Planning for a promotional crisis

21 Feb 2018

When your promotional campaign goes wrong, it can go really wrong. And like a rock rolling down a mountain, unless addressed quickly it will pick up momentum on the way. Of course, the rock will eventually stop but the bumpy journey of a promotional crisis can eat up valuable management time, cost, client trust and potentially even brand reputation. What steps can you take to plan for a crisis?

Things rarely go exactly as expected, particularly when consumers are involved. Promotions can over-redeem and break the budget. Uncomfortable, yes. Manageable through promotional risk insurance, yes. A crisis? No. You can run out of stock of gifts or prizes and disappoint your consumers by a delay or alternative. The promotional website can’t cope with the volume of traffic. All far from ideal but if managed properly there’s no need for this to be a crisis.

Clearly it is the Promoter’s duty to remain ethical to uphold the brand's reputation. This is a fair transaction: a consumer does something in return for something, and a brand should be trusted to keep its word. If a consumer is complaining that they didn’t get what was promised to them, the rules to manage are simple: isolate the incident; treat each specific complaint seriously; investigate fully; respond quickly, honestly and fully and deliver what was promised. Maybe throw in a gesture of goodwill.

Events can become crises if your consumers start to maneuver against you. And consumers are different now. If the promotional transaction breaks down and they believe that they are not receiving what they feel is due to them, they will make it known in a visible and public way seeking to bring harm to the brand. Brand owners and agencies have collectively trained consumers to behave like this with the tempting reward of free stuff. The louder the cries, the more free stuff is thrown in their direction.

But should we trust what all consumers are saying? How can we identify consumers with legitimate complaints versus consumers who are trying it on? Things get murky when consumers are not behaving in line with the rules of the transaction. And this group of consumers is growing.

Promotional trolls

An industry that was created to provide consumers with entertainment and added value is now feeding a growing cohort of “professional” compers – consumers who view promotional participation like work. And like work, they expect to be fairly remunerated for their time. They feel entitled to a reward commensurate with the time and effort expended rather than what they are fairly entitled to through the rules of the transaction.

If there’s a way for a consumer to break the system, they will. Promotionally savvy consumers are smart and well connected which means that the secret gets out in public. Maybe a consumer has found a way to enter a promotion under different identities and wins more prizes than they are allowed. Or has found a way to vote hundreds of times for Boaty McBoatface. Although that consumer is not “allowed” to do this under your rules of the transaction, they will certainly believe they are entitled to the rewards because they have invested the time. Or maybe they will just fabricate something entirely. Even if it’s a lie, if they shout loud enough, as they’ve been trained, maybe the brand will pay them off? But these are not consumers with a valid complaint. These are the army of promotional trolls. Blackmailing threats to go to the police, notify the press, complain to the ASA. Their collective actions can trigger what appears to be a crisis. And much of the noise created is not even reflective of how the promotion is run or how the brand is behaving. It’s a pseudo-crisis. But it still needs to be managed carefully.

Planning for a crisis

Promotional campaigns always need to be crisis-planned. Rigorous planning will help ensure the rules of transaction are clear and allow you to weed out the trolls from your real consumers. They will also allow you to confidently say no. There are a few planning rules:

  • Evidence of proof of purchase - if applicable
  • Watertight Terms and Conditions
  • Protection from the financial risks of over-redemption
  • Prize/Gift availability
  • Negative “what if?” scenario planning – put yourself in the mind of a cunning consumer
  • Think carefully about how any user generated content is moderated/filtered
  • Secure, load-tested digital platform
  • Plan for access to a robust and irrefutable digital/paper trail
  • Protocols for speedy complaint investigation and internal escalation

Can we ever just say no to these have-a-go consumers?

It does take a brave brand to tell a consumer that they cannot receive their prize/reward/free stuff and/or enter again. This is like telling them that the time they have invested in entering, or even complaining, has been wasted and is worthless. And many of these consumers are not used to hearing the word no. It’s not always going to go down well.

Before considering saying no, brand owners (and it should be a brand owner not an agency decision) need to be 100% confident they have reason to do so – they will need to be able to defend this decision. Is the consumer being fair or unfair, truthful or dishonest? It’s often a moral decision. And the moral high road may be quite exposed.

If that consumer is to be denied, they need to be provided with full detail and right to respond. Consider having an actual human conversation with the consumer. Be prepared to “consider this matter closed”.

Simple rules

Make the rules of transaction clear. Put robust plans in place. Jump into action. Look after your consumers well and honorably. Manage the trolls carefully. Be confident in your decisions.

Planning for a promotional crisis

A promotional crisis can swallow up a load of management time, cost, client trust and potentially even brand reputation. What steps can you take to plan for a crisis?