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Before March 2009, there probably weren’t too many strong opinions held about Skittles, one of the many brands belonging to candy giant Mars, Inc. The rainbow-colored treat was just another sticky-and-sweet brand—loved by sugar addicts, despised by dentists—and perhaps best known for its original red packaging and its famous “Taste the Rainbow” tagline. An innovative marketing campaign, however, changed all that, pitting two factions against each other on opposite sides of the rainbow.
One Monday in March, a new message graced the Skittles.com homepage reading, “Skittles.com is home to everywhere you already are. Yes, it sounds strange, but it’s true.” The traditional home page was gone, replaced instead by something that looked eerily like a Twitter search-results screen—which, in fact, is what it was: Skittles.com was forwarding to a dynamic view of search.twitter.com. Any Twitter user who mentioned “Skittles” in a tweet would wind up on the Skittles home page. All of them—even the ones containing expletives.
That was just Day One. The next day, Skittles.com was the brand’s Facebook page. As the week progressed, if you visited the Skittles home page, you’d have found the brand’s Wikipedia entry, its Flickr page, and its YouTube mentions. It was a bold campaign—and apparently a compelling one: According to Web-traffic specialist Hitwise, the site saw a 1,332 percent jump in traffic on the first day.
The marketing measure certainly got people talking. First, users flocked to Twitter and then Facebook to post Skittles-specific comments in the desire to see their piece of the conversation hit the Skittles social Web site. Second, people began to talk about the campaign’s significance in a broader sense. Was this a brilliant use of social media—or was it a cop-out? Even marketing analysts and social media experts voiced views all over the spectrum of what the Skittles campaign means for the future of social media marketing.
Denis Pombriant, founder and principal of Beagle Research, wrote the following on his blog: “As marketing, Skittles on Twitter makes perfect sense. It establishes the rule that an inconsequential product should have inconsequential (and free) marketing. Skittles on Twitter might save a small fortune in ad expense—and while it may not be reflected in the price, the savings will definitely be reflected in the brand’s bottom line.” Pombriant went on to predict that, in the future, brands looking to do free and viral marketing using social media will “skittle” their campaigns. Skittles is more than a candy now, he said—it’s a verb.
“It’s awesome that they’re doing this,” says Chris Carfi, author of the blog The Social Customer Manifesto. “But certain things sit at that intersection of what can be crowdsourced and what can only come from the organization,” he points out. A visitor often arrives at the Web site with a goal; if the content on that site leaves her unable to achieve it, the frustration will detract from the value.
It also can be argued that corporations using user-generated content to self-promote can only go so far until customers start to feel exploited. Customers are willing to converse about brands, but they often feel differently about being used to help sell products.
Skittles did manage to do what social media experts are urging: Follow the critical mass and go where the people are. Will the effort sell more candy? Well, multiplying Web-site views 1,300 times certainly can’t hurt business.
“When did that mentality settle in—that you can’t just build it and hope they’ll come?” asks Forrester analyst Lisa Bradner. She says that people now seem to be realizing that simply having a presence on the Web is critical—and can yield results. And Skittles can only hope its social sugar rush won’t be followed by a sugar crash.
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