Amazon just ended one of the weirdest--and least emotionally intelligent--social media programs ever seen, in which warehouse employees were paid for tweeting about how much they loved their jobs. The program was a clear failure--it was widely mocked and labeled as creepy. Amazon found out the hard way what smart business leaders already know: on social media, there's a fine line between influence and manipulation, and you don't want to be on the wrong side of that line.
The program deployed "FC ambassadors"--fulfillment center workers--to tweet about their experiences on the job. It began in 2018, after a wave of negative press about fulfillment center working conditions, criticisms on social media, and a series of responses from the company that made things worse instead of better.
According to news reports, Amazon quietly retired the program in late 2021. Asked for comment, an Amazon spokesperson provided this to Inc.com by email:
The best way for people to know what happens behind the scenes at Amazon is to see for themselves - that's why we're focused on giving live tours daily across the US and Europe. Our 2022 Tours resume on February 1, and you can sign up at www.amazonfctours.com/virtualtours or by searching Amazon FC Tours.
If you were going to pay employees to tweet nice things about your company, Amazon's approach was probably the least bad way to go about it. Employees who tweeted about Amazon working conditions as part of their jobs were clearly identified as such, with "AmazonFC" as part of their Twitter handles. Being upfront this way meant there would be no scandal later on when, inevitably, someone figured out that these employees were being paid to tweet. The lengthy internal document laying out the rules and goals of the Veritas program (HT to The Intercept) carefully did not say that ambassadors were expected to tweet positive things about their jobs. Instead, the first tenet of the program was, "Tell Your Truth: We encourage our associates to share experiences about their time with Amazon. We will not offer misleading or untrue messages in order to 'spin' what may be an uncomfortable situation for the company."
Rebutting critics in a "polite, blunt way."
As for who would be telling their truth, the document said this: "Candidates must have a strong performance background and a clean HR record, be authentic, have a great sense of humor, and be excited about speaking their mind and rebutting our critics in a polite, blunt way." The last part of that sentence looks like a valiant attempt to tell people what to say without appearing to tell them what to say.
Ambassadors earned the same hourly rate that they would have for warehouse work that was a lot more taxing and a lot less fun. TechCrunch reported one former ambassador's account that he received a day off, a $50 gift card, and sandwiches as extra compensation for working as an ambassador. But, he said, the real attraction was this: "Becoming an ambassador was a way to get out of loading trucks, or packing boxes for 10 to 12 hrs."
And that was the fundamental mistake. Having a clearly designated social media representative is one thing, providing incentives for rank-and-file employees to tweet their supposedly candid thoughts about the company is quite another. Predictably, Twitter users didn't buy it. Several used the word "dystopian." Reactions to the FC ambassadors ranged from deconstructing their claims that they weren't being compensated for tweeting to creating fake ambassadors to outright mocking.
Now that the program is no more, Amazon has removed all traces of it from Twitter, which is creepy in its own way, leading to one-sided conversations like this one. The company is likely hoping that the whole affair will be forgotten in time, which of course it probably will be because the Twitterverse has a notoriously short attention span. After this experience, has Amazon finally learned what does and doesn't work on social media? We'll have to wait and see.