Pretty much everyone seems to agree that Bing's recent attempt to promote itself on Twitter using the on-going disaster in Japan was, well, a marketing disaster in itself. For those who missed it, Microsoft -- hoping to get some publicity for Bing, while appearing to be charitable --promised to donate $1 for every re-tweet of a message whose only content was, in essence, the invitation to re-tweet it.
Now, it's entirely possible the whole idea was just irredeemably bad, bad, bad -- and if that's the case, I'm sure readers will let me know after reading this column. Because I was thinking about it, and I'm tempted to play devil's advocate: maybe the basic idea wasn't so awful, just the execution.
Before everyone piles on, please hear me out. I think the key question in this case is to identify what, exactly, was so offensive about the promotion. Yes, there's the tawdry motivation, not to mention the vacuous chain letter feel of the whole thing, which weren't exactly stellar... but nor were they really so egregious, especially if you concede that any charitable effort by a marketer is frankly intended to -- in addition to doing good -- reflect some positive light on the brand; to suggest otherwise is naïve or disingenuous.
No, the real problem with Bing's ill-fated Twitter campaign wasn't the motivation, in my opinion. It was the scale: specifically, it was the $100,000 cap on donations, which just made the whole thing look cheap, stingy and insincere. Given the incredible scale of destruction in Japan -- the latest damage estimate is $100 billion, and sadly that could easily double -- the idea of a giant corporation like Microsoft chipping in $100,000, and acting like this is a big deal, is both laughable and insulting (scrambling to contain the PR damage, Microsoft basically admitted this with its subsequent pledge of $2 million in cash and software... no re-tweeting needed).
So, yes: it was a mediocre idea at best, which was then terribly executed. But now imagine that we scrap the $100,000 cap on donations, and instead make it $10 million, or $20 million, or even $50 million? I can hear Microsoft's chief marketing officers beginning to hyperventilate, but what if Microsoft offered to donate up to $100 million based on re-tweets of that stupid little message? Or simply got rid of the cap altogether, and agreed to donate whatever amount people could generate by re-tweeting (within a reasonable amount of time, say three months)? You can't deny that it would generate a lot of publicity... and it would probably be positive, on the whole, especially if the result was a social media campaign generating $200 million for relief efforts in Japan (Twitter currently has about 200 million members).
Of course, Microsoft might not be willing to pony up real cash to help relief efforts in Japan. But in that case it should definitely steer clear of insulting, penny ante social media stunts, as the popular reaction to this campaign just illustrated; better not to even try.