att twitter failintroductory3

Have you been to AT&T's (@ATT) Twitter account recently? If you head there now, you won't find anything out of the ordinary. Some tweets about SXSW, customer interaction, product-related information, and a tweet about how to win free NCAA tickets in its Ticket Chasers contest.

Oh, you didn't hear about Ticket Chasers? You must not have been one of the many Twitter users spammed by AT&T on Wednesday, then. The Ticket Chasers program gives people in selected cities around the country the opportunity to win free tickets to NCAA's March Madness. In case you missed it, here's what AT&T's Twitter account looked like on Wednesday during the Ticket Chasers promotion.

att march madness

Holy March Madness tweets, Batman! Notice the frequency of those tweets as indicated by the timing marks, highlighted in orange. They're going out every few minutes!

It's possible we would have missed this melee ourselves -- especially considering AT&T deleted all of these tweets on Thursday morning -- had it not been for that fact that our very own SEO manager, Brian Whalley, was the target of one of these tweets. He found it strange for four reasons:

  • He does not follow AT&T.
  • He has never been an AT&T customer.
  • He does not tweet about basketball.
  • There is no indication in his Twitter bio that he is even a sports fan.
brian whalley att

So what's the deal with all the tweets? And why were they going to people like Brian, who have neither an apparent connection to AT&T, nor any interest in a basketball promotion? Turns out, it's a double whammy: a case of social media automation and social media outsourcing gone wrong. Ouch.

I reached out to Chris Baccus, the head of social media at AT&T, to get his side of the story. Turns out, he's the one who deleted all of those tweets you see above, which is why, if you visit the account now, you won't see any trace of this Twitter spamming. Baccus had hired a new social media agency with whom he'd never worked in the past to manage AT&T's Ticket Chasers campaign. The intent of the campaign was to target people who would be interested in the content of the program with personalized tweets: bloggers (who would get the word out about Ticket Chasers), people who live in the cities in which the Ticket Chasers promotion is occurring, and people who mention basketball or March Madness. The agency targeted people that fit this criteria even if they weren't followers of AT&T. They did not need to meet all three of the criteria to be targeted, as evidenced by the tweet Brian Whalley received (he lives in the Boston area).

The intent of the campaign was not to spam people with tweets, and certainly not at the frequency you see in the screenshot above. "They used the account in a way that had not been discussed," AT&T's Baccus said. "So I was aware of it when I checked the account in the morning, saw what was out there, and that is not the way we run our account."

Surprisingly, Baccus said he didn't receive too many responses from those who received the spammy tweets, but those who did received a personal apology from his own account -- a good move, to be sure.

So why does this all matter? Aside from your brand being the source of annoyance for a ton of people on Twitter who were incorrectly targeted, activity of this nature can get you blocked from Twitter search results. In fact, it violates 4 of the 6 ways Twitter publishes around how to get booted from search results:

  • Repeatedly posting the same link or tweet
  • Abusing hashtags
  • Sending automated tweets
  • Posting similar messages over multiple accounts

Baccus knows this was wrong. "You don't do Twitter outreach from a brand account without an existing relationship," he declared. Well, the point of all this is not that AT&T didn't have an existing relationship with everyone. On Twitter, you don't need to have a pre-existing relationship to warrant communication. You should, however, have something in common with the people with whom you're tweeting. And that is established not through automation that attempts to forge a relationship with people based on generic keywords in their Twitter bio. Social media automation should not be used for targeting people with whom you don't have a relationship -- it's a way to communicate with the people you already know more efficiently.

This all could have blown over much more quickly, too; it's possible it wouldn't have escaped AT&T's attention with some more stringent social media monitoring. Or, perhaps AT&T should have been more clear about what the agency was responsible for, and what the in-house AT&T social media team was responsible for, in the first place. Setting clearer expectations up front -- both for what constitutes proper targeting and automation, and how frequently the campaign should be monitored so there could be a quick response if something went awry -- would have prevented this debacle from happening in the first place.

If you take nothing else from this, it's that you're never too big to fail at social media. And if you're one of the brands that ends up doing damage control, respond quickly and apologetically to make things right. Twitter moves fast -- the faster you put the fire out, the faster tweeters move on.

What would you have done differently if you were in AT&T's shoes -- either before, or after the tweets went out? What lessons can marketers learn from this mistake?

Image credit: goldberg


Originally published Mar 9, 2012 9:00:00 AM, updated July 28 2017


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