When good bots go bad.

For lovers of social media and all things Twitter, you’re probably familiar with a twitterbot. (Never heard of a one? It’s essentially a programme used to produce automated Twitter posts, or to automatically follow Twitter users). Some bots are a nuisance, but some are created to make the internet a better place.

Well, that was certainly the plan when Coke created their Twitter campaign, #Makeithappy. In Coke’s quest for ultimate happiness, they encouraged Twitter users to mark negative tweets with the #MakeitHappy hashtag. Coke’s twitterbot turned the negativity into cute pieces of art using just letters and numerals, then tweeted the image. What could possibly go wrong? Well, thanks to the online editorial, Gawker, lots.

Gawker created their own twitterbot that sent excerpts of Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf’ to Coke’s twitterbot, who then created cute pictures from the text. Of course, this caused all kinds of Twitter outrage. But this situation raises some very interesting questions. Was Gawker mean-spirited to subvert the bot in this way? Did it teach Coke a lesson about happiness? Or did it just make the internet a worse place to be? Hard to answer.

But all above all else, this situation highlights a very interesting issue. As much as real-time campaigns increase engagement and create stronger brand loyalty, there are dangers. And it seems Coke paid the ultimate price, because they eventually pulled the campaign. You could argue that Coke was being negligent. If they weren’t going to pay close attention to their output, then did they feed the internet trolls willingly? Quite possibly.

Could Coke have prevented their twitterbot from spreading the words of Mein Kampf? Definitely. Did they need to pay closer attention to the campaign as it was unfolding? Definitely, again. The real take-out, is that there’s best practice for everything – and just because a campaign is real-time, it still needs to curated as much as any other.

There’s a careful balancing act that needs to be performed here. The art of making communications feel spontaneous and in the moment, while making sure there are procedures in place to manage the output. However, doing things in real-time does have its rewards when done right. When it’s relevant, targeted and above all else, carefully moderated, it can be a true business-building asset.

One great example of a successful real-time campaign is the Domino’s billboard in Times Square. They displayed both positive and negative customer feedback in near real-time on a digital billboard. But only – and here’s the key – after carefully vetting the content. This perceived real-time content, coupled with a refreshing honestly, not only engaged the middle of New York, but also helped create brand advocates among Twitter users. It was a win-win for everyone involved.

Of course, real-time campaigns aren’t for everyone. But if an opportunity to run a real-time campaign presents itself, don’t dismiss it purely based on the Coke incident. Instead, ask questions about how to make it fool-prove. How to make sure it can’t be derailed, and implement a robust curating method that makes sure your campaign isn’t hijacked into closure. Figure out how you can make it a reality, because if you pull it off, then the rewards can be absolute gold. Just don’t leave it all up to a twitterbot.

Author: Adam Taylor (Creative)