2015: The Year in Social Media Disasters

By Katie Meyer

Schadenfreude: A feeling of enjoyment that comes from seeing or hearing about the troubles of other people

Socialhadenfreude: A feeling of enjoyment that comes from seeing or hearing about the social media disasters of other brands

2015 was a very delicious year for social media scandals. Nothing makes a marketing manager feel smugly superior like watching big brands fail hard, and publicly, online.

What were the biggest social media fails of 2015? How did brands recover from the disasters? Most importantly, which blunders were the most entertaining?

Blackberry’s Twitter for iPhone

When you think of social media, you might not think of Blackberry, partly because of a gaffe earlier this year. The tech giant was slow to integrate touch screens and cameras, putting itself behind other mobile devices in ease of use for Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. And what’s the point of a smartphone if you can’t use it to talk to your friends?

Even RIM employees find tweeting with a Blackberry next to impossible. Or, that’s the message the company very publicly sent when they tweeted about their integration with Twitter… using an iPhone. Whoops.

The initial tweet went viral and before Blackberry could take it down (Twitter is so hard to use on a Blackberry); the Verge grabbed the above screencap. Social media mistakes live forever: Blackberry couldn’t undo its iPhone tweet.

The brand may have realized that there was no recovering from the slip up. @Blackberry deleted the message and tried to bury it under a deluge of new updates. There was no apology.

The gaffe seemed like a confession of Blackberry’s outdatedness: an admission, from the inside, that the company couldn’t keep up. Favourites, retweets, replies, and mentions for the brand dipped on Twitter as users distanced themselves from the brand that confirmed the worst forecasts for its own future.

Despite some signs of recovery in the fall of 2015, as shown in the Crowdbabble visualization above, engagement is down overall from the year prior.

Clorox’s Emoji Racism

Terrible things happen when brands embroil themselves American racial tensions, whether inadvertently or on purpose. When Apple released a more diverse set of emoji on April 8, Clorox responded with a tweet interpreted as a call for emoji genocide.

But wait! That’s not what Clorox meant! As we’ve said before, intent on social media is irrelevant. If a message’s delivery is perceived as insensitive and ignorant, the brand is perceived as insensitive and ignorant.

After realizing that the attempt at humour failed miserably, the grovelling began.

Was it enough? As shown in the Crowdbabble data visualization below, after the offending tweet went viral in April, the brand experienced little to no engagement. As with Blackberry, when the misstep is more viral than any other posts, engagement suffers in the long term.

Clorox was pummelled on Twitter and across the web for its insensitivity. Twitter users have been reluctant to engage with Clorox and its follower growth has slowed as a result. Tweeting infrequently, for 2015 @Clorox averaged an abysmal 38.5 likes, retweets, or mentions per day. At just 19.5 average engagements per tweet in 2015, the brand has a 0% engagement rate for its 102,000 follower base on Twitter.

Bic’s Think Like a Man

International Women’s Day. A time to celebrate women, or a time to sell stuff? Bic chose to celebrate women by sharing an inspirational quote on its South Africa Facebook page. If only that quote were actually inspirational.

After the pens for women debacle, the brand was on thin ice with the girl/lady sex. Telling women to look like girls and think like men (the best of both worlds?) did not go over well.

Apologizing quickly and sincerely is a good strategy, but it had one major pitfall for Bic: users were still angry. Overall, stories created per post declined for the brand’s Facebook page as women turned away from the brand.

Bic South Africa also posted less as their stories created continued to dwindle. Who would want their friends to catch them liking Bic, which branded itself as outdated and sexist with the women’s day post?

Houston Rockets’ Dead Horse

Heckling the fans of an opposing team is pretty common in the stadium, but it doesn’t play as well on Twitter. During a heated game, the Houston Rockets tweeted a horse emoji being shot at the Dallas Mavericks (mascot: horse). As demonstrated by Clorox fiasco, people take emoji jokes very seriously.

Tweets criticizing the emoji threat poured in, forcing the team’s social media team to apologize.

The threat gave the Dallas Mavericks the opportunity to take the high road when they tweeted back, making the Rockets look desperate and immature. How did Houston Rockets followers react on Twitter?

Some deemed the Rockets’ apology unnecessary — the joke didn’t touch on any hot button issues or target specific groups — but its sincerity, apparently, was appreciated. After April 29, engagement soared. May was a great month, but the brand shifted strategies in June when it ousted the manager responsible for the dead horse tweet. Favourites, retweets, replies, and mentions flatlined.

Starbucks’ Race Together

In March 2015, Starbucks decided to jump into the debate on race in the US. It attached Race Together stickers to cups, launched a #RaceTogether hashtag, and handed out questionnaires asking customers how many black friends they had. What could go wrong?

Instagram followers had a few problems with the initiative from @StarbucksPartners. The company was jumping into something totally unrelated to its brand, and its lack of diversity in some locations seemed to make the chain a poor choice for the debate. Some critics noted how tightly coffee and the history of slavery were intertwined. Race Together read as a tone deaf PR campaign exploiting racial tensions to sell coffee.

Despite the criticism, Starbucks didn’t back down.

Can a big brand participate in a conversation about a sensitive topic like race?

Detractors used Instagram to suggest that better wages or job security for its largely-minority staff may have been more meaningful. By turning racial tension in the US into a sticker for their products, Starbucks oversimplified the issue and angered those it affects. Below, a graph of the @StarbucksPartners likes and comments on Instagram for 2015, made using Crowdbabble.

Starbucks Partners’ account has enjoyed consistently high engagement on Instagram in 2015 at an average of 1,713 likes or comments from users per day, but its average went down to 1,613 from April to August after the campaign. As with the other 2015 blunders, followers stepped away from the brand on social media.

SeaWorld’s #AskSeaWorld

Since the documentary Blackfish was widely distributed on Netflix, SeaWorld has had a rough time. In March — was there a collective gas leak for social media teams in spring 2015? — the company opened itself up to complaints with an #AskSeaWorld hashtag.

The hashtag was hijacked and became a trending topic on Twitter as pointed questions went viral.

Not exactly the impact the brand hoped to have. How did the crisis affect the already-embattled @SeaWorld?

The crisis might have taught SeaWorld to stay quiet, but the brand didn’t apologize. An apology without a change in its policies would have likely sparked more outraged, as Bic experienced on Facebook.

Instead, after #AskSeaWorld, the brand has used Twitter to fight allegations stemming from Blackfish, gaining retweets along with angry comments. We used Crowdbabble’s analytics tools to pinpoint the July 10 spike in the graph above. After Harry Styles called out @SeaWorld for its conditions, the company’s response attracted 4,932 retweets and 5,516 favourites, more than @SeaWorld’s monthly average. Its follower growth has been steady, indicating that as Blackfish and the #AskSeaWorld bungle fades, there’s some hope that the deluge of irate comments might let up.

2015 Social Media Disasters in Review

On social media, quickly jumping on trending topics — emojis, current events — is essential. Being the first or the funniest can have a big payoff for brands. These social media disasters, however, highlight the importance of a thorough approval process. It might have slowed their response time down, but it might have prevented some of the ill-conceived initiatives above.

Blackberry, Bic, Clorox, Starbucks, and SeaWorld are still struggling to restore engagement with their followers and fans. Blackberry and SeaWorld could apologize without drawing more attention to their errors; their viral tweets weren’t offensive, just humiliating. Only the Houston Rockets managed to avoid long-term social media excommunication by apologizing more than some followers said they needed to. On Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, grovelling often plays well.

Marketers can learn a lot from the mistakes, and attempts to reconcile, big brands make so publicly on social media. What fresh embarrassment will 2016 bring? Since spring is apparently social media disaster season, it won’t be long until we find out.

All data visualizations were created in Crowdbabble. This story is part of a series on social media viral sensations and crisis management. Look for Crisis Management 101 here.