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What can marketers learn from the #cashgordon fiasco?

At the beginning of March, I spoke at B2B Marketing’s seminar, ‘Social Networking: Effective marketing through online business communities’. It provided an invaluable introduction to online communities from a B2B perspective with useful pointers on how to identify the relevant ones and engage with them, as well as some key general pieces of advice on social media marketing. The most interesting point of the day for me was made by my colleague John Bottom, and I particularly loved its simplicity: ‘Our customers don’t need our permission to talk about us or to decide what they want to talk about’.

This statement perfectly underlines one of the most important rules of engaging in social media. With very few exceptions, it’s not a case of ‘build it and they will come’. Your customers and potential customers may want to talk about you and your products, but they don’t necessarily want to do so in a specially defined area built by and belonging to you, with conversation topics controlled by you.

This brings me to the #cashgordon fiasco. Just in case you missed it (and you pretty much need to have been living under a stone to have done so), on Monday the Conservatives launched a new website called ‘Cash Gordon’, aiming to highlight and create noise around the alleged financial links between Labour and the Unite union. The site is hosted on an out-of-the-box campaign platform produced in the US, and encourages users to sign up and then earn points by reading documents, tweeting, and contributing to a Facebook page.  Tweets using the hashtag #cashgordon are displayed on the home page of the site, giving participants the chance to air their opinions to all.

Within minutes of the launch of the site, heralded by twitter ‘fanfares’ from various Conservative communicators, things started to go sideways. Word got around very quickly that the tweets were uncensored, and the page was soon displaying various insulting messages. They then became literally more colourful when someone technical realised that HTML code could be inserted into tweets, making comments twice the size and any chosen colour. The final nail in the coffin, however, was when someone else realised that not only HTML but javascript commands could be inserted into tweets, resulting in a frankly hilarious though rather disturbing period of around 30 minutes where visitors to the site were automatically redirected to a variety of other sites including the Labour home page, people’s home pages and even porn sites. It was a free-for-all.

Around 2 hours after its launch, the site was taken down and redirected (at first with errors) to the Conservative web site. When it reappeared the next morning, tweets were being heavily censored, there were very few of them, and the timestamp on each one was totally wrong. This is still the case 24 hours later, with the last tweet apparently being written at 6 AM this morning. If, however, you go onto twitter and search the same hashtag there are literally thousands of comments, although 99% of them slagging off the campaign rather than discussing the topic in question.

So what went wrong? Well, apart from nearly everything technically, I would highlight the following points, which you could call a list of things NOT to do when launching a social media campaign:

The whole campaign was based on creating a new community and getting people to join it and get involved. This is already pretty hard, especially when there are already plenty of existing communities where you can start a discussion and where you can find the right kind of people to get involved.

  • It was based on getting people to talk about a non-issue. It supposed that there were hundreds of people out there outraged at Labour’s links with Unite and ready to rant about them. This clearly wasn’t the case. In other words, people didn’t want to be told what to talk about.
  • Social media is in the main organic. You can influence, but you are very unlikely to succeed with something totally structured. The campaign ‘platform’ on which the Cash Gordon site is built is so structured it’s artificial, and not at all conducive to any form of open debate.
  • The campaign has a pointless purpose: earn points by ‘spreading the word’ and appear on a leader board. OK, but why?
  • A political party with (like all parties) as many enemies as friends chose to create an open hash tag, and then boasted about it. Forget the technical ineptitude of those managing the site; this was already a recipe for disaster, resulting in an approach that never works on social media: censorship.
  • I’ve been really excited these last few months to see how the UK political parties would use social media, hoping to see innovative approaches to spreading the word and using people power intelligently. This campaign however suggests a total lack of understanding of how to engage with the social media community. It has had one success: the hash tag was hugely popular for 2 days, with at one point as many as 100 comments per minute. Unfortunately for the Conservatives, almost none of these comments were from supporters.