I Want Candy. Skittles embraces Twitter embraces Skittles

Last night, when campaign managers probably figured it was safe to soft launch quietly, and with the protection of nightfall, Skittles turned its home page into a twitter profile page. “Skittles” was soon the largest tag by far on an otherwise moribund Twitscoop Tweetdeck tagcloud (say those three times quickly) — and the doors blew off in the twitterverse.

All the talk was skittles, and any talk of skittles, good or bad, intended for skittles or not, wound up on the home page of skittles.com. Skittles had hijacked talk about itself.
Now regardless of how you feel about this little sentimental snack, skittles being a kind of two-bit presence in the candysphere, runner-up to its chocolaty big brother M&Ms, you have to admit that the company had some, well, beans, to turn to twitter unfiltered.
For anything and everything was pretty much running on skittle’s home page live last night — no 7 second delay, no accounting for possible wardrobe or verbal malfunctions, just tweets mentioning skittles, no matter what their content.
It might be that the campaign managers thought they would just ask the customer: What do you think about skittles? Call it crowd sourcing, and invite the market to the brand. Or perhaps they wanted to pull off a different kind of home page takeover, and catch a wave before anybody else did. (It’s up for debate whether anyone else can step into the same river without suffering a withering torrent of rot, detritus, and ill will.)
And truth be told, it was a co-branding effort, for twitter clearly lifted some technical limitations on its search engine for skittles. And it was featured, with brand, as a twitter home page look alike, on skittles.com.
I’ll skip over what people had to say about skittles — you can simply go there now, or better, post a tweet including the word skittles, and then watch it appear on skittles.com.
If the company thought they would get a better sense of what people think about them, they misunderstood twitter, and misconceived the whole campaign. Create a public timeline dedicated to a single thing, in this day and age, and it will become a public forum vulnerable to all the heckling, banner-waving, and hackery that a public forum attracts. (Even when it’s about a small bag of multi-colored clumps of pressed processed corn starch. Yes, we have to this. The lowest common denominator, it turns out, is a movie-time snack.)
The fact that skittles has given its branding over to the public, and its homepage to its audience, is a gutsy gesture indeed. But people post out of novelty, curiosity, because it’s abuzz, because they can see their tweet appear on skittles — and not really to express their inner sweet tooth, preference for blue, or any other kind of personal skittle-chomping habit.
But regardless of what you make of it, the campaign offers a few social media morsels worth chewing on.
  • This was a combined effort with twitter itself. Skittles.com looks like it’s twitter.
  • It’s not really a twitter home page — it’s a search results page that pumps results to make it look like a twitter page.
  • Which makes it kinda nifty. Imagine entering a search phrase in Google and seeing your query in the results. That’s how this works.
  • In some ways it’s like advertising in reverse. Because instead of creating a message and then releasing it into the internets, this sucks in advertising from the internets. And we’re doing the advertising.
  • Talk about “disruptive” (tired and weary phrase for something new we don’t know how to monetize yet). The skittles twitter campaign is a twist on aggregation. All your tweets are belong to us!
  • Skittles has gotten us to endorse it, in a manner of speaking, with our own words. In fact, if there’s ever been a better example of feed-based advertising, tell me what it is. This is post-Obama social media!
  • It is also a form of feed-based product placement. Skittles smartly used the voyeurism, attraction to bright and shiny things, and latent narcissism of the twitterverse to hold a mirror up to twitter and flip the light switch. Twitterers let loose out of curiosity to catch themselves (many if not all) in the buzz of activity that gathers around a well-placed lamppost.
  • It was based on trust, and a huge leap of faith. From me at least, hat’s off to the brand’s transparency.
  • And talk about taking Marshall McLuhan at his word. The medium is indeed the message!
What the campaign doesn’t achieve is affinity marketing — we are not now a group of skittles fans, I’m sure few of us are following skittles, or following others who took part in this. It probably doesn’t deliver on crowd-sourced messaging and branding research: most posts were pretty off the topic of “why do you like skittles?” (Though I spotted a few skittles-inspired 140 character ditties.)
In terms of sales generation, skittles could see offline benefits. In some ways the campaign operates like an above-board subliminal advertising campaign. For now, when we hit the corner store, there’s a small chance we’ll recall the time that skittles was us. And this is an interesting variation on subliminal. For we’re not recalling what skittles said, or arranged into some sort of suggestive arrangement of candies… We’re not going to recall even what others said. We’re going to recall what we said. And that strikes me as an interesting move, to leverage our tendencies on twitter like that.
And the campaign certainly achieved reach — for every tweet about skittles there were countless followers who read it.
I don’t know if twitter is planning to work with other brands to do the same kind of home page takeover. Odds are that the novelty factor on this was pretty high and that it would wear thin quickly for all but the most hip brand names. Imitators will run the risk of being called out by twitterers for attempting to pull a skittles. As is happening with skittles, for I gather they weren’t the first.
But either way, this will surely stand as a test-case, if not limit-case, in social media branding, and will be the buzz among social media experts for as long as it takes to digest it.

Note: This blog post belongs to a series on “status culture.” The posts examine status updates, facebook activity feeds, news feeds, twitter, microblogging, lifestreaming, and other social media applications and features belonging to conversation media. My approach will be user-centric as always, and tackle usability and social experience issues (human factors, interaction design, interface design) at the heart of social interaction design. But we will also use anthropology, sociology, psychology, communication and media theories. Perhaps even some film theory.
The converational trend in social networking sites and applications suggests that web 2.0 is rapidly developing into a social web that embraces talk (post IM, chat, and email) in front of new kinds of publics and peer groups. User generated content supplied to search engines is increasingly produced conversationally. Social media analytics tools provide PR and social media marketing with means to track and monitor conversations. Brands are interested in joining the conversation feeds, through influencers as well as their own twitter presence.
This changing landscape not only raises interesting issues for developers and applications (such as the many twitter third party apps), but for social practices emerging around them. So we will look also at design principles for conversation-based apps, cultural and social trends, marketing trends, and other examples of new forms of talk online.
These blog posts will vary in tenor, from quick reflections on experiences to more in-depth approaches to design methodology for conversational social media.

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