$weet Tweet$ or Social Experiment Gone Sour?

Twitter marketing is a burgeoning opportunity for companies with either a meager budget, or a desire to stand out in the crowd. But how does one harness social media to do its bidding. After all, how much can one really say in 140 characters or less? Apparently a lot...

Companies such as Starbucks,and online retailer Zappos have been widely praised for cleverly manipulating Twitter to their advantage. Comcast uses the handle "ComcastCares" to reach out to customers who complain on the site to resolve service issues instantaneously, before they grow and fester into larger customer service problems.

Dell Computers has added "Twitter" to its web marketing department's job descriptions. With duties that specifically require tweeting about sales, special deals and discounts offered exclusively to their Twitter followers. With @DellOutlet at over 120,000 followers and one million dollars in revenue directly attributable to Twitter, it appears that Dell was a pioneer in producing an ROI in the social media space, while being praised as a business model for other companies to emulate.

Skittles, the 35-yr old candy confectionery company morphed their homepage into an online portal that opens directly into all the social networks where they currently have a presence. Behind door number one labeled "friends" you'll find their Facebook page listing over 550,000 fans). Click on "Media" and instead of your standard fare of PR propaganda, you can view a number of YouTube videos and flickr photos. But boldly emblazoned on the homepage was an ongoing Twitter feed, where Twitter's 6 million users can tweet about all things "skittle" which is then fed directly into their homepage.

Modernista, a Boston advertising agency was the first company to test the social media platform as a branding tool.  Criticized heavily for using the space for advertising and marketing objectives, many critics felt it was hijacking a network intended for other purposes. This mood has obviously changed, since it appears that Skittles tore a sheet out of Modernista's playbook and has propelled this innovative branding technique several steps forward.

Has this new marketing initiative moved the needle on how companies can finally channel the power of social media for their own capitalistic gain? The social media space is increasingly crowded with a number of businesses gaining access daily. It's not only a quick and expeditious way to grab attention, social networks are presently free services. where it doesn't take a rocket scientist to realize that these relatively no-cost campaigns can easily replace the traditional advertising vehicles of TV and print.

The naysayers don't believe this to be the case. Couple the current unemployment tolls, easy Internet access and a thirst for one's 15 minutes of fame, (or 15 seconds in Twitter time) and you've got tweeps mentioning Skittles ad infinitum just to be part of the viral contagion. One twitterer with the handle @dnorton summed it up by tweeting: "Guys, I know this is like so yesterday, but make sure all your tweets have the word skittles in them. You'll be famous for a second."  

Other repercussions evolved within less than 24 hours of the roll-out. When considering Skittle's target market, its attempt to engage with today's youth was less than fruitful. It witnessed a number of tweeters bantering curse words and inappropriate language, Obviously this is one of the negative by-products of a social network that prides itself on not filtering user content. One blogger described it as free-for-all where the social media darling was turned into a "potty-mouthed echo chamber." Robert Passikoff, Founder & President of Brand Keys, Inc. considered a thought leader on engagement and loyalty summed it up as:"The good news is there is freedom of speech, and the bad news is there is freedom of speech."

As a consequence, Skittles changed their homepage from Twitter to Facebook within less than 48 hours. However, as of this writing, if a visitor was to click on the "Chatter" icon on the homepage, they will still be forwarded to the Twitter feed, so Skitttles has not abandoned the concept altogether. They also included a disclaimer notice that warned visitors that the information they are about to review is "not in (Skittles') control" and they "are not responsible for what other people say and do on this site."

According to Chris Lake, editor in chief of eConsultancy, Skittles has essentially turned its site into "a massive social media experiment. It is possibly the bravest move I have yet seen, in terms of a global brand getting into bed with social media and social networks ... it appears to be an extension of the old adage about there being no such thing as bad PR," he observed. "Everybody is talking about it."

Bottom line...will this experiment bubble over with new found revenue for the Mars candy subsidiary, or will the buzz fizzle and melt in its own wake? While Skittles' advertising agency, Agency.com was successful in changing up the traditional static home page into compelling dynamic content, at the end of the day did they achieve what they were hired to do... make their client money?

Brand marketing on social networks is analogous to the Wild west, and we have arrived at this juncture at the very beginning of its evolution. My guess is this venture is a work in progress, and we probably won't know the answer to these questions until the last tweet is tallied... and at a rate of 100 tweets a minute at last count, it may take a while to figure out if Skittle tweets can convert into Skittle treats.

Interesting footnote...while Skittles.com has decided to ride the "Twitter Search" band wagon, the actual Skittle user called "twitter.com/skittles"  has only one follower, three updates, and is managed by Sara -- who appears to be feline! Gives credence to the old adage, there is more than one way to skin a cat!

Now let us hear from you. Take our Survey Poll and let us know how you feel about this campaign.  Hit the "results" button to see the updated poll numbers. Final tallies will be announced on March 15, 2009.

Mar 5, 2009
by Anonymous

Great article

Great article Ron. I read this story reported on the WSJ the other day. I thought more people would talk about how Skittles is using Twitter, Facebook and others to gain more followers. I think it's working. It will be interesting to see if more companies start using similar campaigns as well.