Why Social Media Stunts Rarely Work Out

Why is it that social media stunts rarely work out in favor of the marketer?

We’ve all seen the flash-in-the-pan-style social media stunts put on by large companies. They’re usually either attempts at guerrilla marketing or clever, calculated tactics designed to capture the interest of a fickle and powerful market.

Take, for example, DHL’s social marketing stunt last year—DHL shipped a number of boxes with temperature-sensitive material that changed colors after picked up for shipment. Essentially, they stealthily tricked major shippers like UPS into carrying and delivering boxes that changed colors to read, “DHL is faster.”

This was recorded in various applications and uploaded as a single compilation video to YouTube, and the social world went crazy from there. DHL got a ton of additional visibility and millions of laughs across the country for a low-budget video that only took a few days to produce. It seems like a brilliant marketing move on the surface, but this sort of stunt rarely works out so cleanly.

I call this type of strategy a stunt because it fits three qualifications:

  • It’s intended to be a short-term sensation. DHL isn’t shipping these boxes regularly; it was a one-time tactic from the beginning.
  • It’s controversial. DHL’s attempt is very clever and effective here, but it’s also kind of a jerk move. Controversy comes in many forms, but almost all social stunts like this are controversial in one way or another.
  • It’s designed to amuse. If it were a short-term, controversial information campaign with no entertainment value, I couldn’t call it a stunt.

Social stunts like these have become appealing to social marketers trying to win it big with a viral sensation, but for every breakout publicity hit (like DHL’s stunt), there’s a compendium of marketing stunts that never generated any attention and, even worse, marketing stunts that generated a wave of negative backlash.

Despite the massive success of the minority of social media stunts, on the whole, I believe them to be an ineffective strategy. Typically, you’ll have a small chance at great success, a small chance at great failure and a large chance at making no progress one way or the other. So why is it that social media stunts rarely work out in favor of the marketer?

Controversy Is a Gamble

One of the core characteristics of a social media stunt is its controversial nature, and controversy is always a gamble. No matter how much research you do, how much you trust your gut instincts or how many previous examples you can turn to as references, there is no viable way to predict the way the public will react to your stunt.

As a small-scale example, consider a tweet sent out by FAFSA in 2014. The text read: “If this is you, then you better fill out your FAFSA,” accompanying an image from the movie Bridesmaids with the caption, “Help me. I’m poor.”

This example fills all the requirements of a stunt: It’s a short-term gimmick, it was designed to amuse and, because it’s edgier than a usual tweet, it’s controversial. It includes a pop-culture reference, and it is relatively tame considering some of the social media posts out there, yet the negative backlash it faced was enormous. Thousands of people shared the tweet, labelling it offensive, and publicly shamed the FAFSA social account. In another world, the tweet might have been applauded. It’s just too risky a move.

Short-Term Strategies Yield Short-Term Results

How often do you find yourself thinking of some grandiose publicity stunt and then trying, and failing, to remember the brand that executed it? Probably more often than you vividly remember each brand. The short-term nature of these stunts mean the best results you can possibly receive will be, correspondingly, short-term.

You might pour thousands of dollars and weeks of efforts into a planning session for a gimmick that only circulates for a week. That money could be better spent establishing the foundation of a much larger, much more objectively effective campaign.

Stunts Rarely Rely on Research

For the most part, successful marketing campaigns come as a result of successful rounds of research. Brands spend weeks to months researching demographic trends, industry trends and possible avenues for promotion, and then apply that data in meaningful ways to appeal to a given audience. That isn’t to say that data should dictate all business decisions—on the contrary, emotional reactions and gut instincts can and should help drive a campaign, sometimes as much as the corresponding data–but that data should be the backbone of your campaign.

Contrary to this position, most social media stunts ignore data. They’re based entirely on eliciting a strong favorable reaction and, because of that, they rely on the emotions, reactions and instincts of their creators. It becomes an exercise in creativity and instinct—which can be good, but only when grounded by realistic, reliable, predictable amounts of data.

There are very few long-term advantages to using social media stunts. If you play the game long enough, you’ll end up generating more negative reactions than positive ones, and even in cases where you land a hit, the effects will be generally short-lived.

For the most part, you’re better off investing in more grounded, less controversial long-term strategies. Still, if you’re on a lucky streak, or if you’re desperate to get some attention no matter what, you can take your chances. Just make sure your rub your rabbit’s foot before you make the attempt.

Jayson DeMers is the founder and CEO of AudienceBloom, a Seattle-based content marketing and social media agency. You can contact him on LinkedIn, Google+ or Twitter.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.com.