We are all standing on digital quicksand

The other day I noticed a highway billboard advertising a NASCAR race. The wall-sized photo was not of cars racing around a track or a cheering crowd. It was a photo of a gruesome wreck. At first, this seemed like an odd way to promote a sporting event!  And yet, undeniably, our pulse quickens when those cars hit the wall, a fight breaks out at a hockey game, or when the seemingly infallible appear human.

This is a reflection on our normal tendency to focus on the negative. The negative is the news.

There is ample clinical research that codifies this trait, which is called Negativity Bias.  Humans have a heightened physiological and psychological response to events they see as negative. Our attitudes are more heavily influenced by downbeat news than good news.

Our capacity to weigh negative input so heavily probably evolved for a good reason — to keep us out of harm’s way. The brain developed systems that would make it notice danger and hopefully, avoid it.

Negativity Bias in Action

But today, with so much stimuli coming at us each day, is it any wonder that when it comes to the social web, we may tend to focus on the spam, the haters, and the tragic, instead of the beautiful, spiritual and sublime?

We saw an example of Negativity Bias in action recently with the much-publicized McDonald’s “McFail” episode.

I respect McDonalds as a well-managed company that tries to do the right thing as it serves millions of diverse customers each day with predictable quality.

Although they are not my customer, I have in the past worked for two of their food suppliers and here is what I learned: No food processing company on earth has higher standards for quality, sustainability, animal treatment, and community involvement. No matter what you think of their food, this is a company that tries to do the right thing.

This carries over into social media, too. They are a gold standard in terms of authentic social media outreach and connection. How many companies of their size have a team of tweeters available for one-on-one conversation? In terms of effectively “humanizing” their brand, I use them as a best practice case study in my college classes.


So it came as a surprise when I started seeing headlines about the social media #McFail a few weeks ago. The story went something like this. McDonald’s has hosted a series of successful Twitter chats over the past few months and thought they would try something different. Under the hashtag of #McDStories they invited customers to tell their favorite stories of McDonald’s experiences.

As you might imagine, it didn’t take long to attract some negative stories and outcries from animal rights activists. It was probably naive on the company’s part to think that something like this might not happen.

But let’s look at the whole story.  McDonald’s has made a genuinely positive attempt to be a “social” organization and I give them credit for experimenting by inviting their customers to engage. And even when one of their social media experiments did not go as planned, the company had something like 79,000 tweets and 2,000 of them were negative. So on one of their worst days, they had a positive sentiment analysis of 97.5 percent. In any company I’ve worked for, that would be cause for celebration.

And yet the all headlines focused on the failure. It will probably be a case study discussed for years alongside the Gap logo debacle. That may not be fair, but it’s what we need to anticipate from our society as we lay our social media plans over this layer of Negativity Bias.

We’re standing on digital quicksand

Every one of our organizations is standing on digital quicksand. It only takes one infinitesimal shift in customer sentiment, one outcry from a small number of passionate detractors, to dash an otherwise sterling reputation.

One of the most interesting talks at SXSW was between Billy Corgan of the alternative rock band Smashing Pumpkins, and author Brian Solis. In the talk, Corgan hypothesized that artists take less risks today because of a realization that one embarrassingly human moment will get tweeted and go viral — and possibly kill a career. Before the social web, these moments might be laughed about and become part of band legend, but today it can be career-defining. He wondered aloud about a world where artists would be nothing more than politically-correct robots.

The Vanilla Web

So as we acknowledge this reality, here is the question we need to consider very, very carefully when it comes to our own social media presence and taking risks in this space – is it worth it?

As we have seen many times, even an experiment that barely makes a dent in the company’s overall social footprint can overwhelm any good that is being accomplished, any sincere intentions, any attempt at innovation.

Personally or professionally, is it worth it trying anything new in the social space, even if you thought you could have a success rate of 97.5 percent?  In a world where Negatively Bias is gasoline on a viral fire, and one misstep can overwhelm years of positive work cultivating raving fans, why would anybody take a risk on the social web?

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  • I am not even sure what to say about this, other than that besides it being extremely thought-provoking it’s actually causing me a great deal of discomfort at the moment… there really is a “tyranny of the majority” bias built into social media… 

  • Amy

    It’s a matter of knowing the risks, preparing for all eventualities, and going for it anyway. The more important it becomes to be a part of social media, the worse off you will be if you’re not there. I say it’s better to risk — go big or go home.

  • It’s a cascading media effect; the more media outlets there are, the more they compete with each other in this ever-expanding, 24/7 battle for our ADHD eyeballs it was figured out – bad sells, right along with sex. When I visit my local daily’s website, almost all the highlighted stories and sidebars – many of which aren’t local at all – it’s all negative, all celebrity gossip and political and social missteps. They’re highlighted for one reason: they get the clicks.
    I have to totally agree w/ Corgan. An errant quote in an old ‘Rolling Stone’ interview may have raised a few eyebrows back in the day and ruffled some feathers; today it is absolutely career-changing – see also, the Dixie Chicks. One bad tweet or picture; Rick Reilly had a funny story a while back – advice to athletes for their ‘entourage’ of moochers and one of his rules was that it was their job to collect all cell phones and cameras from everyone, to make sure that didn’t happen. So much money is invested in packaging and marketing performers, they can’t afford to take chances and risk alienating any would-be buyers – or the allowance dolling parents of those buyers, or the media promoting them – that it’s homogenized and ‘safe’ and plain vanilla.This is one of the problems I’m seeing Mark – particularly as I see SMBs waste money on these check-by-number web and ‘social media’ marketing packages which are nothing more than automated broadcast advertising – companies and brands aren’t going to let people be people. That’s what engagement and social could/should be about and yet, it’s not. Mentioned it on a Olivier Blanchard post a couple weeks ago: he wants brands to NOT hide their humans, let them be human, up front and center and mostly, real; I agreed, but doubt that many companies have the stomach for it b/c of this – no one’s really willing to risk it in a time when a tiny bit of “only the SM inside club even noticed the bad but it was overhyped out of proportion” negative can derail an otherwise successful effort.Wonder what the story would be if McD’s had a better plan going in, some strategy for a counter-attack on the tiny bit of negative? Like you said, they were naive not to expect something. We’re all Monday morning quarterbacks here, but I just don’t know that if they had done something, anything to play down the bad, play up the good, step up and shut up the jokers, flamers and critics – would that have made a difference? FWIW.

  • A lot of interesting points here, I’m interested in seeing what others have to say.

    While #McFail had plenty of negative run, socially speaking, I’m willing to bet that consumers are not choosing to go somewhere else because of it. I still go there to get my sausage mcmuffin w/ egg twice a week knowing full well they were involved in a “debacle.” When you put it into the 97.5% perspective though, you’re right, most companies would party like it’s 2099.

  • Disasters will always get more attention than miracles, it’s like we’re all waiting for the worst thing to happen and we all have our pointing finger ready for the action. But I think that it won’t be the misstep the one that will overwhelm years of work cultivating fans, but how you’ll handle the day after.

    Another great post, Mark, loved it!

  • I hate the idea that people won’t take a chance because they fear what could happen. You might get hit by a bus, fall down the stairs of have an aneurysm too.

    Sometimes you have to take a risk and see what happens. Doesn’t mean that you should be reckless about it either. Take the time to prepare as best you can and then find out if you can fly.

    The hell with those who can’t take a chance. You can’t please everyone and even if you do things perfectly someone will complain. No risk leads to no reward.

  • Oh come on; walking on eggshells for fear of a bit of negative publicity is just not my thing: Ok there are haters, detractors, scammers, whatever; but surely a little negative publicity is more a test of fire than the end of everything? 

    Here’s my take on it: Some people love me, some people hate me; and that goes for everyone. – Either way; fair play to them. The haters want to bring me down and vice-versa. – That’s the way it is and there’s nothing else I, or anybody else can do but live with it. – So give me the viral neggies; bring it on. – It’s publicity for my brand either way. Fame may come at a price. :S

  • It’s always safer to do nothing. The social web offers unprecedented opportunities unlike those ever seen before — those who are secure in their business or product will take the calculated risks necessary to reap those awards. The others will do what so many have always done — make the calculated choice to settle for the status quo.

    Nice thought provoking post, Mark!

  • All the superlatives and more need to be mustered for this post. The issues raised and the way you clarify some of the challenges are definitely areas where businesses of all sizes need to be prepared to address within any social media strategy. 

    I agree with you about McDonalds. They are the classic business case study. The way how they have simplified operational management of their outlets globally is one of the key reasons for their success. 

    Honestly I rarely eat Mcdonald except from the outlets that experience high footfall in city centres for example because the food is often a lot fresher due to the sheer numbers of customers.

    I like the way how they do business because they do not hide from the challenges and your example of the army of tweeters ready to respond is just another example.  There are some serious challenges for businesses and artists with the social web creating a new frontier but the opportunities outweigh the downside in my opinion. 

    Best to you Sir. 

  • This post is definitely thought provoking.  People should need to be wary of what they are doing, and if they think that it could hurt them if became vastly known that they did that specific action.  However, the question is really, “Is this action that I am about to do really representative of myself, so much so that I will not care about any negativity that may result.”

    My personal thoughts are that the benefits of social media outweigh the risk (if you are doing it right).  I think a great analogy for this is “you have to spend money to make money.” I hope that makes sense to someone else too. 

  • Excellent point, Paul.

  • “But I think that it won’t be the misstep the one that will overwhelm years of work cultivating fans, but how you’ll handle the day after.”

  • Anonymous

    The question of “worth” is more to do with outbound communications. But what if you spin it around? The value of engaging via social media may really rest in the power of risk management and mitigation. As you point out, something YOU do could create an issue. But at least you know about that (or will do quickly). 

    Being able to engage, manage and possibly correct an issue that originates elsewhere has significant value for any organization. It’s about digging the well before you need it.

  • I respect your opinion and appreciate the comment but that won’t work for a lot of big companies, especially publicly-traded companies who have to cater to a lot of constituents and shareholders.  A few events like McFail and they will leave for good! Thanks!

  • I actually love Egg McMuffins. I really do. 

    You’re probably right that in the long-term this won’t have a material impact on sales. Thanks for that comment Tony.

  • I agree 100% but I think it is going to take a very special kind of person to persist with innovation and failure when it happens in such a public way. 

    I often think this is one of the difficulties with Klout. Love them or hate, them, they are innovating, they are taking risks, and it hall been in a very public way. So instead of focusing on innovation, they are fighting PR fires all day. Ten years ago, that would not be the case. Iterating in public is a killer.

    Superb comment Jack. Always an honor to have you drop by!

  • Wonderful comment Davina.  I agree with Olivier — depending on the company culture. I met a company this week that was an absolute delight. They are open, friendly, human, and they “get it.” They are going to do VERY well in this space. So much stems from culture, doesn’t it?

  • Good for you and thank VERY MUCH for the alternative perspective. I was hoping somebody would disagree : ) 

  • Kenny, may I just say how GREAT it is to have you back in the comment section! I have missed your thoughtful and very human perspectives!  Thank you so much! 

  • This is a very good point John and something I have thought about too. I take risks on this blog … almost every day actually. And I do put each post through a mental process about possible negative outcomes. But what startle me are the innocent gaffes — maybe something that doesn’t play across other cultures, or some provocation that occurs simply because I don’t have an editor and sometimes I might miss even an obvious mistake. That’s what haunts me! I do expect there will come a day when everything blows up. And that will be one interesting day. 😉 

  • Quite an interesting perspective. Love your thinking on this. Well done!

  • … or is it the tyranny of the minority?  It doesn’t take too many people to hijack a conversation.  Thanks for caring enough to comment David.

  • Beautiful point. Thanks Gisele!

  • Agree. The social web amplifies personality and culture. I love your optimistic view Paul. Thanks! 

  • Good point. I guess what I am thinking of is how easily some people are swayed when a majority of online reviews are negative, even if it’s just a vocal minority who are actually doing most of the posting. Thanks for a thought-provoking piece!

  • So powerful is the pro-big brand conditioning that the masses seem to ignore even the most heinous revelations about big brands. They seem almost impervious to negative publicity, so I wouldn’t worry too much about #MCFail or any similar mistake having any long term effect. Here is just one of many examples I could cite: 

    Repeated calls to boycott Amazon.com don’t seem to have made so much as a ripple to negatively impact their brand (although they MIGHT have affected earnings somewhat).  

    From intentionally endangering their employees lives to trying to force authors to ONLY use them by threatening to exclude their works from Amazon to incentivizing customers to spy on local small businesses and giving them an app to report their prices to pulling the Orwellian act of deleting books from Kindles that buyers have already paid for – what WILL it take before more people refuse to support them? For details see http://www.growmap.com/amazon-walmart/

    Even more importantly, what does it say about us as a society that we don’t care if corporations use child or slave labor or literally let their employees die if it can make them more profit?

    Or that we don’t care that they can silently change books you paid for – all the more dangerous because how many would notice? I’m betting next to none will realize as history gets rewritten by those who control digital versions of books. Most won’t even notice when entire volumes go missing. I am always amazed when intelligent people wax poetic over companies that sell “food” that is literally ruining the health of all that consume it – and especially any foolish enough to consumer it regularly. I wish they would use their Internet research skills to find out how detrimental to our health GMO and artificially created foods laced with chemicals, preservatives, toxins and artificial flavors and colors our bodies can’t begin to digest really are before it is too late. 

    Too late because of the damage they’ve done to their own health and too late because that information is getting more and more difficult to find online as Google favors Big Brands and what those George Carlin correctly refers to as “the owners” want us to see and buries deep in the serps everything else. 

    I believe that eventually Google will use Chrome block data and page load speed as excuses to make alternative views disappear altogether. So if you want to at least look to see what other intelligent people have shared best to do that while you still can. 

  • Thanks Mark (fixed my comment, don’t know what happened to the paragraph returns?). Culture absolutely defines a companies approach to communications, to business; fear of unknown, of failure.. I’ve got a few posts kicking around in my head, hopefully they’ll see the business end of the ‘publish’ button sometime soon. 

  • I have missed being here. Life been getting in the way. 🙂 Thanks for the warm welcome back Mark. 

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  •  I suspect it depends on what the gaffe is and how established the company is. Many brands intentionally do things that they know will create controversy – such as NIke’s history of controversial ads including the recent Black and Tans and previous anti-Christian and Tiger Woods scandal ads. They may believe in that old adage “there is no such thing as bad publicity”.

    While a young career could be seriously damaged by a major controversy, more established brands may be embarrassed but probably won’t see any long-term ill effects for most social media mistakes.

  • I don;t share your opinion that companies intentionally seek to associate their valuable brands with controversy.  In fact, when it happens, people get fired, usually.

  • The naivety of the majority : ) 

  • I agree. This is an amazing phenomenon.  Apple is another example. They have used some pretty ugly tactics with suppliers and their supply chain in China is an abomination. People don’t seem to care.

  • Ha! I like that…. the phrase, that is 🙂

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  • Brilliant article and insights Mark. I can only hope that at some point trying to “Do The Right Thing” is rewarded more than trying to do the “Politically Correct Thing”. What I find not often, if ever addressed is that “Individuals” determine what is “Politically Correct” and it is constantly changing over time to suit whoever has the most power. Trying to “Do The Right Thing” comes from the heart and is with the intent to make a better world by looking out for and helping each other.

    A large part of why our country and our world is in such a mess, in my opinion, is because it is being run by greedy politicians that have learned how to work the “Politically Correct” system to their own self serving advantage. I come from a place know as “Crook County, Illinois” home to Chicago which is the Mecca of political crime and corruption. I have watched this turn into an art form that unfortunately has become prevalent at higher levels of government on a National scale.

    My main point is that I truly believe there are a great many competent people that know what to do and how to do it and want to “Do The Right Thing”. However, the system has evolved, especially with the aid of the Media that wants to just show or create “Car Crashes”, that their voices probably will never be heard.

    Why subject yourself and your friends and family to the lies and accusations that appear on page 1 headlines from writers who are never held accountable for what they put in print. Any retractions appear several days later if at all buried on some back pages. It would take some really special people willing to sacrifice themselves to try and fight this situation. It doesn’t appear that many are willing to take this on.

    I hope that same fate does not wind up occurring to businesses and corporations like McDonald’s that are trying to “Do The Right Thing” and make a positive difference in the world. The more we accept the man made “Flavor of The Day-Politically Correct” codes of conduct  and confuse or rationalize that they are always the “Right Thing To Do”, the tougher it will be to reverse the mess we find ourselves in today.

    Sadly, all I can say is that whether it’s an individual, a small business or a large corporation, those that give in to the “Instant gratification”, “It’s all about me”, “I deserve to be taken care of because I can whine the longest and loudest” element that is prevalent today, you will deserve whatever you get. And there are plenty of people in power that get the votes of this element who are more than happy to give it to you.

    Greetings from “Crook County Illinois”

  • Thanks so much for the thought-provoking and uplifting observations Gene. I can only hope you are correct! 

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