Anatomy of a Viral Marketing Failure

Brown's Chicken is in need of a revival. Although a Chicago institution, the restaurant chain suffered major damage in the wake of a horrific mass murder at one of their locations in 1993. Recent news has brought that painful memory back to the spotlight - Brown's just can't seem to move past it. So it makes sense that a rebranding effort be launched.

The words "chicken" and "viral" aren't exactly pleasant bedfellows. Of course, we're talking about viral marketing here, not a deadly epidemic. But when Brown's Chicken recently tried their hand at a viral marketing campaign, the results were downright toxic.

About a month ago, an @ message landed on one of my Twitter accounts. It came from @SNiHatching: *bzzt* *bzzt* *bzzt* *bzzt* (something new is hatching)

My first thought when seeing this update was ... SPAM. There is no indication who this tweet is from, nor where the link will lead. But in the spirit of investigation (and because it's my job) I clicked the link. But I can't be sure that most people would take the risk of clicking a cryptic link from an unkown sender. This was the first indication that this viral campaign was off to a rocky start.

The link leads to this YouTube video, announcing the website and campaign. At the end of the video is the campaign URL and the Brown's Chicken logo. Naturally, the URL was my next destination. So far, I have no idea what this campaign is all about.

Over at the website, I am presented with the landing page seen here. Now, I'm ready to discover what's behind the campaign.

  1. brown's chicken see for yourself. This leads to a page with four videos. Each is a variation of the video linked from Twitter. None, however, explain anything about the campaign, the restaurant, or what to expect whenever this new thing "hatches." Also lacking is any indication of what to do next - no call to action.

  2. what is hatching? This leads to a brief explanation, including this: "Over the next year, Brown's is hatching new changes from the ground up. We're not certain exactly what all the changes will be." Also, "Chicago has been with us since 1949 and it's time we give back. Something new is hatching. Brown's is changing. And we're changing for the better." At this point I've come to understand something is going to change. However, I have no indication as to what it will be, and apparently neither does Brown's. That doesn't exactly instill confidence or excitement in me. It could be anything. And frankly, I've already clicked enough times through this campaign that I'm losing interest ... in nothing.

  3. tell a friend. Let's say I was so intrigued, that I want to share this campaign with a friend. Fine - click the link and enter a friend's e-mail address. The only problem? It doesn't work. No e-mail was received.

  4. what is new? Here's what you get when that link is clicked: "Coming Soon!" Well, thanks for nothing ... again.

  5. At the bottom of the landing page, you'll notice a few links for Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Of course, this must be the path to discovery. Let's look at those three touch points.

Twitter: The Twitter page has exactly nine total updates, starting with one from September 14 and ending with one from September 24. None of the updates give any useful information. Also, the Twitter account has 15 followers, and they follow just 14 people.

Facebook: The Facebook page has exactly one update, from September 14. There are 35 fans (somehow) and no further information.

YouTube: The YouTube channel has one subscriber and two videos - that's two fewer videos than the number of videos available from the landing page. That's a lack of consistency and a lost opportunity for maximum viewership.

Brown's Social Media Meltdown

Social media can be a powerful viral marketing tool. But it is not a "set it and forget it" medium. Success depends on several factors, three of which are consistency, activity and strategy. The Something New Is Hatching campaign appears to have failed in all areas.

You don't want to give everything away at once with these promotions. Teasers are good - you want people to have a feeling of anticipation so they look forward to the next piece of the puzzle. But Brown's offers nothing more than "something is hatching." Through every channel where this campaign exists, there is absolutely nothing that compels the user to check back for updates, subscribe to updates or  - most important - share with a friend. The only real option to share is the e-mail function ... that doesn't function.

A successful viral marketing campaign through social media requires grooming. This campaign seems to have involved a miniscule two weeks worth of work - and not much work at that. Success on Twitter requires updates, and something of value that other Twitter users will want to "retweet" to their followers. And every Twitter marketer needs to follow some people to get the ball rolling. Brown's could have started following thousands of people (targeted by city) and provided incentive to get more followers, such as coupons.

Another Chicago restaurant with a rich local history is Superdawg, a hot dog drive-in. They also use social media for branding and campaigns. Superdawg's Twitter account has 1,737 followers (as of this writing) and they follow 1,721 other Twitter users. Their last tweet was just 19 hours ago. And, their updates are timely and useful, like this: - 4th generation Superdawger celebrating Halloween as an @superdawg.

And this one: If you come by @superdawg counter in a costume today, say trick or treat & we'll give you a free order of fries.

That's quite a difference from *bzzt* *bzzt* *bzzt* *bzzt* (something new is hatching). Superdawg's tweets are interesting; they include photographs of actual customers. They are timely and useful; they tweeted a Halloween special, on time.

Brown's Chicken has a problem. Perhaps what's most damaging about this failed campaign is the now total loss of trust. Everything indicates that Brown's strong suit is not following through - can I trust that these "changes" will actually occur? As a user, I also got the feeling that my time was being wasted. And at no point did I feel compelled to share that someting exciting was coming from Brown's. Instead of building buzz, Brown's has given me the impression of a lazy, incompetent franchise.

In all fairness, perhaps they are simply understaffed or their big changes have been delayed. Either way, this campaign should not have been launched if it wasn't "all systems go." Or, if a snag did come up, at least communicate with the public.

If you want to launch a viral marketing campaign, it's imperative that it's well-planned and you're ready for the work that comes with it. Huge successes can be had. But damage can ensue if you don't follow up on your promises. You must provide value and you cannot waste users' time.