10 User-Generated Content Fails (and What You Can Learn From Them) –Part 2

Sydney Arin Go
Smart Marketing for the Lean Startup
16 min readNov 7, 2019

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In part 1 of analyzing UGC case fails, we learned two lessons: (1) listen to the public and do your research; and (2) don’t force the love. In this second part, we will look at 6 more cases, and learn 3 more important lessons from them.

As the previous case studies have proven, UGC can have disastrous effects when campaigns are executed poorly or with the wrong motives. Today, we’ll look at some cases showing how users can cause the failure of a campaign, and how companies are still executing campaigns with the wrong motives.

Lesson 3: Don’t just rely on bots — they can fail you

The success of a UGC campaign, as the name suggests, largely relies on the users. Sometimes, the reason a UGC campaign fails isn’t just because the head marketers didn’t do enough research or didn’t “listen” hard enough, it’s because the internet is full of trolls, and marketers forget that.

Here are two cases of companies that used bots to monitor and manage their campaigns—which have led to their inevitable failure.

Case 1: The #Agile2013 campaign by Agile Alliance

According to their website, Agile Alliance is a “nonprofit member organization dedicated to promoting the concepts of Agile Software Development as outlined in the Agile Manifesto.”

Every year, the company holds a conference for their members, complete with keynote speakers, networking activities, and snacks. Their speakers aim to inspire their members to achieve greater heights and teach them about new developments and techniques in the tech industry.

But in 2013, they made a huge blunder. The problem with UGC is that even when a company has the best intentions, some people just want to be annoying.

source: Agile Alliance Website

The conference started out great, with all the members enjoying their time and learning a lot. This year, the conference was special because Agile Alliance installed five interactive display boards all over the venue.

The idea was simple: conference-goers would type out a tweet and tag it with #Agile2013 and that tweet would pop up on the boards as they go live.

These boards seemed genius because it would not only create noise around the conference to the current member group, but also to everyone on Twitter. And if enough members used the hashtag, they could even go trending on the Twitter hashtag list.

The problem? It was unregulated.

This case is similar to Starbuck’s mishap in that they did not regulate their boards. There was no filter, whatsoever—their automated bot picked out all tweets tagged with #Agile2013 and displayed them on the screens.

But whereas Starbucks’s campaign failed because of existing negative public sentiment, this campaign took a turn for the worse because a conference-goer decided that he was bored and wanted to mess around with everyone else.

source: YouTube video

This person posted on a public forum board, asking random people to tweet “ridiculous avatars, gore, and trap imagery” and tag them with #Agile2013. And, as the internet is full trolls, people did.

Source: Twitter

While a lot of the conference-goers were posting photos of their notes, what they’d learned, and why they loved the conference, random people on the internet were gearing up to tag as many inappropriate photos and tweets as possible with #Agile2013.

Suddenly, photos and messages unrelated to the conference started popping up, confusing the attendees. Some members even started complaining about the offensive spam that was suddenly disturbing their educational event.

The Agile Alliance conference team wanted to fight back, asking people to stop using the hashtag inappropriately and telling conference-goers to flood out these disturbing messages.

Unfortunately, the damage had been done and there was no reversing it.

Until today, people are still using the #Agile2013 hashtag for posts making fun of the conference.

Source: Twitter

Here are the things that the conference team did wrong:

  1. They displayed all posts to their interactive boards, without regulating them. People started using their hashtag on NSFW posts and still, nothing was being flagged.
  2. They didn’t have a contingency plan. Something was going wrong with the boards, but no one knew what to do. They could have turned the boards off, changed the code, stopped displaying posts, changed the hashtag, or just do something — but they didn’t.

Despite the obvious failure, there is one thing we can take away from this case — stick to it. Agile Alliance built a campaign and they followed through until the end.

They didn’t stop the campaign or switch anything off. Now, whether that’s a good or bad thing is up to you to decide.

Case 2: The #MakeItHappy campaign by Coca-Cola

Coca-Cola is a company famous for bringing joy to their consumers. They’ve done a lot of inspiring digital marketing campaigns, like their “Share-A-Coke” campaign and “Ahh Effect” Campaign.

But before Coca-Cola’s marketing team became digital geniuses, they made a few blunders themselves.

In 2015, for a Super Bowl campaign, Coca-Cola made it their mission to make the internet a happier place—but not everyone wanted that. The campaign was all laid out and ready to go. And in a vacuum, the plan seemed like a wonderful idea. Everyone loves making things a little happier, why not capitalize on that?

All Twitter users had to do was tag a negative post with #MakeItHappy and Coca-Cola would take the negative words and turn them into a cute graphic made with American Standard Code for Information Interchange (ASCII; i.e. English letters, punctuation marks, and symbols).

Source: Twitter

At first, it was all good. People were enjoying using the hashtag to turn negative tweets into cute little animations, and Coca-Cola had a successful campaign that went trending during the entire Super Bowl. So how did an awesome plan go wrong?

No one was watching what was being published.

With over 2,712 likes, comments, shares on various online platforms, who can keep track, right? Nonetheless, that was the downfall of this campaign.

Shortly after the campaign went live, a tweet containing the “14 words” from Hitler’s Mein Kampf was tagged with #MakeItHappy. True to their promise, Coca-Cola did make it happy—they took the racist statement and made it into a cute dog animal. Gawker Media saw this and decided to make it into a bigger issue.

Source: Twitter

They made a Twitter bot, @MeinCoke, and programmed it to start tweeting lines from Adolph Hitler’s Mein Kampf. After each tweet, they would tag it with something along the lines of “@MeinCoke sensational #MakeItHappy” and wait for Coca-Cola’s bot to pick up on the “negative tweet”.

Source: Twitter

And, true to their word, Coca-Cola made it happy. They took line after line from Mein Kampf and made them into cute little balloon dogs or drumming cats.

In the end, Coca-Cola had to shut down the campaign because of this embarrassing mishap. A lot of people came to their defense, and a few days later, Gawker Media released their own article encouraging everyone to think before they defend brands that have done nothing for them.

So, in summary, here’s what went wrong:

  1. No one was in charge of looking after the campaign, so when something went wrong, no one was able to fix it.
  2. The company was trying to encourage the growth of positive sentiment around their company without properly planning for possible problems (so they ended up cancelling it the moment something bad happened).
  3. The marketers forgot that with UGC also comes people who don’t mean so well.

But Coca-Cola did do something right: they released a statement that painted them as the good guys.

A spokesperson for the campaign said:

“The #MakeItHappy message is simple: The Internet is what we make it, and we hoped to inspire people to make it a more positive place. It’s unfortunate that Gawker is trying to turn this campaign into something that it isn’t. Building a bot that attempts to spread hate through #MakeItHappy is a perfect example of the pervasive online negativity Coca-Cola wanted to address with this campaign.

The campaign didn’t fail completely. It did bring joy to the internet and it had amazing goals. The plan was well-thought out (except for the “leaving everything to the bots” part) and Coca-Cola seemed like it was genuinely doing something good.

Despite Gawker’s attempts to show that companies are not people and that people should not sympathize with them, many users were quick to defend Coca-Cola and bash Gawker.

So what can we learn? Don’t rely 100% on bots, and make sure that your campaign is well-planned before implementing it.

Lesson 4: Be ready for hashtag hijacking

Some hashtags seem like a goldmine — until you implement them and the internet turns on you.

Case 1: #ObamacareIsWorking campaign by Organizing for Action

In 2010, the Affordable Care Act (ACA), also known as Obamacare, was passed in the United States. According to a poll by Kaiser Family Foundation, 40% of Americans were against the law while 46% of Americans were for it.

The issue that most Americans had with Obamacare was that they didn’t know if it would work. And while Obamacare has its pros and cons, running a Twitter campaign to force positive sentiment was not the solution to gaining more support.

Three years after the law was passed, Organizing for Action decided that they wanted to show people the positive effects that Obamacare had brought about by creating the #ObamacareIsWorking hashtag.

Source: Twitter

At first, there were a lot of positive tweets. People were sharing their positive Obamacare experiences and how it has helped them with their medical needs. But in no time, people hijacked it.

Hashtag hijacking occurs when people take a hashtag meant to promote something and do the exact opposite. After a while, instead of tweeting about Obamacare working, people started using the hashtag sarcastically.

Source: Twitter

Instead of posting why they love Obamacare, they started posting things like, “#obamacareisworking so well that it’s causing a mass exodus of doctors.” And as the years went on, it only got worse.

There was more proof that Obamacare wasn’t as well planned as the government had made it out to be. They also hijacked other hashtags like #ILikeObamacare and even made their own hashtag #obamacareisnotworking.

The campaign wasn’t well-thought-out to begin with, but here are the specific things that went wrong and what we can learn from them:

  1. They did not expect things to go south despite the existing negative sentiment. On top of that, hashtag hijacking happens frequently with political hashtags so it’s something the social media team should have prepared for.
  2. They tried to force the love when there were people on both sides of the argument. Instead of creating positive buzz around Obamacare, they gave non-supporters an avenue to derail the law and tell others why they are against it.
  3. They didn’t stop. After #obamacareisworking, they came out with another hashtag, #ILoveObamacare (which was also hijacked).
  4. They used a hashtag that was easy to twist. It’s easy to put a spin on #obamacareisworking and #ILoveObamacare to make it sarcastic. Of course, people will try to screw up the campaign if they are determined to do so, but why make it easier for them?

But of course, there are some things that went right:

  1. Just as non-supporters had an avenue to vent their frustrations, the hashtag also gave voice to those who supported the bill (as was the original goal).
  2. As the Trump presidency tried to repeal the bill, more people started supporting ACA. In 2017, the hashtag started being used for its original purpose—to promote Obamacare.

While the campaign could have been planned and executed better, at the end of the day, the results were mixed. While a lot of people started badmouthing Obamacare, just as many came to defend it.

Case 2: #CosbyMeme by Bill Cosby

Bill Cosby is a comedian, actor, and author—and now, convicted sex offender. Before he was convicted, Cosby’s PR team decided to release an application on his website that could turn his photos into memes in a few seconds. They then told people to start making funny Bill Cosby memes.

The goal was to make Bill Cosby seem more human and sway people’s opinions about his being guilty. Which, of course, didn’t happen. Instead of painting him a good light, people hijacked the hashtag and application and achieved the exact opposite of the original goal.

People believed that Cosby was guilty even before he was convicted, thus, they took #CosbyMemes and turned it into a campaign that further suggested that Cosby was truly guilty.

Source: Twitter

The public used the campaign to further damage Cosby’s reputation, which the team should have expected. While there were some people who defended him, most agreed that he was not as innocent as he wanted to seem.

The memes that came out weren’t funny or cute at all. Instead, they all referred to his open course cases with charges of molestation and rape. Most of them painted Cosby as a pervert and criminal. In the end, the hashtag went trending on Twitter and damaged his image so much more than if they had just left things alone.

When the campaign backfired, the team took the application down—but the damage had already been dealt.

We know you know what went wrong, but let’s summarize the issues anyway:

  1. They forced the love. There was existing negative public sentiment that was not going to disappear because of an application that wanted to make Cosby seem cute.
  2. The social media team did not predict what would happen—which they should have from previous failed UGC campaigns.
  3. Because they did not foresee the hijacking, they didn’t have a contingency plan. No matter what, when implementing a UGC campaign, you need a contingency plan.

The plan was bad to begin with, made worse by the fact that Cosby’s image was not in good shape when it was implemented. Which brings us to our next lesson.

Lesson 5: Always have a contingency plan

All 8 cases we have looked at have failed for various reasons, but they all had one thing in common—when things went wrong, no one knew what to do. Here are two more cases reminding us why we should always plan for things going wrong.

Case 1: The #CoalisAmazing campaign by The Minerals Council of Australia

In a desperate attempt to bring attention back to coal and change its image as the purveyor of climate change, the Minerals Council of Australia launched a campaign called “Little Black Rock.”

Source: YouTube

The campaign came complete with a video, lots of promotional posters, and its own hashtag, #CoalisAmazing. They wanted to show Australians that coal has lots of benefits—like bringing light to homes and more jobs to the people.

What the Minerals Council didn’t count on was the backlash their campaign got from environmentalists all over the world. Instead of agreeing with the campaign and getting influenced by the rebranding, everyone started telling negative coal stories.

Eventually, the hashtag went viral as more people advocated against the use of coal because of its effects on the natural world. Before long, this campaign was dubbed the “PR Fail of the Year.

Source: Twitter

Greenpeace started weighing in on the matter, reminding netizens that the continued use of coal can cause some islands to sink because of climate change. Other people started posting that solar power and renewable energy sources will always be better than coal.

Instead of improving people’s view of the usage of coal, this campaign opened the eyes of many others to the effects of climate change. People learned about renewable energy sources that are better than coal. Instead of giving mining companies an avenue to promote coal, it gave environmentalists a way to spread the word on climate change.

A month after the campaign went viral, Brendan Pearson, CEO of the Minerals Council, said that they expected the backlash and are delighted by results. So what were the problems, exactly?

  1. Where’s the plan? Sure, it’s easy to say that you expected something—but it’s another thing to plan for it. The campaign was a failure because it did not achieve its results. They wanted to gain more members through the campaign and they probably did—but at what cost?
  2. They didn’t listen. Climate activists were already making a case against nonrenewable sources of energy and its effects on climate change—and yet they released a PR campaign like this. If they had left well enough alone, then coal’s reputation wouldn’t have been dragged through the dirt.

And what can we learn from this? Don’t be haughty. When your campaign is failing, pull out that contingency plan! Do something about it! Don’t tell people that this was expected, sit back, and relax.

Case 2: The #McDStories campaign by McDonalds

Here is our last case—and once again, it’s of a big company that tried a little too hard and fell short.

Do you remember #ILoveWalgreens? Just like Walgreens, McDonalds payed to get their hashtag on the Twitter trending list—and it wasn’t pretty.

Source: Twitter

The idea was simple. McDonalds wanted their customers to use the #McDStories hashtag to share their good experiences with the rest of the Twitterverse.

They paid to get on the trending list (which users later started to question) and started things off with a simple tweet, “Meet some of the hard-working people dedicated to providing McDs with quality food every day #McDStories.”

Obviously, things went south from there. Instead of getting a deluge of heart-warming stories and funny anecdotes, McDonalds was reminded of all their failures and shortcomings. Customer complaints that were never addressed suddenly surfaced. And since the hashtag was trending, these bad stories gained a lot of press.

Source: Twitter

People were quick to point out all the problems they had with McDonalds, their service, the fast food experience, and so much more. Arguably, McDonalds should have anticipated this because we all know that the internet loves complaining!

And to this day, #McDStories is still being used as either an example of a failed UGC campaign to learn from or as a way to tarnish McDonalds’s reputation even further.

Source: Twitter

Here are some takeaways from this last case:

  1. Do not use Twitter as your feedback form. #McDStories indirectly asked for feedback when they asked for stories surrounding the McDonalds brand and the products that it offers. Asking for feedback should be done through proper channels—not on social media where all your dirty laundry can be aired.
  2. Have a plan! It goes without saying at this point that any campaign that involves users should have a contingency plan. Sometimes, UGC is amazing and makes your company seem more credible and reliable. Other times, it ruins your reputation if you don’t have a contingency plan that isn’t, “STOP ALL OPERATIONS! TAKE THE CAMPAIGN DOWN!”
  3. When you pay to trend, don’t be so obvious. Companies pay to trend all the time! But most of them do it a bit more subtly than McDonalds did. When twitter users are asking how in the world a certain hashtag started trending, red flags should be raised.

So Let’s Summarize

We looked at ten cases that involved UGC and learned five main lessons:

  1. Listen to public sentiment and do your research;
  2. Don’t force the love;
  3. Don’t just rely on bots—they can fail you;
  4. Be ready for hashtag hijacking; and
  5. Have a contingency plan.

When handling a UGC campaign, you need to keep all these things in mind so that you can avoid mistakes that have already been made. Each case emphasizes a different mistake that companies made when implementing their UGC campaigns which eventually led to their failure.

Whether you want users to show the world how useful your products are or how amazing your brand is, you need to be careful and learn from the past.

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Sydney Arin Go
Smart Marketing for the Lean Startup

Content marketing manager @ Animalz ✍️ Which means I write things that sometimes make sense.