile? @UKTesco were politely informing @benhuson that they would refund the cost of his parsnips. Oh and there was a link to a dead Facebook post for “our latest update on News of the World queries”.

A few hours later, the idea of filling trolleys with groceries at Tesco on Sunday and leaving them abandoned in the store with a copy of News of the World on top was quickly making it’s way around Twitter and Facebook. This wasn’t just a boycott. This had the essential ingredient of a viral campaign – a good idea. And from Tesco? Still nothing.

But wait a minute. I’m being a bit extreme aren’t I? The allegations against News of the World are just that, allegations. You can’t pull millions of dollars of advertising on the back of allegations? A former assistant editor of the paper was reported as saying the paper is being “damned without full trial”. As correct as his point may be, the reality is that logical argument doesn’t always align with what the social masses think, feel, and spread. What the social mob says, goes.

Some brands were getting it right. O2 pulled their ads, and immediately tweeted a link to their statement. Three followed suit shortly after.

Virgin demonstrated why acting like a human and not a brand-robot is so important in social media, with the following: “NOTW has already printed & sealed an insert for their mag & have told us it cannot be changed, but there will be no more after this.”

Today has shown that it’s just not possible for brands to get away without a social media strategy. Even if you don’t plan on setting up a dedicated social media team to update four different sites twelve times a day, knowing how to respond and more importantly knowing how to be agile is absolutely critical.

If I’d walked in to Tesco’s marketing team a few years back and told them that they could potentially lose hundreds of millions of pounds due to a boycott organised through social media they’d tell me I was crazy. (At 10.30am, Tesco UK’s share price had dropped 2.8p, shedding around US$357M. As focus moved off them and on to Murdoch’s announcement, the share price returned to its opening mark.)

If I told them it would happen in the space of a few hours, they’d tell me I was a nutter. If I told them it was all because a newspaper hacked some mobile phones, they’d call security.

This is the nature of today’s media environment. It isn’t always logical, it isn’t always fair. And if you’re not prepared for the worst, the impact is very real.

Nic Hodges, is Head of Innovation and Technology at Mediacom Australia


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