Feeding the Fish without Getting Eaten

Navigating the Waters of Social Media

“You need an Instagram,” my sister said. “Websites are irrelevant. I don’t even check them when finding a place to eat; I just look at their Instagram account.” Our world is increasingly connected and social media increasingly influences real-world decision making. Today’s savvy consumers distrust advertising claims and question traditional expertise, instead turning to social media sites like Yelp, Quora, and YouTube to decide what to eat, what to believe, and how to solve their problems.

Business owners and nonprofit directors, recognizing the power of social media, would approach me for help “getting social”. Most view the power of social media optimistically, expecting to launch an unmanned fleet of online accounts onto the social media ocean and reel in thousands of hungry fish that are waiting to consume their advertising message. In reality the social media scape is more reminiscent of millions of interconnected ponds, each with its own gatekeeper or influencer that may decide to eat you instead of your message. Seth Godin describes the internet as “silos” of tribes of people who unite around a common goal or interest in order to share and spread ideas. These tribes wield tremendous power as Kraft found out in its run in with the food activist tribe in 2013.

Causing a $17b Conglomerate to Kowtow to Demands

In 2011, Vani Hari, a computer science major and banking manager, started a blog called Food Babe which she uses as a platform to criticize the modern food industry. She set her sights on Kraft in March of 2013 when 270,000 people answered her call to sign a petition demanding Kraft stop using dyes in Mac & Cheese. Kraft responded to Hari, informing her of the 14 dye-free Mac & Cheese products available but according to Hari’s follow-up blog post, “it was not the response we were hoping for.” Hari and her following did not want the option to purchase Mac & Cheese without artificial food coloring, they wanted it to be impossible to purchase Kraft’s Mac & Cheese with artificial food coloring.

After several publicity stunts, a sit-down meeting at Kraft headquarters, and #DumpKraft hashtag campaign did not produce the results she wanted, Hari hijacked Kraft’s Facebook page with a hoax image of a Kraft Mac & Cheese box. Even though the Kraft’s Facebook page had 10 times as many likes as Food Babe’s at the time, Food Babe was the subject of 17 times as much social media conversation. Over the next few months, commentary on Kraft’s unmanned Facebook page was mostly negative and within several months Kraft announced it was changing its Mac & Cheese formula (Veil et al, 2015). Subway, Heineken, and Chik-fil-A also changed their formulas in response to Hari’s scrutiny.

No Apology Wanted: The Social Justice Tribe

The social justice tribe closed a popular Portland burrito cart in a matter of days after the owners were accused of cultural appropriation by a Portland Mercury blog post. The post generated thousands of negative Yelp reviews and by the time the original story was retracted, the damage was already done.

The same tribe shut down a Sacramento brewery after one member discovered politically incorrect posts on the owner’s personal Facebook page and tweeted a screenshot to his followers. Despite multiple apologies and retractions from the owner, a boycott ensued and the brewery closed within several months.

Several years ago, the Anonymous tribe hacked a social media contest website I built for a client. The contest was effectively shut down.

Becoming the Predator: Tribal Leadership

The concept of tribes provides a framework for businesses to navigate today’s social media landscape. According to small book promotion expert Michael Drew, the best way to gain acceptance by a tribe is to define what you stand against. The willingness to make enemies can bring tremendous power and popularity as we saw in the 2016 elections where Donald Trump used what he stood against to unit tribes. Another example of this phenomena is that of the flamboyantly gay and outrageous free speech advocate Milo Yiannopoulos who despite differences in lifestyle and crude delivery methods has become a conservative icon. In this era, making one group an enemy will make their enemies love you despite differences in values.

Additional Resources:

Veil, S., Reno, J., Freihaut, R., & Oldham, J. (2015). Online activists vs. Kraft foods: A case of social media hijacking. Public Relations Review, 41, 103-108.

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