Clever social media connections to breaking news stories can lead to huge gains and serial apologizing

The Pros and Cons of Newsjacking and Real-Time Marketing

BRITTON
BRITTON
Nov 10, 2015 · 8 min read

By Steve Penhollow

Not too long ago, a young acquaintance of mine in newspaper advertising came up with what she thought was a brilliant plan: give readers the opportunity to pay for space in the classifieds section to show their support for gay rights. The rights of gays and lesbians were very much in the news in Indiana and nationally in 2015.

This young woman, who was not trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes, truly believed she could combine commerce and activism in such a way that the former would not spoil the latter. Many readers and other observers didn’t see it that way. In fact, the consternation over what was seen as a cynical newspaper ploy reached the desk of national newspaper watchdog Jim Romenesko, who wrote about it on his blog.

When a brand says, “Our hearts are with the sufferers. Also, buy our stuff,” the only message it is sending is, “Our hearts are with you buying our stuff.”

This was just another chapter in an oft-told cautionary tale: Brands should be careful about weighing in on controversies, commemorations, upheavals and observances.

And holidays. There’s a holiday season coming up in the U.S. that is so popular and important, it is referred to simply as “the holiday season.” Brands have to be cautious with holidays, too. Just consider the current social media debate about the Starbucks cup.

“Newsjack City or How Newsjacking Didn’t Get Its Groove Back”

A term for what my young acquaintance tried to do is “newsjacking.” In her case, it was more like “causejacking.” Regardless, it refers to the peril-fraught practice of tying one’s brand — via social media, usually — to some breaking story. When it works, it can be delightful.

The gold standard for newsjacking is Oreo’s quick Twitter quip during a 2013 Super Bowl blackout: “Power out? No problem. You can still dunk in the dark.” The nadir of this practice was committed in 2013 by a social media maven at Epicurious, a website where one can find a compendium of content from Conde Nast’s food magazines.

Successful newsjacking may require more wit, finesse and nimbleness than even its fiercest proponents are willing to admit and are able to teach.

In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings, a person at Epicurious, no doubt as young and well-meaning as my aforementioned friend, sent two ill-considered tweets with recipe links: “In honor of Boston and New England, may we suggest: whole-grain cranberry scones!” and “Boston, our hearts are with you. Here’s a bowl of breakfast energy we could all use to start today.”

Stop. The. Presses.

It is probably unfair to single out one nadir. There are plenty of nadirs to go around: Kenneth Cole using protests in Egypt to sell its spring collection; Kmart using the Newtown shootings to sell toys; AT&T using 9/11 to sell smartphone services; a London airport using a Chicago plane crash to joke about its relative safety; and plenty of brands on this BuzzFeed list that linked the expression of condolences and the fight against cancer to liking their Facebook posts.

After someone at the Gap sent a tweet touting online shopping in 2012 during Hurricane Sandy, a Twitter follower replied, “Try taking a break from being a shill for a couple of days instead of trying to tie in a life-threatening storm warning to your ads?”

As with all social media marketing efforts, real-time marketing requires authenticity, relevance, deftness and awareness of all ramifications.

When a brand says, “Our hearts are with the sufferers. Also, buy our stuff,” the only message it is sending is, “Our hearts are with you buying our stuff.” Brands are forced to reply, “We’re sorry if that seemed insensitive” — as if such tweets are ever open to interpretation. They’re not. They seem insensitive because they are insensitive. Tweets like these are closer to ambulance-chasing than succor.

Thinking You Know Jack

“Newsjacking,” wrote self-described “newsjacking strategist” David Meerman Scott on his website Newsjacking.com, “is the art and science of injecting your ideas into a breaking news story so you and your ideas get noticed.”

Less enthusiastic than Scott is marketing strategist and writer Suzanne Hoenig posting on the website for Return On Now, an Austin, Texas-based Internet marketer. “Thou shalt not newsjack,” asserted Hoenig. She softens her stance by the end of a funny blog post and in the comments section, where Scott and Hoenig interact a little. It turns out they may agree more than they disagree.

Like tweets that are way too clever for their own good, the term “newsjacking” is surely one that will turn off many nonmarketers.

The difference between the Oreo and Epicurious examples has to do with definitions of news. A blackout at the Super Bowl generates what used to be referred to in the newspaper industry as “soft news” — an interesting but not earth-shattering story about an inconvenient but not tragic happening (although some football fans might beg to differ with that characterization of this particular happening). Soft news is news about TV commercials produced for the Super Bowl and it is also news about a blackout during the Super Bowl: It encompasses entertainment, leisure pursuits and the arts.

Social Media and Breaking News

“Hard news,” on the other hand, refers to stories about things that could or did dramatically alter or dramatically end people’s lives, including (but not limited to) weather events, elections and epidemics. Social media managers should avoid linking their brand to anything that is hard news or is remembered as having once been hard news.

Soft News Requires Soft Messaging

Linking to soft news, like holiday observances, is a more delicate matter than many newsjacking fans would have you believe.

Most social media users are more receptive to messages mixing commemoration with commercialism around the holidays because they’re looking for bargains, but that doesn’t mean brands haven’t made mistakes.

For example, Swiffer suggesting a floor-cleaning rewrite of “Joy to the World,” Tyson recommending meat thermometers as stocking stuffers and McDonalds suggesting that eating a Big Mac is more fun than making a snow angel (complete with a weird photo illustration of a child who seemed to have been struck down by a meteor-sized sandwich).

Even on Internet lists of presumably successful examples of soft-news newsjacking, there are always a few that seem to straddle the line between clever and cloying.

Britt Klontz of the Content Marketing Institute endorses the effort of a social media manager at DiGiorno Pizza who wondered in a tweet during a live television broadcast of The Sound of Music why Maria didn’t list pizza as one of her favorite things, ending the tweet with the initialism “smh” for “shaking my head.”

Spontaneous wit takes practice, not planning.

Some people appreciated this, surely, and some people probably thought it was too cute by half. My question about this particular tweet concerns the owner of the “head” in “shaking my head.” Can a subsidiary of Nestle that manufactures over 250,000 frozen pizzas each day shake its head? What would that look like, exactly?

I can’t be the only one who has grown tired of the trend among corporate Twitter tenders of pretending their companies are a single person tweeting spontaneously. This practice can lead to link-accompanied tweets and Facebook posts like, “When I read this, I was shocked!” Whenever I read a clickbaiting sentence like that, I always think that being part of a six-person corporate social media team must mean never being able to admit genuine shock about anything.

Jack of All Trades. Master of None

So successful newsjacking may require more wit, finesse and nimbleness than even its fiercest proponents are willing to admit and are able to teach. Successful newsjacking may even require abandoning the term “newsjacking.” Like tweets that are way too clever for their own good, the term “newsjacking” is surely one that will turn off many nonmarketers.

“With the utmost respect to David Meerman Scott, the clever folks in the war rooms at 360i, and the digital marketers who just want to accelerate the flow through their marketing funnels,” Blaire Kotsikopoulos wrote at TrackMaven.com, “‘jacking’ is not good. It’s almost always a bad sign embedded in a word. Think for a moment about your vocabulary of words containing or ending in ‘-jacking.’”

The problem with many real-time marketing efforts is that they come across as the opposite of real.

A more sober way of referring to this practice is real-time marketing, and, according to Saya Weissman at Digiday, it is almost never successful. “The net effect of these post-Oreo attempts at ‘real-time’ marketing is to make the brands look awkward and sound stupid,” she wrote.

Spontaneous wit takes practice, not planning, Ford’s social media head Scott Monty told Weissman. “Brands declaring they are planning real-time marketing initiatives during high-profile events is the modern-day equivalent of saying ‘We’re going to make a viral video,’” he said. “It’s poor form and 99 percent of the time it falls flat.”

The people who most appreciate real-time marketing efforts, wrote Carrie Kerpen in Forbes, are other marketers: “It’s an industry tactic, one which, when done successfully, gets noticed by others in the industry. In fact, the industry is so obsessed with themselves, they started a hashtag during the Super Bowl solely to watch for real-time marketing initiatives.”


Putting the “Real” Back in Real-Time Marketing

The problem with many real-time marketing efforts, Chris Copeland wrote in Advertising Age, is that they come across as the opposite of real. “Every advertiser looking to reach a given audience should know how to be authentic and enhance the moments they wish to be associated with.”

As with all social media marketing efforts, real-time marketing requires authenticity, relevance, deftness and awareness of all ramifications.


Britton Marketing & Design Group

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Marketing + Advertising

Original thoughts on marketing and advertising by brittonmdg.com

BRITTON

Written by

BRITTON

We build brands for the New American Middle. We make aspirational creative inspirational. And we do it all with Midwestern humility. http://www.brittonmdg.com

Marketing + Advertising

Original thoughts on marketing and advertising by brittonmdg.com

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