Durban - If there’s one thing Tuesday’s earthquake showed, it’s that South Africans are increasingly turning to social media – and Twitter in particular – to inform themselves of breaking news and share their own experiences.

Within seconds of the quake, which originated deep beneath the earth’s crust near Orkney, Twitter was deluged with posts from people who’d felt it, many from as far away as Botswana and Durban.

Several social media savvy marketers quickly capitalised on the event to publish tongue-in-cheek tremor-themed tweets from the businesses they represent.

Reebok’s went like this: “All Johannesburg CrossFitters please stop dropping your weights you (sic) causing tremors ;)”. It earned them this appreciative response from Twitter user Jane Tennet: “LoL! Quick guys, very quick!”, as well as a string of retweets.

Incredible Connection was also quick off the mark, with a tweet urging users of the Fitbit fitness tracking device they sell to avoid cheating by subtracting the tremor-induced “steps” from their statistics.

The beauty of social platforms like Twitter is that it’s not just big businesses with mega marketing budgets that can take advantage of opportunities like these to expose their brands to a wider audience.

Twitter is a great leveller. It lets ordinary individuals and owners of small businesses post their messages as quickly and easily as the Reeboks and Incredible Connections of the world.

A word of warning, though. Make sure your comments are not in poor taste. The tweets I quoted were posted before it emerged that at least one person had been killed and many injured in the quake. Inappropriate, off-colour and racist tweets are likely to earn you the kind of publicity you don’t want.

Take Microsoft’s search engine Bing. The Google competitor decided to run a campaign to raise money for earthquake victims in Japan. It backfired spectacularly.

Bing promised to donate $1 (R10.75) for every retweet it got, up to $100 000. The public saw it as an exploitative, cynical marketing campaign and rallied behind the #f**kbing hashtag to bash the brand for its misstep, prompting Bing to offer an apology of sorts and donate the full amount to the quake victim fund.

McDonald’s is another big brand to have felt the wrath of Twitter users. It learned to its dismay that you cannot control hashtags. It had hoped its #McDStories hashtag would prompt plenty of warm and fuzzy stories from suppliers and customers.

Instead, thousands of Twitter users hijacked the hashtag to tell the kind of stories fast food companies don’t want anyone to hear. This one from Twitter user Alice_2112 was typical: “Hospitalised for food poisoning after eating McDonald’s in 1989. Never ate there again and became a vegetarian. Should have sued. #McDStories.”

Twitter can be an unforgiving place for people and brands who misjudge the Zeitgeist. But get it right and the sky’s the limit.

Got any questions or comments? E-mail [email protected] or tweet me @alanqcooper

Sunday Tribune