Mark my words: When the time comes for the 2012 year-end lists, this story will be among the "Biggest Social Media Fails" for the year.

If you haven't already heard, McDonald's is the latest poster child for social media gone awry. What started out as a simple Twitter promotion campaign—and then evolved into an effort to encourage people to talk about their favorite McDonald's stories—turned into a case of "tweetjacking" of the worst kind.

What happened, what went wrong, what could McDonald's have done differently ... and how can you avoid making the same mistakes? Read on.

Tweeting a McFailure

Wading into the Twitter advertising waters, McDonald's purchased a Promoted Tweet campaign, launching with the innocuous enough hashtag, #MeetTheFarmers. It was an attempt to draw a connection between McDonald's and "wholesome goodness," as the corporation promoted the individual farmers who supplied their restaurants.

So far, so good. But then, for some yet-to-be-explained reason, one of McDonald's Twitter marketing team members tried piggybacking on the #MeetTheFarmers hashtag with a new hashtag: #McDStories. This is the tweet in which this hashtag appeared:

The problem with this hashtag, however, is that it was not as neutral or innocent as its predecessor. It was ripe for exploitation, allowing naysayers in the Twitterverse to put their own often negative spin on a McDonald "story." Once people started tweeting negative remarks, others jumped on the bandwagon and a full-blown case of tweetjacking occurred.

By the time the disaster made the news, brand sentiment raged out of control.

McDonald's quickly recognized the problem and tried to deflect the negative remarks by start to use a new, inoffensive hashtag (#littlethings)—but the damage had already been done.

Lessons Learned

Looking back at this debacle, you can see how McDonald's unintentionally set itself up for failure.

  • It incongruously migrated from the original #MeetTheFarmers well-intentioned hashtag to the new #McDStories one.
  • It didn't ever really explain what the hashtag #McDStories meant or in what context it was supposed to be used.
  • It chose a hashtag that was easy to take out of context. Brand names in hashtags open a company up for negative exploitation.
  • Then, once the exploitation began, McDonald's pulled down the tweet and mostly clammed up on the subject.

The company probably hoped that the whole mess would blow over—and didn't want to make the problem any worse by talking about it. The problem is that to their critics, the silence only reinforced that idea that McDonald's wasn't really in it for the conversation, just the promotion.

And the Twitterverse doesn't look too favorably on overly self-serving activities.

Remedies for McDonald's (or You)

Going dark should not have been an option. McDonald's should have confronted the situation not by diversion but by head-on alternatives. The company should have asked McDonald's fans to show their support by tweeting positive stories using the hashtag, and then retweeted those.

Remember, even if you take down a tweet, people will still use it once it's out there—so make the best of it.

If you step into a Twitter mess like this, make sure you stay engaged -- it's even OK to respond to some of the haters. Show them you have a sense of humor, and maybe you can effect change in their attitude.

Heck, half the negative tweeters just enjoy the thrill of getting something, even if it's a little attention—so McDonald's could have, for instance, offered an giveaway to the first 100 nice remarks made about McDonald's in a given hour. I bet that would have gone a long way in turning the tide.

Now, it's probably time for McDonald's to revisit its Twitter Team MickeyD, and decide who is best suited for which roles. With a company as large as McDonald's and a Twitter team of 10, the company should assign some folks to merely monitor and reply to "@" mentions, while others run interference and crisis management, and still others tweet original content.

Your own Twitter team may not be as large as McDonald's but you can certainly avoid similar mistakes.