5 Online Marketing Mistakes to Avoid at all Costs

Have marketers and advertisers learned their lessons from 2013?

The answer is no, which makes for some great entertainment for consumers.

In the digital era, everything moves at lightning speed—and sometimes that means there’s no room for common sense, copy editing or spotting glaring red flags. From tantrums to flame wars and everything in between, 2014 might just put the “mad” back into Mad Men marketing.

First, there was the outburst from Adam Orth, the Creative Director of Xbox, who resigned after a Twitter kerfuffle. When users started poking fun at the Xbox One’s “always online” promise, Orth ended up tweeting everyone to just “deal with it,” complete with hashtag. Things got even worse when people pointed out the issue of less-than-solid Wi-Fi connections in more rural areas, and Orth replied, “Why on earth would I live there?”

This article will give examples of a few lessons better learned vicariously as well as give you a guide to dealing with similar problems.

1. Tesco was just horsing around

When it was revealed that one of the UK’s biggest supermarkets, Tesco, was stocking hamburgers with horse meat, Twitter went electric with endless jokes. According to the Irish version of the Food and Drug Administration, the Everyday Value Beef Burgers were around 22 percent horse meat. Comparable brands had “only” between 0.1 and 0.3 percent horse meat. However, Tesco had advertised their “beef” patties as wholesome and healthy sources of protein.

When the tweets began swirling, Tesco stayed quiet, a tactic which may or may not have been a smart move. 

If you were in Tesco’s position, the savviest marketing moves could include:

  • Staying quiet and letting the storm pass, just as Tesco did.
  • Providing level-headed reasons why horse meat is in fact healthy (after all, it’s a delicacy in many countries). This, however, is a very dangerous move.
  • Try to bury the bad reviews with positive Tesco PR.

2. Kellogg’s tries to feed kids with tweets

The breakfast giant probably had good intentions when it tried to swap retweets for breakfasts for at-risk children. The promise was “1RT=1 breakfast for a vulnerable child.” It was part of the Give a Child a Breakfast campaign, but perhaps the constricted character count made the offer sound more blunt and cynical than it was (you need to be a great writer to pull tweeting for business off). Advertising in exchange for what could potentially be a child’s life was considered poor judgment and Kellogg’s publicly apologized.

Lessons learned from this blunder include:

  • When it comes to hot topics like child hunger or animal abuse, you can’t be too politically correct.
  • Twitter is dangerous for tackling serious issues—there’s only so much you can squeeze into a few characters.
  • If in doubt, apologize and move on.

3. “Like” the forest fire

Similar to the Kellogg’s faux pas, one of Australia’s top e-commerce sites used the devastation of a Tasmanian forest fire in an effort to publicize its Facebook page. Sellitonline.com.au offered to donate generators for electricity if the page got enough likes. “What we need you to do is get every one of your friends to join Sellitonline’s Facebook page and the more people we get will determine how many generators we donate.” In other words, if you don’t like this page, innocent Tasmanian victims are going to stay without power.

This was considered bad judgment at best and bullying at worst.

A better approach would have been:

  • Offering to donate generators regardless as a means of positive PR (after all, it would have been a tax write-off anyway).
  • Encouraging others to donate what they can and share messages as a means of collective support.
  • Volunteering to act as the middleman to connect donors and those in need.

4. Ask JP Morgan (Nevermind)

Why pay a premium to have a financial advisor on your side when you could just #AskJPM. JPMorgan probably didn’t see the legal hurdles ahead when they dreamt up this marketing move, which was basically a Twitter-centric Q&A session. Not only were the tweets received sarcastic at best, but it opened up huge cans of worms.

The lesson here? Don’t offer what you can’t dish up.

5. Lululemon’s embarrassing snafu

Remember when Lululemon came out with those see-through yoga pants? It was the blame game as the founder, Chip Wilson, said it was basically the fault of women with too ample derrieres—who shouldn’t wear them in the first place. He blamed “thigh chafing” as the culprit and not subpar fabric. Apparently Wilson never learned that the customer is always right, and Lululemon backlash continued well after the see-through pants fiasco and into the insult meets injury world of “if you don’t have a thigh gap, don’t bother.”

There are many lessons to be learned from Lululemon in the past couple of years, and many of them are Marketing 101 . However, they (apparently) bear repeating:

  • Follow the golden rule in business.
  • If you make a mistake, own up to it, change it if you can, and promise not to do it again.
  • Make sure the company figureheads are respectable and act responsible.

6. Chik-Fil-A’s anti-gay drama

Yes, you can technically refuse service to people if you own a store, but you really shouldn’t exercise that possibility as pubilcly as did Chik-Fil-A. When the CEO of Chick-Fil-A, Dan Cathy, went public about his thoughts on gay marriage, he went to the extreme to correct his blunder. In an attempt to undo the un-doable, he “befriended” Shane Windmeyer, who’s a Campus Pride Executive Director. This brought more bad buzz for Cathy as well as for Windmeyer.

Lessons to be gleaned from this:

  • Don’t alienate what’s likely a big pool of your consumers (considering the thousands of GLBTQ Americans and those that support the cause, you’re choosing not to serve a big chunk of the population)
  • Don’t go overboard if you do make a mistake
  • Only fake it if it’s believable—otherwise, you’re exacerbating the matter

7. Obamacare’s advertising nightmare

All other gripes of Obamacare aside, yet another way the launch failed was with highly inappropriate online ads. Basically, a number of ads pushed for teens to sign up in a manner that was dubbed “degrading to women” and/or encouraged behavior that was reckless (think young men doing keg stands). It seems the government’s view of teens and young adults is weak at best.

The takeaway lesson from the Obamacare ads, which have since been pulled:

  • Think from your demographic’s actual perspective, not the perspective you “perceive” them to have  (this may require more research and focus groups)
  • Do some market research to see what target markets think.
  • Don’t show reckless behavior if you don’t want your organization’s image tied to it.


There will always be mistakes made in advertising whether traditional or digital. After all, it’s a creative process mixed with proven best strategies. Sometimes timing is just bad (like with those “Massacre Boston” t-shirts Nike released and promptly pulled after the Boston tragedy). Sometimes you’re relying on outdated information. Other times, your marketing department just fails for any number of human reasons.

Here are a few things to keep in mind to optimize your online marketing in the next year:

  • Ask for feedback before a campaign is launched and act on the information you receive.
  • Utilize big data, organize it, analyze it and translate it into something that works for you.
  • If you mess up, admit to it, fix it if possible and then don’t repeat it.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Even if you’re a tiny startup, the more eyes you have on a campaign, the better.

By Larry Alton

Author Bio: Larry Alton is an independent business consultant specializing in social media trends, business, and entrepreneurship. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.


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