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03/06/2009

Skittles in Social Media: Key Lessons from a Bold, Ballyhooed Campaign

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This past week we were talking about Skittles and an innovative campaign launched by the marketers at Mars, Incorporated, next week it will be something else. That’s the nature of our fleeting attention span and how the Web has helped whittle it into many minute buckets filled with fleeting bits and pieces of information – yes, even fruit-flavored rainbow colored ones. 

For their part, the Mars marketers deserve acknowledgment: They took a bold step this week and embraced the fact that consumers, not the brand team, increasingly control their brand and image online. In fact, they've gone so far as to actually turn over the keys via their brand Web site, www.Skittles.com, which they re-launched largely as a navigation tool that overlays social media spaces where unfiltered, regular consumers are talking about their products.

This berry (pun intended) interesting marketing scheme on behalf of the Skittles brand clearly seeks to create the impression that they're letting consumers control their brand. To wit:

  • Skittles' homepage offers a "chatter" tab that defaults to an overlay on Twitter. Updates occur minute-by-minute with tweets (short-text consumer generated commentary) about Skittles. (The company's campaign initially launched with the Twitter page as its de facto homepage, a move that's since been changed to incorporate the brand's Wikipedia page. More on this in a minute…)

  • Navigate to Skittles media and it leads to their YouTube channel (for video) or Flickr page with Skittles search results (for photos).

  • Skittles' "friends" tab takes you to their Facebook profile.

  • Individual Skittles product types open their Wikipedia product page.

While Skittles is not the first company to do this (an online marketing agency in Boston launched something similar a year ago), they are certainly the first major brand to take this approach and are generating a significant amount of buzz. The day the campaign launched, #Skittles was the leading topic being discussed on Twitter and the resulting traffic headed to Skittles.com (more than 2,000 "tweets" per hour at one point) created bandwidth delays for Twitter users. Even the mainstream media took note.

But less than three days into the campaign, Skittles stepped back. While generating plenty of buzz, the Skittles marketing scheme encountered a measurable volume of criticism and unflattering commentary from Twitter users about the brand and the campaign. This included several attempts to bomb Twitter with claims like:

"NEWS ALERT: Mass Skittles recall - China blamed in latest melamine/Ebola/salmonella scandal…"

Ever since, there's been a see-saw of debate. What's fascinating to us is what both the cheerleaders and naysayers of the brand's effort seem to have overlooked. In our view, the Skittles effort offers-in an arguably pioneering way-insights and lessons that can help us all better understand how to connect traditional Web 1.0 marketing and social media.

Campaign "Red Flags"

One of the first things we noticed when reviewing Skittles' campaign took us by surprise-the description tags for the Skittles site seemed odd (see image below). In short, Skittles marketers (or their online agency) used description tags to make it look like consumers, via social media spaces, had created the search results description. We made an early prediction: Social media purists would find this tactic off-putting, and they'd likely howl about it.

That's pretty much what happened. And, in the midst of the backlash and Twitter bombing, we also found that Skittles marketers added more fuel to the fire by securing temporary Wikipedia "page protection" for their brand profiles. This tactic to limit edits also spurred more criticism.

Taken together, these tactics cast the Skittles brand as "inauthentic" in social media spaces, where authenticity and transparency are paramount.

Campaign "Take-Aways"

But despite those steps, the Skittles campaign is instructive to all online marketers on several fronts. As we reviewed the buzz and backlash, we wondered: Where's the measurement?

It's true that Mars will likely generate several positive data points: increased site traffic, more Facebook fans, high-visibility media coverage and a strong volume of broad, social media buzz. Critical references aside, overall brand awareness of Skittles will be at a peak. However, will this be a major success or a missed opportunity?

The Web affords so much more than traditional marketing measurements. Eyeballs, impressions and click-throughs, yes, but it also allows us to bring our audiences closer to decision points-be they simple purchases or the formation of more complex opinions. Other than visibility, conversion metrics appear to be largely absent as part of this campaign. Will Skittles ever get another chance with such high interest to include an element that would facilitate a purchase or bring us closer to their rainbow-colored treats?

Another question occurred to us: Why essentially dump, rather than integrate, Skittles' brand Web site into the campaign? Skittles' decision to replace its homepage with its Twitter page proved problematic. The idea's unquestionably bold, but with a demographic that skews towards teens and younger children excluded by birth date restrictions from the new platform, it's a risky move.

Indeed, Skittles' decision to replace Twitter with Wikipedia, then Facebook, then YouTube as its "homepage" resulted from recognition that it could not control the tone and substance of the consumer conversations. With Twitter or Wikipedia, at any given moment the most visible content could be a mythical recall claim generated by an anonymous poster or editor.

That decision appears wise, given the negative and profane comments posted on the Twitter page. Still, we think it offers a lesson about how to effectively integrate corporate and brand Web sites as social media portals. Doing so would allow marketers to retain some control of their online image while allowing the broader, consumer-driven conversations to occur.

This week we're talking about Skittles. Kudos to their success as the brand's awareness has probably never been higher. But how to make that heightened awareness stick and convert it to sales is what Skittles' long-term Web strategy should be about-and that's where we'll focus our conversations next week and beyond.

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