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Marketing, Social Media

How Not to Become a Social Media Casualty Like 50 Shades of Grey Author E.L. James


Using social media for online promotions can be a great tool for launching a new product. But if you’re not careful, it can go terribly wrong.

In 2013, J.P. Morgan Chase cancelled a Twitter chat after just a few hours because they were getting hounded with questions and negative comments about their role in the financial crisis.

In late 2014, Dr. Oz experienced a major Twitter fail when he asked his followers to send him their health questions. Instead of serious questions, he received sarcastic comments and snarky tweets questioning his medical advice.

The latest social media disaster is that of E.L James, otherwise known as the author of 50 Shades of Grey. Like the other examples mentioned, James and her PR team must have thought hosting a Twitter chat with fans would be a good idea to promote her new book Grey, which is the controversial story written from the male protagonist’s perspective. Boy were they wrong.

While the author got a few fan questions she was happy to answer, the #AskELJames hashtag quickly turned into a cross-examination of her writing skills and a way for people to voice their concerns over the sexually violent material.

Criticisms ranged from accusing E.L. James of not knowing how to write to calling her out for allegedly promoting abuse, alcohol manipulation and romanticizing rape. While we all know the 50 Shades brand is controversial, and while sometimes controversy can be a good thing, this is seriously not a good look for the author or her brand.

The question then becomes how can PR disasters like that of E.L James, J.P. Morgan Chase and Dr. Oz be avoided? You don’t have to be as visible as they are to have social media snafu, especially if your brand already lends itself to controversy or has been through a recent controversy. And even if your brand isn’t controversial, you still want to make sure your promotions are actually going to work. Here are some tips to help you steer clear of a Twitter catastrophe:

  1. Monitor your online reputation.

While 50 Shades of Gray certainly has a strong fan base, it probably isn’t online. In fact, all you have to do is Google “50 Shades of Grey” to find pages upon pages of critiques, catastrophes, calls for boycotts and full-blown takedowns. Even some proponents of BDSM, which you would think could possibly support the 50 Shades saga, have used the internet to publicly claim that the book has a potentially harmful way of portraying this lifestyle. Had James’ PR team done their homework and monitored the brand’s online reputation, they may have thought twice about doing an online promotion that inadvertently gave her detractors an opportunity to address her directly.

One of your primary concerns as a business owner is to monitor your online reputation. There are several ways you can do this and they can be as simple as setting up a Google Alert for your company name. Other methods include using a free service like Topsy where you can view all public and web data relating to your brand.

  1. Figure out where your fans hang out.

This is marketing 101 so it’s surprising that the 50 Shades team seems to have either completely forgotten about or just disregarded it all together. We already mentioned how E.L. James probably doesn’t have many online fans, so the question her team should have been asking was where her fans actually reside.

In the case of 50 Shades, E.L. James would have been much better off doing a surprise book signing or other in-person events. This would have gotten her a lot more positive press and helped her interact with people who actually like her work. The numbers regarding book sales seem to back this up.

E.L James smashed book sale records across the globe, even beating out Harry Potter as the fastest selling paperback of all time. Research studies, which have looked into the trilogy’s insane success, credit these book sales to middle aged women, many of which are probably not hanging out on Twitter. Additionally, some claim the book’s success is attributed to word of mouth, not social media or big PR campaigns. This alone should have been enough information for the author’s PR team to avoid online endeavors and shoot for events where the author can meet fans in person.

If you want to have a successful launch or promotion, you need to meet your audience where they reside. It’s no use trying to promote to a crowd that either hates your work or couldn’t care less. Your efforts shouldn’t revolve around convincing people to like you since you may never change their minds, but rather you should foster relationships with people who already like you.

  1. Don’t make things worse.

As if it wasn’t bad enough that someone on James’ team thought it would be a good idea to promote an openly divisive book on the internet’s most openly opinionated forum, they managed to make it worse for themselves by blocking Tweeters who brought up sexual abuse. Naturally, this made the situation so much worse.

Handling criticism of your work comes with the territory of putting yourself out there. If you can’t handle it, then you shouldn’t put yourself in a hot seat. Additionally, by not responding to constructive criticism (key word being constructive, not abusive) you send a bad message. Just because someone has a concern, as many have respectfully expressed with James’ work, doesn’t mean you should disregard them.

It would have been better for James or her team to respectfully have a debate or create some sort of forum where these issues can be discussed. However, this probably would have been impossible on a platform like Twitter, which is just another reason this event should have never taken place.

Don’t let your brand become another Twitter fail.

Overall, hosting a Twitter chat for the Fifty Shades of Grey brand was a really bad idea. Fortunately, you can learn from their mistakes and avoid a similar PR catastrophe by monitoring your online reputation, doing your market research and learning how to handle constructive criticism.

What do you think of the 50 Shades twitter fiasco? Tell us in the comment section below.