Microsoft, Amazon and Zynga: How to Exploit Japan's Natural Disaster

Last Updated Mar 14, 2011 1:11 PM EDT

Hitching a marketing campaign to a charitable endeavor is always tricky. How does a company do some good for itself as well as the worthy cause without looking like it's run by exploitive sleazebags? The upheaval in Japan has provided ample evidence of how not to do it with social media, as Twitter users slam Microsoft (MSFT) for offering a dollar a retweet of its original Twitter message, up to $100,000.

But Microsoft has only been the largest and most notable transgressor, not the only one. A number of companies have tied a response to earthquake and tsunami relief to getting a specific social media response, whether in the form of passing on a message over Twitter or getting people to friend them on Facebook. In doing so, they have crossed the boundary into a perception of only offering help to get attention.

The potential problems of connecting social media to international events became clear when Kenneth Cole tried to joke that people in Egypt were rising up over a fashion collection. The backlash of popular criticism and mockery was severe.

Microsoft didn't display such obvious bad taste, but made the mistake of only offering to donate to a Japan relief fund if its audience would take some action. The classic version of this is to donate a certain sum for each product purchased, up to a certain point. Today's version is to tie donations to social media actions that in theory build the company's brand. Microsoft wasn't the only offender:
Not all people get irate over this sort of approach, but many do. Here's why:
  • The company can come across as primarily interested in getting attention. If you do something for it, it will do something for the cause. Essentially, the corporation uses sympathy and guilt to turn people into mercenaries.
  • The company puts the onus for donation on the customer or prospect. In Zygna's case, literally all the donations come from the users, as the company essentially acts as a financial transfer station. Zygna did not say that it would part with even one dime of its own. Amazon explicitly says that it is just collection, even though the Red Cross can take its own donations directly.
  • The caps are often low, given that the average value of a Facebook fan is supposedly more than $136. Really, Microsoft can't part with more than $100,000 without feeling pain?
A study last year by PR giant Edelman found that 86 percent of consumers worldwide expect companies to give equal weight to society's interests as to their own business interests. Furthermore, they can become critical when the activities seem to benefit the corporate brand more than society.

Microsoft, Amazon, Zygna, Spark Energy, and AViiQ all could have done better by stating what they would donate and then using social networks to spread information on how individuals could further help. Not only will the attempts to buy attention look sordid, but they are at best temporary, as there is no real connection between the consumers and the corporations.

Google (GOOG) showed a more useful, effective, and intelligent approach. Although it didn't mention making a donation, it gave a link to the Japanese Red Cross and provided extensive resources as well as tools for displaced persons to make their whereabouts known and for friends and loved ones to find them. Now there's the way to make a name for yourself by being helpful, not by asking to be loved.

Related: Image: morgueFile user jdurham, site standard license.
  • Erik Sherman On Twitter»

    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.

Comments