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3M’s Post-It Note Viral Marketing Attempt – Redux

Posted by Melanie Phung on Wednesday, January 7, 2009 at 11:43 am

My post about 3M’s Post It Notes viral marketing campaign told the story of how 3M Corporation contacted my friend to use some very well-known, recognizable photos of his for a national marketing campaign called “One Million Uses and Counting” — but when he quoted them his licensing fee, they said they could just copy his photos … and did. (Please read that post now if you haven’t already.) It’s been several months and I thought it was time for a post-game analysis.

What happened was that, as one commenter aptly put it, 3M “crapped in the sandbox they were trying to play in.” And as a result, their bad faith dealings surrounding the launch of their social media marketing campaign got a ton of negative buzz.

At one point, the general product search terms [3M post it note] and [3M post it notes] even brought up sites blasting 3M for what they had done.

Google Results for [3M Post It Note]

The various articles focused on differing aspects of what 3M’s Marketing Department did wrong — everything from contacting the photog and shredding any semblance of plausible deniability, to acting like a Big Dumb Company and steamrolling right over “the little guy” when he could have easily been their biggest cheerleader. It’s clear that the story had legs.

Although I think the incident made well the point that big corporations can’t just run rough shod over social media and content producers (and, seriously, don’t screw over my friends, k? thxbai), my post on 3M’s viral marketing failure did not go as hot as I secretly hoped it would.

Most of the marketers who heard this story agreed it was a great example of how not to do viral marketing, even commenting that they’d love to use it as a case study in social media marketing presentations. It’s precisely the sort of David-vs-Goliath story that tends to capture the imaginations of social media users. So while the story got some attention, why did my post not go truly “viral”?

What I Could Have Done Differently
aka Things to Consider If You’re Trying to Get Your Story to Go Hot

  • Promote the Story More Aggressively — It was clear to me that this was a story that was made for social media. First, it was about social media. Social media loves to eat itself. Second, it was a story of a corporation ripping off the little guy — also a story the Internet loves. So I wrote the post to be “social-media friendly” and got a Digg power user to submit it to Digg. And I got someone to submit it to StumbleUpon for me. Then I reached out to several of the large sites that featured Scott’s original photos, as well as sites like Consumerist and AdRants (which like stories of big companies acting like jerks and failed marketing campaigns, respectively). I also tweeted the Digg link a couple of times, but not more than a half a dozen times.
    .The obvious advice would have been to be more aggressive in pimping my blog post, but social media is tricky and if you push too hard people tend to resent that. The obvious answer might backfire. And when I say “backfire” I don’t just mean that people would have buried the story on Digg or unfollowed me on Twitter for being too self-promotional; my worry was that my friend Scott (the photographer whom 3M ripped off) would receive the brunt of the backlash. Every time I saw someone criticize Scott for being anything less than flattered that 3M even approached him at all, I cringed a little. It was a delicate balancing act to push the story while also being mindful of his reputation
  • Pitch the Story to Different Audiences — In the end, it wasn’t the SEO crowd (active Sphinn users, my Twitter friends, etc.) who took this story and ran with it: it was more traditional (for lack of a better word) online marketers and the professional photography bloggers who took a genuine interest in this story and reached out to their audiences. Rather than focusing just on the social media scene, I could have reached out to more, and perhaps more traditional, marketing blogs, as well as gone after blogs catering to professional photographers rather than hobbyists. In hindsight, I should have. Unfortunately I didn’t really know the players who could have helped spread the story to their followers and didn’t put enough effort into connecting with them.Great blogger outreach isn’t just about sending a well-composed pitch to a blogger; it’s also about doing research to find the right targets.
  • Continue Pushing the Story for a Longer Period of Time — After my initial Digg push(es), I stopped promoting the story, figuring that it was time for the story to go viral organically. After all, I figured, the point of “viral” is that it’s not a single person creating the growth and spread of information; it’s about seeding the story and getting other people to spread it. There are diminishing returns to pushing the same story to the same audience, but this wasn’t (only) about getting my post to hit Digg FP.Digg isn’t the be-all end-all of going viral. While two weeks felt like a decent amount of time to push the story — at which point I was feeling like the date stamp on the blog post was getting stale by blogosphere standards — the fact is that I didn’t even come close to reaching all the people who would have been eager to here about it.
  • Post the Story on a “Bigger” Blog — The “Dell Hell” fiasco would merely have been a “Dell M’eh” if it hadn’t originated on Jeff Jarvis’ blog, but that doesn’t mean you need to be an A-list blogger to do a lot of damage to a company’s reputation. However, the bigger the site, the bigger the audience and the bigger the potential damage. Considering that I don’t have a large Twitter following or even a well-read blog, I was taking a risk by posting it on this site and hoping the post was compelling enough on its own.I could have approached a bigger blog and asked to do a guest post. From there it would have reached a wider audience, and surely would have been submitted to whatever voting sites that audience liked, and then voted up according both to the merits of the story and the popularity of the site’s owner.The problem again is that my best connections were in the SEO/social media blogger world, which may not have helped me with the broader audience (it certainly would have torpedoed the story on Digg). But much more to the point, this was as much about getting my blog noticed (and certainly I was hoping for some links) as it was about pimping Scott’s story out to the biggest blog I could find. Now while I’m sure some might criticize me for the admission I just made (the shock, the horror, a blogger who writes something for recognition and links, oh my!) let’s be realistic, of course I was hoping to get something out of it (something in addition to speaking up for Scott and venting my outrage, both as a marketer and as a content producer): I wanted some kick-ass content on my blog.
  • Bait 3M Into Responding – It’s debatable whether 3M helped themselves when they refused to join the conversation, apologize or even acknowledge their growing reputation management issue . However, my suspicion is that if 3M had responded to any of the negative buzz around its brand, regardless of whether it cooled the outraged, initially at least it would have helped draw a lot of attention to my original post. Could I have done some things to put pressure on 3M’s marketing department (and in particular the eMarketing Supervisor who wrote the incriminating email) to respond? Certainly. But it was not my intention to embarrass a specific person (although googling her name shows that others were not as kind and included her full name in their own write-ups).Certainly if a story that you’re pushing to go hot contains some sort of controversy or involves other people, you can fan the flames by getting people to respond to the fight you’re picking. But it’s hard to do that and stay classy. I was not trying to gain popularity at any cost — in this particular case, getting into an internet brawl wasn’t going to serve my ultimate purpose.
  • Keep It Simple: One Story and One Story Only — Here’s where my mistake became immediately obvious just as soon as feedback started rolling in: I complicated the story unnecessarily by bringing up the issue of intellectual property rights. I love IPR debates but it distracted from the “tone deaf social marketing” angle, which should have been the only angle. Not only did it possibly dilute the power of the story, but it served as an annoying red herring that drew a lot of non-supportive comments on sites like Digg and Flickr (e.g., people focused too much on whether or not a copyright violation occurred and not on how stupid 3M’s actions were, regardless of the legality of what they did).If there’s one lesson that will stick with me about how to create a compelling narrative, it’s this one: focus on the one story you’re trying to sell, and don’t introduce distractions.

In hindsight, there are things I could have done better to draw attention to the story and my post. I did have some things going in my favor in terms of potential for going viral though: 1) It was an interesting story, not a marketing campaign. While I did have an “agenda”, it wasn’t about profit and there was a real hook. Those types of things tend to have the easiest time going hot. And 2) It was original. I had the inside skinny: Scott hadn’t talked to too many people about his experience and I was the only blogger he’d shared it with. Since I wasn’t up against any one else who might “break” the story before me, it meant I could take the time I needed to craft my post the way I wanted, including whatever elements I felt would make the post as compelling as possible.

So there you have it. While my original post never went into “the social media marketing lessons to be drawn from the 3M viral fiasco” (David Meerman Scott’s post does a nice job of that, if you’re interested), I’ve finally gotten around to putting down some notes on lessons learned from helping turn a simple failure into a fiasco in the first place.

Lastly, I want to give a big thanks to all the sites that wrote-up and gave their input on the story of 3M’s viral marketing screw-up. Couldn’t have done it without you!

In particular:

Comments (7)

Category: Social Media


Comment by Scott Hepburn

Made Friday, 9 of January , 2009 at 9:32 pm

Wow, Melanie — nice post mortem on the 3M debacle! This is a great blueprint for how to “work” social media — a reminder that you have to do more than slap up a post and fire off a Tweet about it.

Comment by malcolm coles

Made Monday, 12 of January , 2009 at 5:15 pm

Talking of things going wrong, the links on your blog commenters have gone weird (they go …com%20rel= etc). The external/nofollow thingamybob seems mushed into the URL. So they won’t work in firefox 3, and safari gives up. Just so you know!

Comment by Kelley Mitchell

Made Wednesday, 14 of January , 2009 at 1:57 am

While I was entertained by your original post on the 3M debacle and appreciated getting the whole story, I was more impressed with this post on what you would have done differently.

The first post was about how a large corporation screwed up and there didn’t seem much I could learn in regards to my own small, I mean tiny, company. But this post had much more value because of multiple takeaways by sharing what you learned.

We also learned more about you as a person like when you mention being mindful of your friend’s reputation and your choice not to ridicule specific people at3M.

This was an excellent post. Thanks for sharing.

Comment by Melanie Phung

Made Wednesday, 14 of January , 2009 at 9:22 am

@malcolm – thanks for the heads up. I can see where the code is borked; I’ll work on getting that fixed as quickly as I can.

Comment by Melanie Phung

Made Wednesday, 14 of January , 2009 at 11:12 am

Thanks for the great feedback, Kelley! Comments like that are really valuable to me.

I would like to think, however, that there are lessons for a small business in my original post as well. Core principles like respecting the consumers (and potential brand evangelists) and understanding their power in today’s media environment, are applicable to anyone with a business. While a very small business may not undertake a massive social media marketing campaign, it can still suffer the consequences if a badly treated customer/vendor chooses to air his grievances online.

If you boil it down, 3M had to weigh two options: work with the photographer or copy his photo and risk a backlash. (Alternatively, they could have picked some other subject to shoot, so make that three options.) What was that risk avoidance worth to them? Did they even factor in the risk?

I’m sure you as a small business owner face choices all the time – e.g., cut a corner and save a couple of bucks, or hold to a higher standard to keep customers around? Cheat, lie, steal and be disrespectful… or do right by people? In the end, I think the online lessons aren’t all that much different from off-line lessons. (It’s just that everything online tends to be amplified.)

Comment by Kelley Mitchell

Made Thursday, 15 of January , 2009 at 2:30 am

Hello Melanie,

I see what you mean. Thanks for your comments.


Comment by steve booth

Made Wednesday, 25 of February , 2009 at 4:33 pm

hey Melanie,
The title of this post caught my eye. I used to work for 3M, and have always admired them. That said, I read your original post, and am disappointed in my old company. I don’t see why they didn’t give the guy credit and some money. Looks like they may learn a painful message in social media and karma. steve booth

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