The Social Web Tastes Like a Rainbow

What’s the first thing you do when you need information on a company as a consumer or an investor? Check out the website of course (if you answered “Twitter”, you’re as far gone as I am!)

So it takes particularly iron-clad set of dangly bits to redirect your primary website to a branded page with Tweet results, but that’s what Mars candy company did with its Skittles website. The move was designed to connect and drive buzz amongst its core demographic (teens mostly). What makes the chewy fruity candy web experiment is its boldness – no mainstream marketer has embraced social media to such a great extent. Social media and news sites have already covered the chaos of course (The Wall Street JournalTechcrunch, Mashable, and others), but there’s a small twist to this blog post. I’d like to contrast what Skittles is with lesser-known LessAccounting. The differences in Twitter strategy are worth writing a case study about. 

Social Media to Build a Brand: Contain the Rainbow

Some hail the Skittles move, while others think the move is foolhardy. There’s no question either way the message Skittles is sending. The message is “What consumers have to say about our brand is more important than what we have to say to you about our brand”. By any rational measure, the Skittles experiment went far off the corporate website paradigm very quickly. However, as marketer Dave Berkowitz notes, “ isn’t exactly a top destination online. Compete, Quantcast and Google Trends respectively report the most recent month’s unique visitors as 18,000, 15,000, and too few to track.” Apparently the bold action drove attention.

Image courtesy

Image courtesy


The problem is the way this move was implemented. First of all, why Twitter? It doesn’t make much sense, considering the core teenage demographic spends more time on Myspace and Facebook than Twitter, which caters to an older (busier?) demographic. The other oddity is why Skittles didn’t create a more elegant API-based social media environment to filter out the garbage (“noise”).  When Skittles opened up the main branded website to Twitter, they created an environment ripe for pranksters and jokers to hijack the message. To illustrate, here is the result of a hastily created , lazy link to the Twitter search page:


PIcture courtesy of the L.A. Times

PIcture courtesy of the L.A. Times

I doubt Skittles wanted the brand message to include soylent green. Or drug references:

By the middle of the day, Skittles switched over to a Facebook-powered main website link, with Twitter as an option one could navigate to using the “chatter” button. The results were similarly hilarious: 

Non-existent API integration and poor choice of venue took an otherwise smart idea and made Patrick’s quip the brand message for me, when I logged on to the Skittles website. One Twitter user’s analogy seems to summarize the situation for Skittles new website launch:

True enough. A bit of preparedness and a more elegant integration could have avoided Skittles the embarrassment.  the L.A. Times notes that Twitter co-founder Biz Stone (@biz) agrees that the final product isn’t as innovative as it could be. “The implementation could be done in a more elegant way using our APIs,” Stone said in an e-mail, referring to the tools Twitter makes available to outside programmers. “We’ll get in touch with them and hopefully make some improvements.”


Social Media as a Competitive Weapon: Unleash the Horde

While Skittles should have controlled the message, LessAccounting understands the power of the social media chaos and launched social media as a competitive weapon. LessAccounting is a small business accounting package which competes with the larger, better established Quickbooks. As expected with a larger, entrenched competitor, a large user base is an asset. But that asset can also be a liability if leveraged by a savvy competitor who funnels Quickbooks complaints to a website called WeAllHateQuickbooks.

Here’s what happens when a company creates a portal delivering all discussions (complaints included) about a competitive product:


The above Tweet reads “Can someone walk me through Quickbooks? My memos are not printing on the checks again. Can’t remember the fix.”

Memos not printing on invoices? Sounds important, and may just warrant a deeper look when a bookkeeper or Financial professional might have otherwise picked up Quickbooks off the shelf at a local Staples. Even better, the bookkeeper can click on the Twitter user to speak directly to them about the problem and understand the limitations of the Quickbooks product. Brilliant.

I’m probably stirring up a hornet’s nest and will catch heat for this, but social media can also be used as an effective weapon. The key seems to be to deliver a raw, uncut and unedited message directly from frustrated customers using a competitive product. Contrast this with the Skittles brand-building exercise where filtering out the noise is critical. The genius of WeAllHateQuickbooks is authenticity – by design it encourages the accounting product market to search out and talk to people who are unhappy with the competing product.


Key Learnings 

Is the traditional corporate website dead? Yes and no – the corporate website as is today is dead, but will continue on in a different form. Corporate sites sans interactivity is quite likely to go the way of the dodo in the next few years as the GenY and millenial generations become more influential to marketers. These people are used to interaction and static websites are every bit as anachronistic to them as wind-up automobiles. There seems to be three key learnings to take away for marketers who need to get their corporate sites up to snuff quickly:

1. Know your demographic.  This should be obvious. Skittles should have targeted Myspace to attract younger social media participants. Instead they drove a good deal of conversation about the place of social media and corporate websites (not a bad thing but not really what Skittles was likely aiming for).

2. Contain the Rainbow to Build Brand Awareness. I’m a big proponent of not censoring conversations, but filtering out the jokesters and the noise is critical to providing a company’s customers with a place to stay and chat with other like-minded customers about products and services. Many companies have succeeded in this regard. The Skittles example demonstrates how a lazy social media embrace can be costly. Instead, use APIs to pull social media site data to provide customers with meaningful conversations (both praise and legitimate complaints). If using social media to build your brand, the key is to filter out the raw noise and provide a comfortable conversation space for your market.

3. Unleash the Horde Against Your Competition. Again, I’m going to take heat for posting this, but let’s be honest here. A competitor creating a negative-marketing platform will provide the disgruntled with a rather large megaphone to voice out their frustrations. The example demonstrates how sticking your head in the sand is not a viable social media strategy. Can Quickbooks sue or otherwise take action to remove the site? I’m no lawyer, but I doubt it.  LessAccounting is simply a conduit for customer complaints, and taking down customer complaints, even if used by a competitor, would seem petty. The only defense is to take control and participate actively in the conversation. If using social media as a competitive weapon to tear down someone else’s brand, the best strategy is to deliver raw noise without filter.

This entry was published on March 3, 2009 at 11:15 PM. It’s filed under Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

7 thoughts on “The Social Web Tastes Like a Rainbow

  1. Patrick Boegel on said:

    Interesting take. I am not sold that the raw mistakes on Skittles/Mars part are so terribly damaging. They opened themselves up for criticism and lack of control for sure. But at the end of they day the people who played with the apparatus only to make jokes at the expense of Skittles come off as hopelessly childish if not socially “unfriendly”. Skittles was not forcing anyone to engage with them engagement was purely by choice.

    When push comes to shove, I think a lot people could not take that the first boldest overt leap into social marketing was a bite size candy.

    Like the LessAccounting tie in though. Nicely done. Great opinion piece here.

  2. Thanks for writing about We All Hate Quickbooks and Less Accounting. I just wanted to point out one small error in your post: You said “funnels Quickbooks complaints to a website called WeAllHateQuickbooks,” but we actually display the full unfiltered list of tweets containing the word “Qucikbooks.” It just happens that the vast majority of the user comments are negative.

    steven bristol

  3. is it possible that skittles planned all along to switch over to an FB page? That the twitter campaign was intended purely for buzz, and not to crowd source branding and sentiment from twitter?


  4. Great look on the the core issue. But I think this may have been an important way to see how things can go rather than calling it a failure.

    As the Wizard of Menlo Park said: “I haven’t failed, I’ve found 10,000 ways that don’t work”.

  5. Brandon Chesnutt on said:

    Great insight, Eric.

    While I give credit to Skittles for taking one giant leap into the unknown, the execution was poor. Hopefully, companies learn something from this…

  6. @StevenBistol – Thanks and I’ve corrected it. Interesting move by the way, which I suspect others will follow. You’ve certainly sparked discussions on my team. Would love to chat more (I’m @ericgonzalez).

    @Patrick – Thanks! You’re right that the guys gaming the system seemed juvenile. The key learning is clear though – be prepared before you dive into social media, especially to the extent Skittles did.

    @Adrian – I wouldn’t be surprised if Skittles planned a bellyflop. If so, it certainly got everyone’s attention. Not bad for a website which barely registered on Comscore a day before.

    @ThatGuySteve – Thanks, I love the quote!

    @Brandon – Thanks! You definitely get it – execution is critical in social media.

  7. nice article about facebook dude.don

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