Lessons from a horrible social media strategy

Last week a bizarre decision by the prestigious Mayo Clinic had my college class rumbling with outrage.

One of the most popular class exercises I use to demonstrate the importance of blogging and content strategy is dividing the class up to dissect and discuss various corporate blogs. Since the pharmaceutical and health care industries are so prominent in New Jersey, I often use the Mayo Clinic’s blog as a case study.

The Mayo Clinic generally does a good job using its blog to establish a voice of authority for its principle core disciplines of stress management, cancer treatment and other health categories. They have doctors providing regular columns on these subjects and they attract a lot of comments (although they generally do not respond to the comments, probably for legal reasons). I like using this blog as an example because in an industry that is so gun-shy about using social media, this prominent clinic seemed to be moving forward in a powerful way.

A strategy gone horribly wrong

Last year I noticed they started taking paid advertising on their blog, mostly from drug companies. I thought this was a strange decision.  Clearly the goal of the blog was to establish community contact and voice of authority. Why cheapen the outstanding reputation of the clinic through annoying advertising that pushed drugs on people?

The strategy completely blew up on the medical center last week when my class discovered that right next to a blog post about the grief of pregnancy loss, the clinic was displaying ads for cute children’s clothing.  Look carefully at the picture at the top of the blog post.  Utterly tasteless.  Incomprehensible.

Of course I don’t think anybody mindfully placed this exact ad in this exact place. I’m sure they had a deal with this advertiser to automatically rotate ads for cute clothes on a column about pregnancy, never thinking it could backfire like this. Only problem is, the mothers reading the blog don’t know that.  They trust Mayo Clinic. Why wouldn’t they?

Here is a word I rarely use on my my blog: Stupid.  But I think it is an unavoidable description when an organization sells the soul of their brand for a few advertising dollars with a mindless strategy of advertising children’s clothes to women who have just lost their child.

Lessons learned?

Here is the lesson to take out of this disaster. Everything you do, and everything you don’t do, communicates about your brand.  Once you have your brand strategy set, protect it fiercely and stick to it relentlessly.  Never, ever take your eye off of what you do and why you exist.

In this case, somebody in the Mayo Clinic PR Department got some very bad advice. Maybe they were wide-eyed about the prospect of turning their customer-facing communications into a profit center. But what they really did was turn the clinic’s stellar reputation as a premier international healthcare center into a shuckster ready turn to tricks in any tasteless manner for a few bucks.  Instead of passionately and sensitively helping people who are suffering, they are shilling baby clothes and drugs to them,  This proud institution totally lost their vision of why they exist.

Think about what you’re doing with your marketing strategy. Is every activity lined up in a way that relentlessly communicates your core values and brand promise?

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  • I’ve been working with a retail client lately and I thought it was bad enough when they had ads on their retail site of their direct competitors (via google ads). Guess I was wrong. This is worst and as you’ve mentioned it, utterly tasteless.

  • Oh my. I can’t for the life of me understand why Mayo would place ads on their blog. I would gag and throw up if I found an ad on MY blog. The question is Why, why, why?
    Thanks for pointing out the need to stay focused. In marketing, in your career and in life. If you lose sight of the goal, you never quite know where you will end up.

  • Wow, that’s pretty ridiculous too. Thanks for the anecdote Jan!

  • Well said Dr. Ackerman. Marketing-wise, they are lost.

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  • I have to say, that is pretty hilarious Jan lol!

  • Mark,

    Great post and I like the idea of calling out poor execution. Scott Stratten does the same which I like and think more people should do.

    This is indeed a head scratcher as they can’t be making that much of advertising on their website. It’s bad enough that the ads don’t align with the Mayo clinics vision but they like you say it takes away and cheapens what they do.

    Everything is marketing and we must be consistent in what we do.

  • LL2002

    I don’t really think that their social media strategy had much to do with this, poor choice of titles on your part. It’s not like they put out a horrible tweet or fb update. It’s just a case of laziness or not fully understanding how content ads work. Had they taken the time to understand how ads get chosen, and coupled that with their frequently sensitive content, it could have been more successful. But calling it a horrible social media strategy is inaccurate.

  • Well said Jordan. Thanks for taking the time to comment!

  • They decided to place ads on their blog which is clearly part of their social media strategy. I suppose choosing to monetize their blog could be seen as either a poor advertising strategy or a poor social media strategy. Thanks for making your point.

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  • I wonder if people outside of academia really pay that much attention anymore? Anecdotally – it seems that many of us are numb to advertising. Not that it renders this example free from criticism. The ad placement lacks adept and mindful judgement. But, to suggest that this misstep reduces the clinic to “shuckster” status is a bit over the top.

    I think we allow room for them to adapt and move on…lesson learned.

  • Mark,

    Just curious. Why do you define digital ad placement as a social media strategy?

    Thanks.

  • Anonymous

    As ever, the comments are as interesting as the blog Mark! Are we really so desensitised these days that we can’t (as some of the comments indicate) the horror a person reading this blog, maybe looking for comfort following their own personal tragedy, would endure in seeing that ad?
    At the very least the blog in question is cynical, and I really dont know what to say about it much more than that!

  • We’ll have to agree to disagree. If Mayo did their job (and they probably did at one point) they would have a goal for their blog that aligns with a key business strategy. Something like: “We will provide timely and helpful information on our core medical competencies to help our patients and potential patients.” If anything distracts from that, they shouldn’t do it. And not only does this distract, it embarrasses. Everybody makes mistakes, but when they made a decision to move away from their core strategy, something like this was bound to happen. Is shilling children’s clothes their aim in life? Not even close.

  • This is exactly why I have never been a fan of ROS ads and I still struggle to comprehend why sites like this one don’t match ads to content. It helps both the brand and the advertiser honestly.

  • I already responded to this below. A decision to monetize a blog would be seen as part of the social media strategy. Right?

  • Yes, to me, this is a pretty clear-cut example of taking their eye off the ball in a disastrous way! Thanks Tony.

  • Wow. I’ve heard that a stage in social maturity is the eventual monetization of your content but that was obviously not completely thought out at all. Doesn’t do much to build trust.

  • I think they are matching ads to content. Normally, it probably makes sense to associate the sales of baby clothes with pregnant mothers. So they probably thought that through, at least part of the way. Thanks Christina!

  • jbrush

    I totally agree with you mbrewer.

  • I don’t necessarily think that direct “monetization” should always be the goal. There are lots of possible goals. In this case, making money off the blog is eclipsed (by far) by the opportunity to be a voice of authority for patients in need. That is why they exist but they lost sight of that. Thanks for the comment Drew!

  • Anonymous

    @twitter-129518209:disqus I had a similar experience with a client who had an unhosted WordPress blog that wound up featuring a competitor’s ad. Fortunately, we were able to upgrade their account to remove ads, but this is definitely something that smaller companies and those new to social media need to be aware of. For a big organization like the Mayo Clinic, it is a rookie mistake, but for smaller firms without Mayo’s resources or expertise, I could see that this is something that could easily happen often!

  • Hi Mark. Wow. Not a good move, huh ? in this day and age of money and profits being at the top of everyones list, this really does not surprise me. Most companies and their leaders value profits more than they value people. It really is disappointing and in this case, disturbing and sad. We are so quick to see the money that can be made, that we don’t take the time to research, find out or CARE how it might affect someone, or how much we just might lose.
    Ok, enough from me. I will ramble on about this topic in my blog post tomorrow.
    Thanks Mark. Take CARE.
    Al

  • Many thanks for adding your wisdom to the discussion Kathleen.

  • Many thanks for taking the time to add to the conversation Al.

  • I agree that Mayo should not place ads on their blog, however, AdChoices is a form of retargeting advertisements. It is likely that this ad targeted someone who had visited Zulily at some point, had a tracking pixel placed on them, and was served an ad by a retargeting service like AdRoll. Mayo wouldn’t have control over exactly which ads are served on their blog (which is a negative of allowing a retargeting space). Here is more info to learn about AdChoices: http://choice.live.com/

  • Yes, I understand the dynamic. But the ad was shown to me and others who had never visited Zulily before. The point is … should they have ads at all? Does this diminish the brand? If you’re going to have a promotion, why not Mayo Clinic services instead of retail items? Thanks Lauren.

  • Mayo is not small, nor a newcomer to social media. Yet another case of marketing separated from their core business. If they had included any of their health care social media experts in a marketing decision, they never would have done it (decided to post ads at all).

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  • I think “horrible” is a bit too harsh. Maybe “careless” or “lazy.”

  • Skelly

    Just a few things:

    First – the comments about this particular ad being algorithm and content based are spot on. Mayo didn’t “choose” this ad.

    Second – To call this a “disaster” is inaccurate. The blog post has 4 comments to this date, and none of them have anything to do with the ads. Where is your evidence of a “disaster” occurring?

    Thirdly – you knock Mayo’s social media strategy here, but where is your data? These kinds of ads (albeit, not AdChoices) are still present on their site. If they’re making money off these ads AND their subscribers appreciate them, then how can this be “poor strategy” when it is A) making money, and B) providing value?

    Respectfully, I think you’re sorely in need of more data. The only concrete fault that can be pointed out here is AdChoices inability to match relevant ads with content. I see this thing everyday online – this isn’t a unique occurrence.

  • Fertility problems of any kind in both men and women are often considered taboo to the point where they are actually made to seem shameful. I think that rather than a disaster, this ad placement could be used as a huge morality lesson. People are seldom sensitive to the impact that baby pictures and other such can have on those struggling with the types of health problems discussed in that post. It would be a great opportunity for Mayo to say, “This ad placement was insensitive. Let’s talk about THAT and see what lessons we can learn beyond this one incident.”

    That’s probably wishful thinking tho…:)

  • I’m not knocking their social media strategy. As I mentioned in the post, they generally do a great job and I use them as an example in my class. However, it is never a good idea to embark on a strategy that is a departure from your core mission, especially if it offends customers. Call me picky, but I don’t think companies should engage in offensive and insensitive activities. I don’t need a spreadsheet to make that call. We’ll have to disagree but I genuinely appreciate the thought you put into your comment and your effort to share today.

  • Thanks very much Margie for the thought-provoking comment.

  • Yes, careless and lazy. But from the perspective of a woman who came to this post because she is grieving the loss of a baby, horrible. Inexcusable.

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  • Gina

    I agree with “Lauren” in that the ad is likely targeted to someone who had visited an online baby clothes store or toy company in the past and was then “served” an ad by a “retargeting service” like AdRoll. Mayo doesn’t have control over that. I, myself, cannot have children, but I see those stupid Zulily ads ALL the time on my Yahoo account (and elsewhere online). It’s probably because I have purchased baby items for friends in the past. Does it break my heart? No. Do I find it horrible or disturbing? No. Would I crucify Mayo for seeing that ad next to its blog about ectopic pregnancies? Nope. However, I’m not gonna lie; I might cringe a little and think, “Oh, Mayo, not great follow-through here.” But I wouldn’t break down crying and find it dispicable or a “disaster”–and I am a woman who canNOT have children. From a branding point of view, I do like Mark’s comment, “Everything you do, and everything you don’t do, communicates about your brand.” Did Mayo have any comment on this slip?

  • Anonymous

    I think sometimes we can automate so many of the moving parts/elements of our marketing that we can forget about the experience a visitor may have. Cookies, rotating ads, dynamic content, etc can produce unexpected content-frankensteins. I think this current example certainly points to some need for content/ad guidelines but I think it’s more a case of “flipping the switch” than intentional harm.

  • Hi Mark,
    Did you get a chance to reach out to Mayo to ask about their adserver, whether it was automated to match ads with authors like the midwife who wrote this post, or to match key terms like “pregnancy”? I would’ve asked them if they have looked into the many display networks and adservers that allow for opting out of ads on a post before publication: any and all posts that involve dealing with tragic outcomes should be ad free–it’s insensitive no matter what the ad is. But of course that kind of decision resides in the marketing department & perhaps the web technology team. I’m betting the PR department had no input on this whatsoever or they’d have expressed the same concerns you have.

  • An interesting thought but why would the web technology team be calling a shot like this? It’s the tail wagging the dog. An IT person cannot be running your marketing strategy, if that is indeed the case. Thanks for the insight Brian.

  • Well said. A very good recommendation!

  • This would be funny if it weren’t so sad – toooooo many companies just make a token effort in Social Media when its value is sooooo much greater than that!

  • “Everything you do, and everything you don’t do, communicates about your brand.” THIS! I’ve got about 34 different posts drafted in an attempt to articulate my approach to PR and it’s that: communication is the core of all business.

    This was a dumb mistake – and one made out of laziness (cc @twitter-274835347:disqus ). Risk handing over your image to an autobot trusted to know your keywords, this is the kind of thing that happens.
    The other part of that is the advertising, on which I am mixed. One the one hand, when I see ad-heavy sites all about passive income, I think ‘get a real job’ or I wonder why big brands need $$ from other branded sponsors. On the other, I get that companies need to find offsets for all the value they share for ‘free’ — ads, affiliate links may be a way to do that. But it needs to be tastefully, target-appropriately and judiciously – this was not it. FWIW.

  • This was not a random ad placement. Multiple people tested it, including men and first-time visitors to the site and they all got the same ad. Mayo has neither responded to the blog post, nor did they remove the offensive ad. I have contacted them but have not received a reply.

  • At a minimum, I would suggest that companies should not offend their customers through their social media efforts. Let’s just use that as a starting point : )

  • Thanks so much for taking the time to comment Bruce.

  • Mark – I had posted a comment here earlier today (I am the director of the Mayo Clinic Center for Social Media) with some perspective. It originally showed up as the 37th comment, but as I look through the comments now it has disappeared. Can you tell me what happened to it?

  • Mark, this blog post came to mind tonight. Beretta USA brayed on their Facebook page about how they had just sold their CX4 Storm carbine to the Venezuelan National Guard. In less than 30 minutes they had removed the post because of a deluge of negative comments about what a marketing fail that was because of how much the Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez is despised in the US.

    Beretta fans didn’t begrudge them for making a sale, it’s just that their intelligence was insulted because Beretta thought they would think that was cool.

    All I could think was that it was a good example of a company delegating their social media management to some underling who had zero understanding of their buyer persona.

  • There is a post at around 6pm from Lee Aase, dir. Mayo Clinic Center for Social Media who says he did comment with a response but it isn’t appearing…

  • Yes…and I posted the same comment again later, and it has again been removed. I took a screen shot this time to show that I had posted. Why was my response removed?

  • Your response was not removed. There is no record of it.

  • There is no record that your comment successfully posted. It is not in the spam or pending file and I assure you it has not been removed. I know earlier today there was a technical problem with Disqus but I have not been around tonight to see if this has persisted. If you continue to have problems, email me the comment and I will post it personally on your behalf.

  • Lee Aase of the Mayo Clinic tried posting a response to the post several times but his links kept kicking it out of the Disqus commenting system. For some reason it was not even showing up as spam. I sincerely apologize for this inconvenience and will address the problem with Disqus. Here is is his comment in full:

    I understand your point about the juxtaposition of an ad for cute kids clothes next to a story about ectopic pregnancy, but calling this a “horrible social media strategy” and “stupid,” “mindless” and ”a bizarre decision” is a bit over the top.

    In the spirit of full disclosure, I’m the director of Mayo Clinic’s Center for Social Media. So I’m not exactly a neutral observer, but I do know something about Mayo Clinic’s overall social media strategy.

    Mayo Clinic has many blogs, most of which are associated with our site for patients – MayoClinic.org – or our education/research site, Mayo.edu. None of those blogs accept advertising. Mayo has 350,000 followers on Twitter and the most popular medical provider channel on YouTube. We don’t take ads on our YouTube channel, either. We also maintain an online community in which patients and prospective patients can connect with each other in an ad-free space, at connect.mayoclinic.org.

    But Mayo’s consumer health information site, MayoClinic.com, accepts carefully screened advertising. MayoClinic.com has had ads for more than a decade, and the site maintains a strict wall between editorial content and the advertising to keep content free of bias. Advertising revenue from throughout MayoClinic.com – on blogs and other pages – supports medical research and education at Mayo Clinic. Consumers and patients trust Mayo Clinic to provide objective information about medical issues, and we deliver on that promise.

    We always welcome feedback and appreciate your perspective and the opinions of those who have commented here. The ad in question is part of a syndicated feed of ads meeting MayoClinic.com standards; it has been removed from the rotation of ads eligible to be displayed on this pregnancy blog post, and the MayoClinic.com team is exploring ways to further refine criteria on a per-post basis to prevent ads that are fine in themselves from being placed near content for which the subject matter would be
    inconsistent.

    I appreciate this opportunity to provide this background and hope it is helpful

  • My reply to Mr. Aase:

    Thanks for taking the time to respond. Certainly your voice is important in this matter.

    Honestly I find your position even stranger than what I thought it would be. Why would you not accept ads on certain Mayo sites but you do on this one? Is protecting the sanctity of the clinic’s reputation no less important on a “consumer” site? Isn’t a customer a customer?

    So it seems you actually recognize the risk to your reputation through advertising but engaged in the strategy any way? That just makes no sense.

    I’m sorry but you will not be able to convince me that cheapening the sterling reputation of the clinic through display advertising is worth the risk of an incident like this occurring. As of last night, the ad was still on display, prompting a response of “that’s disgusting” from one of my students examining your blog.

    This is the type of social media “fail” scenario that might make you a case study in the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times next time instead of my humble blog. It’s just not worth it.

    I sincerely admire the amazing job you are doing with social media on your other properties. A best practice and you should be proud of what you are accomplishing. This monetization tactic mystifies me though, especially when you already acknowlege the risk on your other blogs. You’re spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to protect and nurture the Mayo brand image and you would jeopardize that through one display ad? Never.

  • Thanks, Mark. The advertising supporting MayoClinicdotcom (I’m spelling it out in hopes that Disqus won’t delete me…and from now on I’ll call them dotcom, dotorg and dotedu) far predates the social media era. As I said, that was a decision made more than a decade ago, before there were blogs. So what you’re writing about here is a Web site monetization strategy for dotcom as opposed to a social media strategy, with the revenue from the ads supporting medical research and education at Mayo Clinic. Others have said the dotcom group does a good job of balancing the ads (I’ll post one of those links in a separate comment to make sure this one goes through.) I don’t know why the sun dress ad is still showing up on your computer; we have been told it has been eliminated from the feed for this post. I will check on that, but maybe it could be in your browser’s cache and just keeps getting displayed.

    So…we’re not attempting to monetize our social media. Mayo has been monetizing health information for a decade through the dotcom site to support research and education. More in a bit.

  • Thanks very much for this analogy Douglas. Much appreciated!

  • Here’s the link to one NY Times Magazine writer’s perspective on how Mayo Clinic’s dotcom site handles advertising and content http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/06/magazine/06FOB-Medium-t.html

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  • Agree with @businessesgrow:disqus’s point about the impact this could have on May perception. That said, props to you, @twitter-1127651:disqus for listening and responding to this issue. Great example of real-time marketing and turning negative into a somewhat positive for your brand. More companies should take note.

  • Agree with @businessesgrow:disqus’s point about the impact this could have on May perception. That said, props to you, @twitter-1127651:disqus for listening and responding to this issue. Great example of real-time marketing and turning negative into a somewhat positive for your brand. More companies should take note.

  • Agree with @businessesgrow:disqus’s point about the impact this could have on May perception. That said, props to you, @twitter-1127651:disqus for listening and responding to this issue. Great example of real-time marketing and turning negative into a somewhat positive for your brand. More companies should take note.

  • Once again proving the tenet: Content is king…even the most seemingly insignificant bit of content.

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  • There are certain lessons which are really helpful to me as well, to build a very good strategy and build a good profit as well.

  • That will be really very sad that You faced this ind of situation. But, I make sure that If I will getting this kind of situation then It will never happen it again.

  • I think it seems you actually recognize the risk to your reputation through advertising but engaged in the strategy any way? That just makes no sense.

    I’m sorry but you will not be able to convince me that cheapening the sterling reputation of the clinic through display advertising is worth the risk of an incident like this occurring. As of last night, the ad was still on display, prompting a response of “that’s disgusting” from one of my students examining your blog.

    This is the type of social media “fail” scenario that might make you a case study in the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times next time instead of my humble blog. It’s just not worth it.

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