Social MediaGuest Post by Josh Lyon

Social media is a great tool for engaging with consumers. It’s personable, it’s instant, and it’s highly visible. For the most part, brands use it well. There are some fantastic examples of effective social campaigns and professionally-maintained accounts out there.

Image: Bryn Salisbury via Flickr, CC 2.0

Unfortunately, it’s the mistakes that are often most noticed and most memorable. All of the benefits listed above suddenly become negatives in the wrong hands. Social media is very susceptible to human error, things are said in the heat of the moment without enough forward planning, and a large follower base can mean something goes viral in minutes.

With that in mind, here are my top five tips to help you avoid some common social media errors.

1. Watch out for #fails

This hashtag is an immensely popular tool for starting conversations, spreading ideas, and adding extra levels of meaning. Sadly, it can also go horribly wrong with the wrong choice of wording. Make sure there is no room for confusion with the hashtag you choose – a second pair of eyes might help – and consider carefully whether its meaning could be subverted.

Hashtags that encourage consumers to “tell us why you love [brand]” have a tendency to backfire, as there will inevitably be people out there who don’t like your brand and will relish the opportunity to hijack your hashtag. The McDonalds #McDStories campaign is a classic example; the hashtag unleashed a barrage of stories of food poisoning and animal cruelty, not exactly what the brand had in mind.

2. Avoid the bandwagon

Perhaps one of the most unforgivable social media crimes is jumping on a disaster or tragedy. For example, Epicurious decided tweeting recipes would be a great comfort to the people of Boston after the tragic marathon bombing. If you see a hashtag trending, it’s wise to check what it’s all about before you use it to promote your brand.

It’s equally damaging to your brand to jump on completely irrelevant bandwagons for cheap clicks. When royal baby fever was at its peak, it seemed every single brand was sharing some kind of off-topic tripe just for the sake of it.

Additionally, in 2009 furniture retailer Habitat decided it might get more traction by including trending hashtags such as #trueblood, #iphone and even #mousavi (who was running in the Iranian presidential election at the time) in tweets about competitions and discounts.

That’s spam, alright?!

3. Know who you are

Social should always be personable and on-topic with your brand, something many accounts struggle with. Continuity is vital in building up a personality for your business.

Of course, there are times when branding can go too far. Spaghetti Os thought their mascot would look great holding a U.S. flag to commemorate the attack on Pearl Harbor which killed almost 2,500 people. Unfortunately, the playful cartoon branding was viewed by many people as distasteful and disrespectful.

Know when to step back, and understand there are situations where it’s inappropriate for your brand to wade in.

4. Take it seriously

Always train your staff on how to use social media, or make it someone’s full time responsibility. Social is an important job, and not one that should be left to an intern – especially in a time of crisis. If you wouldn’t let someone be interviewed about the business on live TV, you shouldn’t let them have access to your social account.

Controlling access to your brand’s accounts is an aspect of “taking it seriously.” When HMV fired 60 staff members in January 2013, a staff member hijacked their official account to send a series of devastating tweets. In the midst of the drama, the marketing director had no idea how to shut down the account.

Similarly, there are some memorable examples of individuals who work in social tweeting from the wrong account. Better to be safe than sorry. Have a separate smartphone for your personal use, and never log into your personal accounts on a work computer.

5. Keep your finger on the pulse

Communicate internally so you always know what the rest of the business is doing, and always know what’s in the news. Set up plenty of Google alerts, and keep a close eye on listening tools in case there’s something happening in your field you should be aware of and be sensitive to when using social.

Of course, sometimes it’s just a thoughtless choice of words, and there’s not much you can do about that. If there is more than one of you working on an account, try checking each other’s tweets before clicking send. Also, try scheduling tweets so you’ve got time to cancel if you have a sudden “I’ve made a huge mistake” moment.

Ultimately, what’s more important than any of the above tips is how you handle it when things go wrong.

*Don’t be too big to apologize
*Know when to embrace the funny side
*Engage with your critics

These days, there is no better tool than social for ruining or rescuing your reputation in an instant. Make sure you do it right.

Josh LyonJosh Lyon is the marketing executive for Peppermint Soda, a full service PR agency in Manchester, specializing in branding, design, digital and advertising.