Mars’ Bold Social Media Experiment

Candy maker Skittles rocked the media last week by giving over its entire home page to a list of Twitter postings labeled with the #skittles hash tag. The experiment initially provoked excitement, then doubt and finally alarm as pranksters used the opportunity to post all manner of negative and even obscene comments that had very little to do with the fruit candy.

As the volume of trash talk swelled, Mars Snackfood US pulled down the Twitter search page and replaced it with a Facebook profile. Today the site features a Wikipedia entry. Skittles’ branding consists of an overlay window that links to various references to the product in social media outposts. Basically, Mars reconfigured the brand’s website as a package of consumer-generated content.

A lot of people are trashing Mars for this bold experiment. “Disastrous” says Apryl Duncan on “Gimmicky” says VentureBeat. “Humiliating disaster” says SmartCompany. While some people are praising Mars for originality, the early consensus is that this campaign is not a good idea for the Skittles brand.

Bold Move

I beg to differ. While Mars certainly could have better anticipated the frat-boy efforts to undermine the program, the Skittles experiment is a bold statement about where the company is taking its marketing tactics. Full disclosure: I’ve had the opportunity to work with some of the Mars marketers on a paid basis over the past year. Unlike many other corporations I’ve encountered, these people get it. Sure, they’re still feeling their way through the process of working with uncensored customer conversations, but they’re on the right track and they’re taking the right risks.

In January, Mars held a day-long offsite meeting with more than 100 of its global marketers to talk about word-of-mouth marketing. I was there, along with many of the company’s agency and branding partners. I was impressed with the commitment the company is making to understanding and working with social media. While many of their peers still regard online forums with a mixture of suspicion and disgust, the Mars marketers see it as an opportunity. They’re also fully aware of the risks. One breakout session at the meeting was devoted almost entirely to an analysis of Johnson & Johnson’s Motrin Moms fiasco.

There’s no question Mars could have thought through this experiment somewhat better. Twitter was a bad place to start and under the circumstances, some filtering would have been appropriate. However, the whole concept of giving over the Skittles Web presence to customer conversations is daring and innovative. It’s unfortunate that some of the same people who trash brands for not being more hip to social media are now trashing Mars for almost being too hip.

Proof in the Pudding

Also, look at the coverage this story has generated: The Wall Street Journal, LA Times, Fast Company, CNET and the list goes on and on. If you believe Oscar Wilde’s theory that “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about,” then this campaign is a hit. If Skittles sales don’t jump 15% in the next month, I’ll eat a bag of the candy, including the bag.

Experimentation is central to new media marketing and negative reactions to bold ideas are nothing to be feared. Nearly three years ago, General Motors invited visitors to stitch together their own video ads for the Chevrolet Tahoe SUV (right). About 15% of the videos people created were negative, prompting critics to call the campaign a disaster. But inside General Motors the project was considered an unqualified success. The Tahoe hit 30% market share shortly after the Web promotion began, outpacing its closest competitor two to one.

The Skittles campaign is outside-the-box thinking. Despite its shortcomings, it deserves praise.

Special Conference Discount for Subscribers!
Search engine optimization firm Hubspot came up with the best term I’ve heard for the new style of marketing that emphasizes conversation, linking and social media awareness: “inbound marketing.” It’s about enticing customers to come to you by offering them something of value.

My colleagues at CrossTech Media, which presented last fall’s New Marketing Summit conference in Boston, like the concept, too. So we’ve teamed up with Hubspot to present the Inbound Marketing Summit (IMS) next Month in San Francisco. We’ll present at least three IMS conferences this year (Dallas is in May and Boston is in September), serving marketers who are convinced that the world is changing forever and who want to drive a new form of high-quality engagement and turbo-charge their careers.

David Meerman Scott

In San Francisco, we’ll have web 2.0 visionaries like Tim O’Reilly, Chris Brogan, David Meerman Scott (left), Jason Falls and Brian Solis on the program. More importantly, we’ll have practitioners from companies like Cirque du Soleil, Harley Davidson, French Maid TV and Microsoft talking about how they’re putting new media to work right now, achieving results and measuring those results.

We’ve co-located the conference with the New Communications Forum, now in its fifth year, presented by the Society for New Communications Research. That event also has a great lineup of speakers, some of whom will be presenting at both conferences. Like me.

Use discount code PAULVIP to save $200 on the registration fee. Just click on the badge above or right here.

Tip of the Week: SlideShare
If you give it a lot of presentations, then you’ll want to become familiar with Slideshare, a Web service that houses thousands of slide shows contributed by members. The site is a treasure trove of valuable data and strong images and members freely allow their contributions to be shared. You can view any slide show in the collection and many of the presentations can be downloaded as PDFs or full PowerPoints. Slideshare is also a good way to build your own visibility by submitting your branded presentations for others to use. It’s free, of course.

Just For Fun

One of my favorite new Internet companies is, a distributor of online greeting cards that bear delightfully cynical, snarky and even obscene messages. Someecards is to greetings what Despair is to motivational posters: an irreverent stick in the eye of an industry that suffers from unbearable cuteness. Now someecards has launched a user-generated companion site,, where visitors can work from a collection of templated illustrations to create their own bizarre messages. A sampling:

Who says user-generated content doesn’t have a future?

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