Hallmark’s rapid reversal on a same-sex marriage advertisement is a reflection of how rapidly the cross-currents of social media can change — and a lesson for brands on how responding to online feedback can be a double-edged sword in the age of Twitter.
Hallmark’s announcement Sunday that it would reinstate a commercial from wedding-planning site Zola showing a lesbian couple kissing came less than a week after its earlier decision to stop running the ad, following online petitions from two conservative groups objecting to the commercial.
After Hallmark pulled the ad, it faced an online firestorm. Hashtags such as #BoycottHallmark gained traction and the company was criticized by LGBT-rights groups and celebrities, including Ellen DeGeneres, who tweeted, “Isn’t it almost 2020? @hallmarkchannel, @billabbottHC… what are you thinking? Please explain. We’re all ears.”
“This story really shows us that brands have to move quickly today when it comes to making decisions,” said Tim Calkins, clinical professor of marketing at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.
“Hallmark moved very quickly to reverse their decision, and it’s unusual where you see a company make a big decision like this and then reverse the decision so quickly. This also really reflects how powerful social media is today,” he said.
Social channels make it easy for consumers to interact with and react to marketing messages in real time, Calkins said. “There is an opportunity to impact marketing with these social media efforts.”
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Todd Sears, founder and CEO of Out Leadership, said that brands are realizing they have to adapt their strategies as acceptance of same-sex marriage has become mainstream. “So many Americans, the majority, consider themselves allies to LGBT people,” he said. Whereas brands 10 or even five years ago might have specifically targeted only those consumers, today they need to be cognizant of the much larger market of people who view themselves LGBT supporters, he said.
“I can’t think of many companies that would have made a mistake like this in 2019,” Sears said, but he added that Hallmark’s prompt response and the tone it set could prevent any long-term fallout to the brand’s reputation. “It seems they learned a very hard lesson very quickly,” he said.
“Its apology was very heartfelt and there was an earnestness, a sincerity in the apology,” Calkins said.
Mike Perry, president and CEO of Hallmark Cards, said in a statement Sunday, “We are truly sorry for the hurt and disappointment this has caused,” and said the executives who made the decision to initially pull the ad had been “agonizing over this decision as we’ve seen the hurt it has unintentionally caused.”
Consumers today expect marketing campaigns to be inclusive and socially aware — and when brands fail on that front, they face criticism in nearly real time.
Consumers today expect marketing campaigns to be inclusive and socially aware, Calkins said. When brands fail on that front, they face criticism in nearly real time.
“People are holding companies to higher standards,” he said, citing the Peloton commercial that elicited charges of sexism on social media. “People expect companies to be leaders in conversations.”
Calkins also pointed out that one brand’s stumble can be another’s opportunity. In the wake of the Zola commercial controversy, other media platforms responded with messages of their own promoting inclusivity. “Titles Featuring Lesbians Joyfully Existing And Also It’s Christmas Can We Just Let People Love Who They Love/Let It Snow/Merry Happy Whatever,” Netflix said in a weekend tweet.
With more companies choosing to highlight same-sex couples or families in their advertising, Sears said the fact that Hallmark bowed to pressure from conservative groups in the first place is an indication of what he characterized as “the toxic political and social culture that the country is in right now.”
“Look at the erosion of LGBT rights under President Donald Trump’s administration,” he said. “We’re seeing there’s a culture of intolerance that has pervaded the country, and with that is a license to say things that otherwise would have been considered discriminatory.”
For brands, this can mean walking a tightrope when it comes to not offending a politically polarized consumer base. “In general, marketing leaders try to avoid controversy,” Calkins said, noting how quickly Hallmark initially responded to social media criticism from conservative groups before making its about-face. “What they didn’t think through was that the one controversy would lead to another controversy,” he said.
NBCUniversal, the parent company of NBC News, and Comcast Ventures are investors in Zola. Comcast owns NBCUniversal.
The next killer smartphone app has arrived — and it offers the potential to transform how we communicate, share knowledge and even make new friends.
I am talking about voice-and-audio-based social networking startup Clubhouse. Its platform enables users to drop in and out of ephemeral chat rooms and take part in a range of gatherings, from small “water-cooler” type conversations to larger discussions featuring expert panels, often attended by thousands of listeners. Since its launch last March, Clubhouse has increasingly become a cultural phenomenon, attracting politicians, celebrities and experts from all walks of life. With its success and prominent backing, it may now be poised to upend the entire social media space.
Clubhouse’s latest figures reveal how quickly it is growing. During a weekly town hall event on Sunday, co-founder Paul Davison said the app’s weekly active user base had doubled to 2 million over the last couple of weeks. He also announced the startup had raised another investment round led by venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, adding it now has more than 180 investors. While he didn’t offer any specifics, The Information reported on Friday that Clubhouse was getting interest at a $1 billion valuation. If true, that means the company’s value has risen by a factor of 10 since its earlier Series A round last May, also led by Andreessen Horowitz.
Something special is happening inside the Clubhouse community. Call it the power of the voice — and it’s what separates Clubhouse from other platforms. A short back-and-forth live conversation, with its nuance and tone, can build closer relationships more quickly than dozens of written posts and text messages sent through more established social networks such as Facebook and Twitter. Since I joined Clubhouse last summer, I met and became friends with professors, filmmakers, artists, engineers and more from places all over the world. It has been intoxicating listening to people’s life stories and absorbing their knowledge and experience, from learning how a streaming video executive greenlights projects to getting expert political analysis on the latest breaking news. It has easily become one of my favorite pastimes.
To illustrate the kind of agenda-setting conversations that are becoming a staple on Clubhouse these days, here’s one example: Earlier this month, the mayors of San Francisco, Miami and Austin congregated inside a “room” to tout their cities as good places for tech companies to do business. Thousands of executives, investors, and employees tuned in to the vibrant interactive panel. For an app like Clubhouse — or any social media platform looking to extend its influence and user base — this is the holy grail of the virtuous feedback loop, where the network effects of a large influential audience attract the highest-quality speakers and vice versa.
Impressive as Clubhouse’s latest metrics are, they may actually understate its potential. All the growth thus far has come largely by worth of mouth, and from only half of the smartphone market. The app still requires an invitation from a current member to join and is exclusive to Apple Inc. devices. So when the founders decide to open Clubhouse to the public and release an Android version, growth will take off to higher levels.
The nature of Clubhouse’s platform offers the potential for money-making opportunities. For instance, Clubhouse could take a commission from room admission fees for large panel discussions. Or, similar to Amazon.com Inc.-owned Twitch channels, it could offer monthly subscriptions for specific interest-based club rooms. One can also imagine users buying unique animated reaction emojis to give visual feedback to speakers and interact with other members of the audience. Of course, the ability to make money will also attract and retain the best room hosts for the Clubhouse ecosystem. On Sunday, Clubhouse’s cofounders said they will start testing ways for the platform’s creators to get paid through “tipping, tickets or subscriptions” in the coming months.
Clubhouse has its challenges. Like other social media networks, it has faced criticism for objectionable content that was broadcast on its site. Last September, Clubhouse was hit with a flurry of negative publicity when some speakers perpetuated anti-Semitic stereotypes. The startup needs to invest more aggressively in trust and safety features and hire content moderators to mitigate harassment. There is also competition on the horizon with Twitter Inc. testing its own audio chat room feature inside its app called Spaces.
But it may be too little too late for other players. While Twitter’s new service does offer some differentiated features – including real-time transcriptions that appear on screen and the ability to share tweets to the room for discussion purposes – it is thus far largely siloed around a specific account’s followers. It lacks Clubhouse’s distinctive serendipity that lets people from diverse backgrounds meet and form their own connections through their own wanderings. Clubhouse also is at a stage where it is adding new innovations on a near weekly basis — including different room types, activity-based notification feeds and event calendars. It will be difficult for any other company to catch up.
Of course, the app has benefited from the pandemic as people look for ways to socialize while avoiding in-person interactions and outdoor activities. But Clubhouse usage may prove more durable than many believe after daily life returns to normal. It’s a convenient, frictionless way to meet new people through the intimacy of conversation and listen to conference-like events that otherwise might be difficult to attend in person.
Perhaps most importantly is the stunning level of usage and engagement. On a personal level, since installing Clubhouse I have noticed my time spent on the app is significantly higher than any other social network on my smartphone — more than TikTok, Twitter or Instagram. It is a sign of how appealing audio-based social networking can be. And judging from the activities of my friend list inside the community, I am not alone. I have little doubt once Clubhouse opens up to the general public, its user base can grow into the tens of millions. The social media giants should be concerned.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Beth Williams at firstname.lastname@example.org
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