Carefully Crafted on March 01

Lessons from the Heinz Twitter Imposter

A couple weeks ago, AdAge introduced us to Mike Werch, the person who tweeted as @HJ_Heinz. This one person became the ketchup company’s voice on Twitter — yet he had NO connection to Heinz. And, Mike ran the Heinz Twitter account for a solid two weeks (amassing 367 fans) before Twitter headquarters got involved.

Mike was kind enough to spend a few times responding to some unanswered questions for me. Take a look, and share your reaction in the comments.

When you first started this experiment, how long did you think it would last? Did the positive response from followers (or lack thereof from Heinz) surprise you?
When I began planning the Heinz Twitter experiment I really had no idea how long it would last. That was one of the big curiosities that led me to do it in the first place. Numerous brands have their names or versions of their names being squatted on Twitter, but they since they are dormant accounts many of them probably go unnoticed. I think it’s also fair to presume that some of them are registered by the companies to serve as placeholders in order to avoid the scenario that lead to this interview.

In terms of an actual number of days, I anticipated that I’d be able to use the account for at least a week. The reasons being that someone within the organization had to actually notice it (The PR director says they actively monitor Twitter but I’m suspect of the degree to which they monitor), then they probably had to determine if they had a rogue tweet-happy employee on their hands. After making these determinations, they had to file for and wait for Twitter to complete the reclamation process on the account.

The positive response from the followers I gained did not surprise me at all. Heinz is the type of brand that people have a genuine and passionate loyalty for. Most of us have grown up with i,t and it remind us of the past. Heinz is also an integral part of Pittsburgh’s community so it was no surprise that when Pittsburgh tweeters caught wind of the account they were really enthusiastic. About two weeks ago Heinz created a Facebook fan page and they already have nearly 35,000 fans. The interaction on their wall really displays the passion that people have for the brand.

Heinz’s lack of response was disappointing, not surprising, and understandable. As many commentors, Ttwitter users, and follow-up blog posts about the experiment have stated, there was a unique and real marketing opportunity that Heinz could have leveraged here; however, they chose not to capitalize on it. Instead, they played it safe and issued a brief and very corporate-type statement. That statement will most likely serve as their only acknowledgment that the situation even occurred. As I’ve said, this is totally understandable. The buzz will die down, it won’t impact sales, and we’ll still love their ketchup.

The AdAge article shared some details about how this all unfolded. But, I imagine the article just scratched the surface. What else can you share about your time as a “Heinz rep?” Did you have any interactions with media who thought you were official?
When I was tweeting as Heinz, there was a massive recall issued on one of their baby food products in Canada. Doing real time searches of “heinz” I discovered a ton of negative tweets about the company and the recall in general. I took some time to research what caused the recall. They had found trace amounts of a compound that is believed to possibly cause cancer later in life when consumed in large quantities. It sounds scary but the amounts found in their product were minuscule, and the likelihood that it will have a health impact on anyone is pretty much zero. Since I was outside of the company, I felt that there was no way that I was in a position to reply to real concerns from upset parents. Although I was tweeting as the company, that was a situation I knew I could not touch though I did post a link to their official press release.

Had the company been using Twitter, they could have replied directly to those voicing outrage (this was happening). At minimum, they had the chance to show they cared on a personal level. Most of the people tweeting the news were mom bloggers with BIG influence on a significant number of followers. Their negative tweets and commentary were reaching thousands of people.

I did not have any interaction with media, though I did become twitter friends with the great people from VisitPittsburgh.com (shout to Bob @bobf_vstpgh !).

Have you heard from anyone at Heinz yet? How do you think they should have responded once your experiment was outed?

I have not heard from anyone at Heinz, and I don’t expect to. It’s hard to say how I think they should have responded. Like I said, from their perspective it’s understandable and makes sense to a certain degree, but the marketer and social media enthusiast in me would have responded differently if I was put in their situation. I would have reached out to understand who the person was and why they were tweeting as the company. If the person was a good fit, I would have partnered with them to make them an official brand advocate and incorporate them into the marketing strategy.

What PR lessons to you think companies should learn from this — aside from the obvious need to actively monitor your brand?

First, I do want to take this opportunity to reiterate something I’ve tweeted a few times since the article came out. My intentions for doing this were never to make the case that Heinz needed to be on Twitter or actively participate in social media. I chose their company because they were a suitable candidate and a brand that I enjoy. If there is value or a lesson that comes from all of this I hope that it makes companies really put some time into exploring how they can best utilize social media. Many traditional marketers are hesitant to invest their budgets into it because the methods to measure the ROI are still being developed and not yet fully understood. What is clear though is that there are companies embracing emerging social media channels and seeing great results from it. I really do believe that we are at the beginning of a media revolution that will force companies to get serious about developing marketing programs with a solid social media strategy. The Heinz experiment is evidence that social media can impact brand communications and perceptions in unforeseeable ways. Conversations are being had in real time about your brand. Rather than negate the fact that this is happening by not participating, I feel that companies should think hard, outline their own policies and strategy, and participate in the conversation.

What are your plans for the @notHJ_Heinz account?
I’ve actually been asking myself the same question lately. It’s my personal account now and I tweet about social media, foodie type things, and advertising. I’m going to keep the account going because I really do enjoy it. The personal connections I’ve made and the content that is discovered through twitter are remarkable. At some point, I’ll change the handle to my name but I’m going to leave it as is for a little while longer. Expect my tweets to slow down a bit too over the next few months. I’m currently developing a new project which will utilize social media to bolster philanthropic causes by creating buzz worthy social media stories, that culminate at globally recognized athletic events. My partner and I hope that this project will serve as a model for increasing individual charitable contributions and also provide corporate sponsors with a unique opportunity to enhance their corporate social responsibility activities.

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If you ask me, this Twitter-squatting story should explain why brands must monitor social networks, at minimum. What if Mike was a Heinz-hater? It’s not that far-fetched to think someone could pose as a brand’s official representative and cause problems. What lessons can companies learn from this situation?

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