When Do ‘Conversations’ Turn Into Bad Marketing?

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freedom tower and trinity church

Last week, as we mourned the 9/11 tragedy for the 13th year, I made a conscious decision not to post any sort of remembrance on our B Squared Media Facebook Page (or other social accounts belonging to our brand) to avoid bad marketing.

Something didn’t feel right about it.

It seemed too easy. A little cheesy; less about remembering the event and more about garnering attention.

And I’m glad I didn’t, to be honest.

Here’s why …

It Happened To All Of Us (Is Bad Thinking)

In previous years I have posted about 9/11. I mean, it happened to all of us.

I was a college student in Huntsville, Texas at the time.

I have my own story about my boyfriend who was flying that day … and I couldn’t remember if it was to Chicago or New York.

My calls to him went unanswered for hours, so I panicked along with the rest of the country. I played the game of “what if” until I was inconsolable.

My situation turned out fine. But others didn’t.

Later, living in the heart of downtown NYC, I thought I had a deeper connection to what happened.

I visited Ground Zero. I watched the new tower being built. I could see the tower from my rooftop.

Below you can see the new Freedom Tower looming in the mist behind the Trinity Church, which was just at the end of our street.

freedom tower and trinity church

However, even while seeing that reminder on a near-daily basis, I was fine. And others were still suffering.

Yes it happened to all of us.

But there are others who lost family members, who saw things they should never have to see, who lost friends, who were displaced, etc.

A neighbor on our new street lost her husband that day.

Do you think she wants to see my social media brand bringing it up? Does it soothe her?

Probably not.

Instead of sounding like we are remembering the day (and sure, we are), we probably would come off as being opportunistic.

Conversations Turn Into BAD MARKETING

Where Do ‘Conversations’ Turn Into Bad Marketing?

Mike Monteiro felt the same way I did, only he took it a step further and mocked the brands who were using 9/11 to newsjack a trending topic.

I’ll admit, it seemed a little harsh reading what Mike wrote back to brands with 9/11 tweets.

But isn’t he right?

What do/does Icee, lingerie, fast food restaurants,  and diapers have to do with 9/11?

Are we really trying to “come together as Americans” or are we just hitting the easy button on our publishing calendars?

Or worse, are we doing it because we know by using this tragedy that we’ll get lots of likes, comments, shares, and retweets?

The latter scenario raises the hair on the back of my neck. It’s icky to the nth degree.

As Sean Bonner says in the article:

It’s simple. Brands are not people. Brands do not have emotions or memories or condolences or heartbreak. People have those things, and when a brand tries to jump into that conversation, it’s marketing.

It seems some marketers have blurred the lines between being human, having conversations, and using a “conversation” about something terrible as another form of marketing.

I’ve posted about 9/11 in years past. I’m guilty, too.

This isn’t about scolding those who posted, but is more about asking the critical question:

Why are you posting about 9/11? What does it have to do with your brand?

I think the simple fact is that most people won’t have an answer to the question, or they’ll just go back to “it happened to all of us.”

How Should Marketers And Brands Deal With Tragedy?

Should we (Community Managers and brands) STFU?

Even with the sudden passing of Robin Williams a few weeks ago, some brands decided it was “fair game” to utilize his trending name for their own game; newsjacking at its worst.

In the face of a real crisis — death, terrorism, a shooting, a tornado, flood or fire — shouldn’t companies take a step back and let real people have real conversations about what’s taking place?

And if that’s true, what about those directly affected?

Are they given a hall pass and allowed to newsjack tragic events for their own gain?

What’s the tipping point; when does it move beyond concern and conversation to newsjacking and narcissism?

Unfortunately, there’s no Emily Post handbook to look to and see what’s appropriate etiquette for these situations.

It’s up to us: the CMGRs, social media managers, and marketers looking to do social RIGHT, and to draw a line in the sand and hold people and companies accountable for bad marketing.

I ask these questions sincerely.

There is no clearly defined “right” or “wrong” answer.

There are exceptions to the rule.

But if we’re honest with ourselves, most of us probably feel that sick little feeling when we log on to our favorite social site and see big and small brands alike sharing a 9/11 message (and gasp(!), a coupon to go along with it).

I asked our community on Facebook what they thought and here’s what they had to say:

As you can see, it’s a mixed bag of emotions.

As for me, if there’s any small amount of doubt, I say don’t do it … and I didn’t.

What do YOU think about this topic? Please let me know in the comment section below.


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Brooke B. Sellas is an award-winning Customer Marketing Strategist and the CEO & Founder of B Squared Media. Her book, Conversations That Connect has been recognized nationally and is required reading for a Customer Experience class at NSU. Brooke's influence in digital marketing is not just about her accomplishments but also about her unwavering commitment to elevating the industry standard of digital customer experience and customer marketing.
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Category: Newsjacking,
Tags: 9/11 tragedy in social media, internet trolls, self awareness
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12 Comments. Leave new

  • Avatar
    Robin Strohmaier
    September 17, 2014 12:05 PM

    This is a controversial subject and you’ve handled it so well, Brooke. I remember seeing a few questionable posts on 9/11/2014 that may have definitely crossed the line to seize a marketing opportunity.

    I agree with you that it’s a mixed bag of emotions. Somehow posting anything on 9/11 didn’t seem right. In the end, I chose to post a single post that day. It was a photo of a candle that we have posted in the past on 9/11 simply stating, “We will never forget.”

    I also agree with you that “if there’s any small amount of doubt, I say don’t do it … ”

    Thank you for saying what needed to be said and for doing it so well.

    • It is, Robin. I wanted to tread lightly, but I also felt strongly enough about it to write about it and ask about it on our Facebook page.

      Since it’s such a personal subject, it’s definitely all about personal preference. But I do feel that many brands are taking BIG liberties in their postings when it comes to tragic events. I also feel we “good” (subjective, I realize that!) marketers have to take a stand and call out what is wrong and icky about bad marketing.

      Thank you for your kind words and for leaving a comment on a controversial topic! It means a lot!

  • There’s not much worse than opportunistic marketers that takes advantage of other people’s tragedies. We frown upon ambulance chasing lawyers, but aren’t these kinds of messages in similarly bad taste? Remembrance and honor are one thing, but when brands try to cash in on tragedies like 9/11 and Robin Williams’ death, it’s just disgusting.

  • A great point you made in your article Brooke, however I feel it’s okay to post about events such as 9/11 – if it’s done in the right manner.

    Personally, I normally stay away from all of it because my Facebook news feed is post after post after post about the same event and it gets to be too much. 9/11 affected me deeply and I shared on my page my experience because of the way I felt. It’s not a cop out of “we were all affected” – I felt I needed to post. My post was scheduled 4 days in advance because of how strongly I felt. Being a personal brand, sharing my thoughts/feelings/etc. on my social media is just part of it. Now, what some of the larger brands did in an opportunistic way was just wrong. There is a time and place for posts. 9/11/14 was not the time or place for hidden sales pitches in a remembrance post.

    To play devil’s advocate, if a business does not post about it, do you think their fans will think they don’t care about what’s going on (or what happened)?

    • Thanks for weighing in, Mandy! I will see your “devil’s advocate” and raise you this article from Marketing Land:

      In part it says, “Look companies your silence is never going to be controversial,” Oliver said. “No one will ever go, ‘I can’t believe it. Skittles didn’t tweet about 9-11 yesterday, they must support terrorism. I’m never eating them again.”

      I tend to agree with that. There can’t be controversy in silence (my opinion).

      I know there are exceptions to the rule (as I mentioned in the article). Like if the new Freedom Tower, first responders, or those who were directly affected share something. Other than that, it’s 13 years later, and I feel as brands we need to evaluate if our “remembrance” posts are REALLY helping those who were directly affected. Maybe they are. I don’t know.

      Again, there is no “right” or “wrong” – well yes, using tragic events for marketing is SO WRONG. SO BAD. My point was to open the conversation up, and it looks like I’ve accomplished that!

      Thanks for adding to it. 🙂

  • A very interesting article that invokes much thought.

    I think if done right, there isn’t anything wrong with it. Obviously adding a coupon or a ‘buy me’ link is pretty tacky.

    But isn’t it important for brands/companies to show their human side, too? If all they are doing is posting a ‘We remember’ is that so wrong?

    • Thank you, Carrie. That was my goal – to invoke thought. As I mention in the article, there is no “right” or “wrong” answer. I also mention that there are exceptions to the rule. I think there are brands using 9/11 to garner vanity metrics. Sad but true! I think the ones using the event to push a coupon or buy link are atrocious.

      I think we can (and should) humanize ourselves without controversy. For every one person or brand posting about tragedy and being genuine, how many do you think are doing it for some sort of gain (whether monetary or otherwise)?

      Thanks for adding your thoughts!

  • After reading both articles, I wanted to add this:

    I disagree with both.

    After checking out Mike Monteiro’s Twitter profile, you can see he has over 40K followers. He also has a website where you can purchase his book. Whether he likes it or not, he is a brand.

    Notice how he uses the #neverforget hashtag? I wonder how many of his tweets were RT’d that day? I wonder how many new followers he got? It certainly would be interesting to look at his Twitter Analytics for September 11/14.

    John Oliver? Same thing. He’s a brand. Gained followers by his ‘beating up of the corporations’ for posting about 9/11.

    What makes these guys any different?

    • I’m not sure why followers or clout (Klout?) would come into play; big or small these brands are taking a stand AGAINST using tragedy for any sort of gain. Mike was using the hashtag as farce, to show how “icky” some brands were being with their posts. I’m sure he did get some sort of following, I’m also pretty sure he lost followers, too. That’s how the “game” works. I do think he went a bit far, but that’s what makes our country so great. We can each have ideas, thoughts, and feelings of our own, and are allowed to voice them freely.

      I think what makes them different is their stance. They are taking a hard road by going against the grain on a very (VERY!) sensitive subject. Like me (or me like them, rather), I think our main goal is to ask people to think about posting about a tragedy. Again, as I’ve mentioned in the article, other comments, and with your earlier comment, there isn’t a “right” or “wrong” answer. Opinions and feelings aren’t “right” or “wrong” – they just are. I think the bigger idea is to A) think about WHY we’re posting and B) think about how we should handle brands that highjack tragic events for their own gain.

      In the ‘Wild West’ that is social media, I think one thing that won’t hurt ANYONE is to think a little harder about the messages we’re sending.

      Thanks again for weighing in and adding your opinions and feelings to the mix!

  • Hi Brooke,

    I think you’ve made an incredibly good observation. I remember that day like it was yesterday and that days that followed. I was Chaplain in the Army at the time and to say it wasn’t challenging wouldn’t be true.

    With that said, I always avoid any conversation around it because of what I personally went through during that time in my life. I won’t go to a store on that date if they are advertising using that moment in history as a basis to identify with the public.

    It’s not cute, it’s not funny, and it shouldn’t be commercialized in any way in my opinion. Like you said, what do these industries or businesses have to do with 9/11?

    Now, if you want to make an spot remembering the day and thanking those who served afterwards with no strings attached, go for it!

    If you want to do a blog article remembering the day and sharing your experience, go for it.

    I love watching and reading how people experienced that day.

    But I don’t like it when it’s blatantly commercialized with the goal of making money.

    I have even stopped reading blogs and commenting on them for that very purpose.

    Great post Brooke, I really appreciate the position you’ve taken.

    I hope you have an awesome weekend!

    ~ Don Purdum

    • Hi, Don! Sorry for the late response … I took a nice little digital detox while I had company from TX in town. 🙂

      Thank you for sharing your story with me (us). That must have been incredibly hard. Reading your story only makes me believe that what I did (or rather DIDN’T do by not posting) was the right thing for me and the B2 brand. I just don’t feel like our social media brand has any business posting about 9/11 … even for remembrance. If I really felt like sharing something, I think I’d do it on my personal page. Again, this is what I think is right for ME. I’m not saying others are “wrong.”

      I think it’s definitely something we need to think about as brand owners, managers and publishers. Thinking never hurts.

      Again, I so appreciate you sharing your story and your thoughts!


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