By Alastair Douglas, Head of Marketing Analysis at Simply Business

Social media is becoming an increasingly important marketing tool for firms of every size. As the world moves online and an ever-growing proportion of business takes place digitally, your firm needs to ensure that it is utilising tools like social media to their full potential. A well thought-out digital campaign can yield impressive results. But a large number of businesses have found themselves in the middle of a digital disaster after botched social media marketing campaigns.

There are numerous reasons for this; a lack of understanding of the ‘rules’ of social media is one of the most common. The nature of social networking and other similar media means that these poorly executed campaigns can be far more damaging than an offline mistake.Many businesses are still getting to grips with social media. Here are some of the most notable disasters of recent times.

1. Honda learns about disclosure

When launching their new Crosstour car, Honda decided to give fans a sneak preview of the design by posting photographs on their Facebook page. The fans were sadly unimpressed, and the page was soon covered with a slew of negative comments. One, however, loudly proclaimed how much he loved the new design, saying he “would get this car in a heartbeat.” It did not take fans long to realise that this lone voice of positivity was, in fact, Honda’s product manager.

Customer engagement is good, and Honda could have benefited from addressing the comments head on. But by resorting to deception, the company quickly attracted the ire of fans.

2. Habitat gets caught spamming

Now-defunct furniture retailers Habitat were an early adopter of Twitter. But, in an effort to drum up a bit of interest in their products, they found themselves on the wrong side of spamming rules.

To try to increase their exposure, a Habitat marketing employee began appending ads to ‘trending topics’ in the hope that they would appear when users searched for popular keywords. But Twitter users (a force to be reckoned with at the best of times) saw this as spam and reported it to moderators. Habitat ended up having to issue an apology.

Twitter provides a great way for firms to communicate directly with their customer base. But it is vital that you learn the rules of the platform in order to avoid making embarrassing mistakes.

3. Employees fall like Domino's

Last year, two employees filmed themselves flouting hygiene rules in an American branch of Domino’s Pizza. They then decided that it would be a good idea to upload the video to Youtube. It quickly became a phenomenon. The video was viewed thousands of times, Domino’s suffered enormous financial losses, and the employees were arrested.

While this was not an error on the part of Domino’s marketing department, it perfectly illustrates the potentially destructive power of social media. As well as engaging with customers on these services, you should monitor them for mentions of your brand in order to nip disasters like these in the bud.

4. Rentokil are nowhere to be found

Pest control firm Rentokil recently launched a Twitter profile, and began sparking up conversation with other users. Soon after, though, the firm published a press release with which members of the scientific community took issue. One prominent British user repeatedly asked Rentokil for clarification – but silence soon descended on their Twitter page. Of course, their silence was eyed with suspicion across the Twittersphere.

It is inevitable that you will sometimes face difficult questions from other social media users. The worst thing you can do is ignore them. Instead, you should tackle them head on in an amicable, professional manner.

And a happy ending

Of course, while some hapless firms flounder in a social media quagmire, others deftly use the technology to their advantage. Phone company O2 is a case in point. They employ several staff solely to monitor social networks for users experiencing problems with O2 products or services. They respond quickly to these individuals, using the same method. Finally, they often follow up at a later date to ensure that the problem has been solved. Customers therefore have their issues resolved quickly, and end up with a positive impression of O2’s service.

Social media has immense power – but this can be a power for good or ill, depending on your point of view. If you are to harness its potential in order to create positive results for your business, you should try to learn from the mistakes of others. Learn the rules before you play, and treat other users with respect. This will help you to guarantee social media success.