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The Skittles campaign and social media

|Includes: Baidu, Inc. (BIDU)

This piece first appeared in Imedia Connection

Co-authored by Ben Cavender, Charlotte MacAusland, and Shaun Rein 

To use social networking effectively as a marketing tool, brands must go a step beyond Skittles and actually be social.

Have you visited the Skittles homepage lately? If you are an avid user of Twitter there is a good chance you have. During the first week of March, Twitter users were bombarded with messages related to Skittles and its choice to turn the homepage into a social networking hub. On March 2nd, visits to surged, bumping Skittles' average page rank from 251,309 all the way up to 45,818 according to 

Skittles generated all this buzz by tossing out its conventional webpage, replacing it with a rotation of redirects to a variety of popular social networking sites including a Twitter feed, a YouTube page highlighting Skittles ads, a Flickr stream linking to pictures tagged with the phrase Skittles, the Skittles Facebook page, and the Wikipedia entry on Skittles.

The campaign has two main problems, however, that marketers should note before launching a similar campaign. The first is that there is no clear way to censor users, which has lead to a variety of unsavory Twitter and Facebook posts, the sort of comments that one might expect to find posted to blogs by people who view the anonymity of the internet as a license to check all social graces at the keyboard. 

This is going to be an issue for any company that chooses to engage social media and encourage feedback from customers. Companies must decide up front if their brand can handle this, and think about how to encourage thoughtful posts while mitigating the bad. Erasing critical posts can also cause problems as bloggers can repost their critiques on their own sites, perhaps with more venom after being censored.

The second, larger problem with the Skittles campaign is that most of the dialogue runs one way. Skittles went from one extreme where they were pushing their content at consumers through a standard corporate website to the other end of the rainbow where customers essentially have their say about the brand without Skittles having much of a voice. The Skittles team does respond to posts on occasion on their Facebook feed but beyond that they are mostly silent, letting the trolls run free.

Skittles is making a smart choice in allowing users to post comments even if they are not supportive, as censorship can cause backlash, as can seeding your own comments on blogs. Online reactions are swift and violent and will far out balance the negative press caused by a handful of negative posts, however this does not mean that companies should remain detached. 

Instead, companies should use the platforms to openly build constructive discussion. For every user posting a comment about how dumb a campaign is or about how "chocolate Skittles suck" there will be two more who are willing to share constructive views about the product in question. Part of the allure of social media is that consumers make the content and companies see this as a cheap way to generate buzz. But this can be dangerous and also fails to utilize the biggest strength of social media, which is discussion going both ways. To use social media effectively, companies need to be transparent and own up to their posts and be there to provide responses.

Companies seeking to create buzz, build brand awareness, change brand perception, and ultimately sell products should consider the internet as an alternative to traditional above-the-line marketing, which can be hard to coordinate on a national scale. But to successfully implement social media as part of their marketing campaigns, companies need to clearly define their goals, understand how to interact with the target market, and make campaigns relevant beyond the short term. Still, while Skittles may not have executed their social media marketing campaign perfectly, they should get credit for trying something different, and the campaign shows a sign of things to come.

Skittles' current campaign might be more effective in a fast growing market like China, for example, where the internet is used by the younger, tech-savvy generation as a key forum for socializing and self expression, the generation that also happens to be the nation's trend setters and a key group for driving sales. 

China has an abundance of popular social media sites similar to the ones Skittles used in the US such as xiaonei(Facebook), fanfou (Twitter), Baidu Baike (Wikipedia), Yupoo (Flickr), and youku (YouTube). As in any other market, companies must avoid the temptation to censor criticism or seed complements here. Just last summer, two Chinese celebrities, actor Zhou Jie and actress and singer Jin Sha were busted when, the host of their blogs, upgraded its system and due to a bug revealed that certain complementary comments had been "posted by host", i.e. written by the celebrities themselves. Mockery spread quickly through the Chinese blogosphere and their reputations have still not recovered.

In China and elsewhere, there are plenty of social media sites to choose from, but to use social networking effectively as a marketing tool, companies must go a step beyond Skittles and actually be social. No matter what market such a campaign is targeting, there should also be a way to get consumers engaged beyond discussion. offers a way to be creative with its Facebook game Mix The Rainbow, but does not offer a way for consumers to benefit. I want my lifetime supply of Skittles and after flipping through the site, it is still unclear to me how I can get them. The novelty wears off fast.

Ben Cavender is a senior analyst, Charlotte MacAusland an analyst, and Shaun Rein a managing director with The China Market Research Group (CMR)