Social media has a universal truth, according to Rick Wion, director of social media for McDonald's U.S.A.
"You don't control things. You can only hope to steer things in certain directions."
Over the past few years, McDonald's has aptly maneuvered the social-media steering wheel. Despite a wrong turn here and there, its video campaigns, hashtags, and blogger outreach have paid off.
A misstep, in perspective
That wrong turn—in which the promoted hashtag #McDStories led to some unwelcome comments about McDonald's experiences and some plain old trash talk—wasn't as bad as some reports made it out to be, Wion points out.
The hashtag was part of a campaign to showcase the company's food suppliers. Initially, the campaign used the hashtag #MeetTheFarmers, but it switched midstream to #McDStories.
"By doing so, we're actually able to get more traction out of the ad buy," Wion says. "It's almost kind of like a two-for-one."
Soon after the changeover, "the conversation started to change," Wion says. The brand saw about 2,000 mostly negative comments in about two hours.
"There are a lot of people who are trying to make a name for themselves by trying to be funny on Twitter," he says.
McDonald's switched the promoted tag back to #MeetTheFarmers within an hour of noticing the adverse reaction, and in about 15 minutes or so, the whole thing was over, Wion says. He notes that in the time people were using the #McDStories hashtag, people mentioned Egg McMuffins five times as much.
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"The rest of the conversation that took place that day, #MeetTheFarmers, there was 10 times more conversation about that, and it was almost all positive," he says.
The whole incident showed that some hashtags can open brands up to a beating. "If anything, the lesson of #McDStories is that we can be an easy target for people who are uninformed."
It's fine to be creative with hashtags, he says, but it's better not to create tags that people assume mean something they don't. The #MeetTheFarmers tag worked because "there was a curiosity factor to it," Wion says. The puzzle is in piquing curiosity and being specific in just 14 characters, the maximum for effective hashtags.
Meeting the farmers
The #MeetTheFarmers tag was part of an awareness campaign to give customers a better idea of where McDonald's food comes from. McDonald's tweets with the tag drove people to videos showcasing suppliers of potatoes, beef, chicken, lettuce, and coffee.
Advertising agency DDB created the videos with the help of the company, which helped pick the four featured farmers, who have all been with the brand for a good, long time.
"We have these great stories," Wion says. "We have very tight relationships with our supply chain. It was a matter of looking back to our supply-chain partners and saying, 'There are lots of farmers that supply McDonald's; let's find some that represent a good cross-section of all we have.'"
When the campaign started, Wion was really surprised by some of the reaction.
"When we started the Meet the Farmers campaign, I never realized how many farmers there are using social media, and how active and engaged they are." "We saw a ton of farmers on Twitter raising their hand to say: 'I'm a farmer. I sell food to McDonald's.'"
In that environment, the #MeetTheFarmers tweets got retweeted and favorited quite a bit. The three supplier videos posted on YouTube have each gotten about 300,000 views.
For six years, McDonald's has been working with bloggers to boost its brand, but the company never insists that its affiliated bloggers write a word.
"We want to be transparent in our relationships, and we want our bloggers to be authentic in their opinions," Wion says. "We don't want them to hold back if they have an opinion that isn't totally positive."
For example, one blogger who's a fervent fan of the brand said she wasn't too big on the chain's new blueberry oatmeal. Wion told her to say so on her blog, because being positive all the time detracts from credibility.
McDonald's chooses bloggers with guidance from a team of about a half-dozen who use Radian6 tools to monitor what's being said about the brand.
"We do a lot of research, a lot of homework, to learn about bloggers who are talking about our brand," Wion says. "We want to find folks who are talking about us, and we're not necessarily looking for people who are writing long, glowing blog posts."
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Initially, the company simply contacts bloggers with a quick informational note, asking whether they're interesting in learning more about the brand and in some free samples.
"We try to keep it very informal at the start, because every blogger is different," Wion says. "We know that not everyone's going to want to work with us, and that's OK."
If the blogger is interested, McDonald's may eventually bring him or her to its headquarters for a tour or to a conference. Many of the bloggers the company works with are mom bloggers, as The New York Times pointed out in its article about McDonald's marketing efforts, but they aren't the only ones.
"Moms are our priority, but we also reach out to different groups for different reasons," Wion says.
For example, the brand recently reached out to sports bloggers in advance of the McDonald's All-American basketball game. The company has worked with food bloggers, particularly those that focus on hamburgers. Even fitness bloggers are in the mix.
"There's stuff all up and down our menu that fits all kinds of lifestyles," Wion says.
Matt Wilson is a staff writer for Ragan.com.