A lesson in the dangers of social media: homeware retailer Habitat has landed itself in hot water after one of its marketing team idiotically tried to cash in on – of all things – the popular unrest in Iran. On its Twitter feed, Habitat attached some Iran-related ‘hashtags’ (Twitter keywords to denote relevance to a particular topic) to try and draw attention to its latest promotional offers. So for instance, Twitterers tuning in to find the latest news on President-not-to-be Mousavi ended up with the chance to win a £1,000 Habitat gift card. Not terribly bright, you have to say...
The backlash was swift: Habitat was promptly deluged by complaints from angry users, pointing out (not unreasonably) that it should be ashamed of itself for exploiting such a delicate political situation. Habitat was forced not only to take the posts down, but also issue a pretty grovelling apology: it insisted that the idea was ‘absolutely not authorised by Habitat’; that it was ‘shocked’ on discovering what had happened; and that it was ‘very sorry for the offence that has been caused’. It didn’t say who was responsible – or even whether the guilty party actually worked for them directly. But whoever it was, we’re guessing that they haven’t done wonders for their career prospects.
More and more companies are trying to use social media to spread their message more widely, and on Twitter, hashtags are the most effective way of reaching a big audience quickly. For the uninitiated, users interested in a particular topic will search by the relevant hashtag, and this will keep them apprised of any tweet related to that subject. In the last week, Twitter has proven to be one of the most effective ways of getting information out of Iran, given the media crackdown by the government – meaning that Iran-related hashtags have become among the most popular on the site. So when some not-so-bright spark in the marketing department came up with the wizard wheeze of attaching the ten most popular hashtags to its latest offers, these included #Mousavi. Doh.
It just goes to show what a minefield social media can be for advertisers. Users don't like companies intruding on their conversation, so unless you do it carefully, it can really blow up in your face. And it’s not just the PR own goal Habitat has to worry about. Word reaches us (from Facebook, ironically) that Iran is so concerned about its Twitter battering that it’s started trying to hunt down Twitterers via their location and time zone (hence the campaign to get Westerners to pretend to be in Iran, just to confuse matters). So if outraged customers don’t do for Habitat, the Iranian security forces might...
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