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Chipotle is killing social, and we’re letting them get away with it

Image Credit: Chicago Celi / Flickr

This is a guest post by social business strategist Andy White 

Nobody really took much notice when Chipotle got ‘hacked,’ because as hacks go it was as anodyne as they come. It was middle of the road, safe, completely inoffensive to anybody and everyone. It was the CBS prime time of hacks.

Turned out there was a reason for that: Chipotle faked its own hack in a bid to raise awareness for its 20th anniversary.

In the short term, awareness raisedsentiment lowered. In the long term, Chipotle’s actions have cut deep, creating a fissure between brand and audience. That indelible trust between the two entities, so important and so key in social, is fractured. Where do they go from here now that they have transitioned their entire Twitter account into being nothing more than a rote-marketing device, one unafraid to manipulate its followers to fulfill a corporate remit? More importantly, where does the industry as a whole go once that divide between audience and brand is too wide to cross?

Stunt marketing is a bastion of the old school. It is the go-to of traditional marketing because the competing noise is so great and all of us are so practiced in the art of tuning out. By shifting that outmoded way of thinking over to social, it’s yet another example of agencies and brands returning to their tried and true playbook in an attempt to be successful in the 2013 world of social media. When done well, social is the antithesis of a calculated stunt: It is the respect born out of the development of a community day in, day out. It’s that respect that Chipotle crushed with just 12 tweets.

Chipotle was not the first to try this approach. In February 2013, both MTV and BET opted for a coordinated Twitter ‘hack’ in which each brand took control of the other. It was a desperate cry for attention, and an obvious ploy to promote the BET Awards, but the invisible line had not yet been crossed. Tweets were appended with ‘#MTVHACK’ which served as the ultimate spoiler, the nod and wink to the audience that this was one big game. Chipotle was not kind enough to let its audience in on the joke, playing it for real from beginning to end; its audience became the joke.

Recognizing this, Chipotle spokesman Chris Arnold issued an apology, according to a Washington Post report. Per the Post, he stated that the ‘hack’ was to be considered nothing more than a promotion: “We apologize if anyone felt misled by this or didn’t like how the promotion was handled.”

The reality is it may be too late for apologies. What is social if it is not trust? This is a medium in which we ask users to voluntarily follow and spend their recreation time with us. Trust is everything, and it is something almost impossible to regain after it has been lost. When an organization such as Chipotle decides to subjugate its audience to a lie, everything that is said from that point on will be second-guessed and parsed for second or third meanings. The audience earned over months and years of outreach is permanently put on its guard and alienated.

It filters on down from there; there is no immunity in an interconnected social web. First MTV and BET, then Chipotle, and all of a sudden we find ourselves in a situation in which the audience as a collective – Twitter and social-wide – is guarded, is apprehensive, and is less likely to have a brand’s message resonate.

Chipotle opened Pandora’s Box for a (likely temporary) gain of 4,000 followers and some momentary noise. I hope it was worth it.

Andy White is Director of Social Business Strategy at Sprout Social, a leading social media management and engagement platform. Follow him @white.