If you have a Twitter (NYSE:TWTR) account, you probably know the inherent value of the microblogging service. As far as social media sites go, there's quite possibly no better distribution outlet for news -- essentially Twitter sets the national conversation and zeitgeist. Facebook has tried to copy Twitter's value proposition with its trending feature, but still trails in this regard.
That said, Twitter has a rather big problem it needs to address: abuse and harassment. Even CEO Dick Costolo acknowledges the issue; in a leaked memo to staff, Costolo wrote that "[W]e suck at dealing with abuse and trolls on the platform and we've sucked at it for years." For a small snippet of Twitter's not-so-great hits, consider the following:
- After the suicide of her father, comedian Robin Williams,, Zelda Williams briefly deleted her Twitter account from her devices after suffering sustained harassment and abusive comments.
- After posting videos critical of gaming culture's treatment of women, Anita Sarkeesian received death threats. That is not unheard-of with Twitter, but the threats were so specific they included her home address.
- After poor reporting by Rolling Stone and a shifting victim's story regarding an alleged rape at the University of Virginia, user Charles Johnson proudly leaked to Twitter a picture and previously undisclosed full name of the alleged victim.
Just peruse the retweets and quoted tweets of news organizations and you’ll probably feel a sense of displeasure over the angry discourse that’s gripped Twitter -- even worse if the tweet mentions President Barack Obama, House Speaker John Boehner, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, or Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. And while a certain level of anger is to be expected on the Internet, hate-filled, sexist, and racist comments are normal in Twitter feeds.
For many users, Twitter’s value proposition is overshadowed by the coarse and angry dialogue that is commonplace on the site. That’s a serious problem for marketers and, eventually, Twitter investors.
Coke's "Make it Happy" campaign should scare Twitter investors
Twitter investors might think this isn't a big issue. As an ad-based model all you care about is growing users, timeline views, and monetization metrics. And on a revenue (up 97% year over year) and adjusted earnings (up 500%) basis, Twitter just reported a fantastic quarter. That said, the failure of Coca-Cola's "Make it Happy" campaign should give investors a reason to pause.
For those not following the story, Coca-Cola rolled out an ambitious campaign that used television and social media to connect to consumers. Ironically, the campaign centered on making the Internet a happier place. Coke put lots of advertising dollars to work by buying a Super Bowl ad. The Twitter component consisted of users tweeting negative comments to #MakeItHappy, and Coke would turn the words into cute ASCII images via automated response.
Unfortunately, Godwin's Law was achieved for brand marketing. Coke was duped into tweeting passages from Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf initially and soon gossip site Gawker got in on the action by providing more passages for conversion. While #MeinCoke trended just briefly, you can expect Coca-Cola is now looking at Twitter's value proposition differently. Coke should have known better, as there is a long history of Twitter marketing campaigns and accounts going horribly awry --Google Chipotle hacked + Nazi for an even worse example.
Even scarier for advertisers, nobody seems intent on fixing the problem
The worst part for advertisers and brands is that, outside of Twitter's lip service and modest reforms, nobody seems to care about fixing the problem. Even news organizations, the supposed pinnacle of restraint and balance, seem to err on the side of salaciousness in their Twitter feeds. Twitter is quickly becoming known as a rage curator, career/brand destroyer, and gaffe producer rather than as a viable marketing platform. In the end, there's only so long companies will pay to advertise to an unruly mob.
Costolo commented in his memo that "We lose core user after core user by not addressing simple trolling issues that they face every day." At some point the CEO might have to say the same about advertisers, his true customers.