•  ()
  •  ()
  • Print this Story
  • Email this Story

Because We're Happy

Using social media to turn audiences around

text size AAA
June 3, 2014

This article originally appeared on Forbes.com on June 3, 2014.

By Randy Hlavac

It is inevitable. At some point organizations, businesses and marketers will likely encounter negative buzz on social media. Consider the recent flap over the Chicago Cubs mascot introduction or the uproar over the Washington Redskins name and brand.

But last month’s reaction by McDonald’s Corp. to the storm of social criticism as it unveiled its new Happy Meal mascot in the United States holds valuable lessons worth imitating for every business.

Within hours of the introduction of Happy, the new mascot on Happy Meal boxes in this country, criticism from major news organizations erupted.  The New York Daily News, CNN Money, the online Grub Street Report, Reuters, Time and other news outlets featured a video showing children confused and horrified seeing Happy for the first time.Even TMZ developed a video showing major actors commenting on the mascot. Shown on TMZ’s cable show and then posted it YouTube where more than 29,000 people viewed it.

What was McDonald’s response?

They had fun with it. On Twitter, they acknowledged the negative comments and responded with their own tweets. The graphic (see below) of the mascot reading criticism on a laptop was tweeted to McDonald’s more than  2.37 million followers on Twitter and shown to their 31 million followers on Facebook.

While there were thousands of negative tweets about Happy, the percentage of upset people was relatively small.  And the controversy quickly dissipated.

Looking at the social buzz about Happy today using Social Mention – a social monitoring tool – there were 190 positive to 1 negative comments about the new mascot.  Checking it out on What’s Trending on Twitter a week later shows no mention of the Happy mascot controversy.

As a social marketer, the important question is, “Was that the proper response”?

The answer lies in the structure of social media and the power of social monitoring systems.  While most people know about social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, these are a small part of the social landscape. The social pyramid, as I define it, is six different levels where very different types of conversations occur. At the top, there are the social networking sites where conversations are fast, shallow and trending. A new study shows many companies use social media to advertise and communicate with followers and customers.

Below it are the News Aggregators.  These are news sites tracking hot stories within a short news cycle.  They tend to follow each other’s stories and move from one hot story to the next. That study out last week shows  that both CNN and the New York Times have roughly 12 million Facebook followers and the Huffington Post and Wall Street Journal have under 5 million Twitter followers each.

On the next level, Passion Connections focus on topics of interest to the unique communities that frequent these sites.  Video Connections are the video sites which can promote stories or topics visually to inform and activate an audience.

The bottom two layers of the social pyramid are critical to a company’s message and buzz.  They are the Thought Leaders and Virtual Communities. Thought leaders are bloggers and experts who “speak for the community on specific topics.” They often have thousands or tens of thousands of followers in their area of expertise.  They determine the importance of a story and help shape the stance of the community on each important story.

Virtual Communities are large groups of people who gather in the social space to discuss specific topics–such as fast food or raising children. They are often large, extremely active and are interested in the newest topics impacting their community mission.

So why is all of this important to the McDonald’s story and what can every business learn?

Companies can use social monitoring systems to “listen in” on all layers of the social pyramid to both hear the topics they are discussing and whether their discussions are positive or negative.

For McDonald’s Happy Mascot, there was a brief flurry of stories in the News Aggregators sites as the story and video rippled from online media outlets to print and cable. Some discussions migrated to Facebook, Twitter and other social networks.

But the story ended there. Examining the Thought Leaders (such as Circle of Moms), you see  there were very few blog articles on the topic.  Discussions in communities dedicated to raising children and children’s health issues the discussions were short or nonexistent.

This was a story with a short lifecycle of minimal concern to McDonald’s target audience for Happy Meals.  The corporate response was appropriate and didn’t “fan the fire” to make it worse.

For all entities, here are three simple action items to address the negativity:

  • Identify the Extent of the Social Chatter – Free [www.socialmention.com] and for-fee social monitoring systems [IBM digital analyst, Radian6] monitor buzz on all levels of the social pyramid.  When problems occur, quickly identify the topics, determine which levels are engaging or driving the conversation, and whether the buzz is positive or negative.
  •  Engage the Influencers to Help – Influencers are critical because they represent hundreds or thousands in your target audience.  Use free software like WeFollow [www.wefollow.com] to identify the influencers at the center of your industry and your products.  Reach out to them directly in times of strife to get their recommendations on what you should do to respond.
  •  Develop a Proportional Response – With the knowledge you gain from the first two action items,  develop a targeted, proportional response.  You don’t want to prolong the negative buzz but you must address it.  Speed of response and proportionality are the keys to success.

All businesses and organizations need to monitor and respond to social chatter.  When bad buzz occurs, identifying the source and nature of the buzz and developing a fast response is key to containing it.   Daily  social media monitoring is just common sense good practice. An  organization’s success in the future depends on it.

- Randy Hlavac is a lecturer in integrated marketing communications at Northwestern University.