Complete this sentence: I shop at Waitrose because...
This was the innocuous seeming tweet posted on the store's Twitter account, which has more than 33,000 followers, accompanied by the hashtag #WaitroseReasons. The tweet prompted a barrage of responses, but presumably not of the kind that had been hoped for by the Waitrose team. Many users responded with comical answers, poking fun at the store's upmarket reputation.
Among the tweets were I shop at Waitrose because it makes me feel important and I absolutely detest being surrounded by poor people. And I shop at Waitrose because Tesco doesn't stock Unicorn food. As the tweets poured in, some questioned whether it was a social media fail or a brilliant publicity stunt?
The messages certainly did not harm the supermarket's reputation as the favoured store of the affluent but they did not support more recent efforts made by the store to try to lure recession hit customers back to Waitrose.
In 2009 it launched its 'essential Waitrose' range in an attempt to win over customers that had abandoned the chain in favour of cheaper outlets such as Asda, Lidl and Aldi. So assuming the reaction wasn't intentional, what went wrong with the store's use of Twitter hashtags? And do experts believe there is such thing as a poorly chosen hashtag?
Waitrose is not the only big name to learn its lesson the hard way. Previous casualties include Australian airline Qantas, which incurred the wrath of Twitter users after launching a #QantasLuxury promotion just one day after talks with unions broke down, leaving thousands of passengers stranded worldwide. Earlier this year McDonald's pulled its #McDStories Twitter campaign after a barrage of negative tweets.
And even American President Barack Obama found himself on the receiving end of derision after a campaign fundraising hashtag was hijacked by critics. Would be donors to his campaign were asked to pledge money in return for the chance to win dinner with the President on election night. But in a reaction that irked Democrats the #dinnerwithbarack was tweeted alongside wisecracks such as They' ll be serving lame duck.
In the case of Waitrose, Jon Silk, head of digital at Waggener Edstrom, believes asking open-ended questions on Twitter is a dangerous route, especially if the ultimate objective is seeking praise.
'Asking questions can work if it's focused around a product launch. But in the case of Waitrose they were basically asking the Internet: tell us why are we so great,' he explains.
'The response from the public would be the same if you ran a billboard campaign of the same nature.'
Chris Reed, founder of Restless Communications, who works across social media across Fishburn Hedges and 77, thinks companies need to have a targeted approach on Twitter.
'Understand what people want to talk about, find content that really resonates and give it to them,' he suggests.
Public becoming more social media literate
And Reed also thinks the approach used by Waitrose could become increasingly fraught with danger for companies as people become more social media literate. He says: 'There is a temptation to kick back at what brands are doing, finishing sentences can be effective for some brands but I question if it's worth doing for others.'
Silk reckons the open ended question Twitter approach could be more appropriate for a B2B audience than a B2C audience, explaining: 'When you operate in a focused area you can get useful replies.'
But consumers increasingly want and indeed, expect to be heard, says Paul Sutton, head of social communications at BOTTLE PR, and the open ended question is a way of facilitating that.
'There's an element of risk with any brand that engages online or invites the input of customers. But that doesn't mean it shouldn't be encouraged,' he says.
'Unfortunately, where both #WaitroseReasons and #McDStories both fell down was in overestimating positive public sentiment towards their respective brands '
Charlotte Beckett, head of digital at the Good Agency, agrees. 'It's not the hashtag itself that is at fault, rather the brand's reputation, and how they handle themselves on social media. If things take a negative turn, use your right to respond. If people make mistakes (as they will), handle it in a human way,' she explains.
Sutton suggests keeping the campaign hashtag short and catchy. 'Of far more importance is considering all aspects of the campaign: what you're asking people to do, how might they respond, what are their motivations in responding, what negatives may arise and how you will deal with these,' he says.
Finally he suggests that any Twitter hashtag campaign should be conducted only after undertaking a period of listening to what people are saying about your brand on the platform.
So did #WaitroseReasons stand any chance of being a resounding success?
'Perhaps if it had been more integrated,' Silk says. 'In this case it was inconsistent with the brand's other advertising. It focused on Twitter as a platform rather than Waitrose; in other words, it focused on the channel rather than the brand. Other options would have been to run an integrated campaign involving direct mail outs with a link to social media or maybe the supermarket could have found a way of engaging with people who were currently shopping and encouraging them to engage on social media.'
There needs to be a reward, says Silk, and incentivising consumers with vouchers is one option.
'Brands want to be our friends but they aren't our friends. I think it's about treating the customer with more respect. You can't just take from the consumer, you have to give something back,' concludes Silk.