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June 10, 2011

Four ways to be clueless about social strategy

When I bought a snack between flights at Chicago's O'Hare Airport, I was intrigued to see this notation at the bottom of the receipt:


Has HMS, operator of travel restaurants worldwide, figured out a clever strategy to take advantage of the millions of people who get receipts and keep them for expense reports? If they have, it's a mystery to me. In fact, embedded in this little receipt, HMS has made nearly every mistake possible with social media. Let's go through appropriate social strategy principles and compare them to what HMS Host is doing.

  1. Have a clear objective. Why does HMS Host want friends on Facebook? I don't have a clue. I can see why, say, Coca-Cola or NCIS could benefit from collecting friends, but HMS doesn't have a brand its customers identify with, as far as I can tell -- mostly it operates restaurant franchises for other brands (like Starbucks).
  2. Give customers a reason to connect. What do I get for connecting with HMS Host? Nothing I can see. The invitation to connect should result in some kind of offer ("Connect with us for discounts" or "Connect to learn about our frequent customer program" for example.) If your brand is Apple, it may be obvious whey we'd want to be your friend, but there's no reason for a customer to believe that connecting with HMS Host would have any benefits.
  3. Own your identity. I tried to do what this receipt asks: become a friend. But facebook.com/hmshost is run by some guy in New Jersey who works for one of the HMS outlets (and his Facebook page has 102 fans so far). The top page on a Facebook search for HMS Host is a placeholder page with 300 fans and no content. Leave out the space and you get to a Facebook page with a Wikipedia description and 700 fans. HMS' Web page finally leads to the company's actual Facebook page: facebook.com/HMSBethesda (pretty hard to guess without a little detective work). That site has a stream of press releases and some actual useful travel tips -- and 960 fans, many of whom are probably employees or social media experts who worked hard to find it.
  4. Drive traffic. If the receipts were part of a strategy of online advertising, Facebook ads, or other traffic drivers intended to create a bunch of fans to participate, that could work. Absent that, messages on these receipts are just wasted space.

HMS Host's senior director of communications and public relations, Susan Goyette, says I've missed a few things in this critique. She says they do have on objective for their Facebook page: listening to travelers and promoting company programs like their participation in the Children's Miracle Network. And she complains that Facebook takes many months to boot people who've taken charge of sites that rightly belong to corporate brands.

Even so, I think HMS Host had made one of the classic errors: diving into a social network without a coherent strategy, and without control of their own brand in that environment. Because social networks are so visible (and because HMS Host is now promoting this on thousands of receipts), this is like an actor coming out on stage without his costume on.

There's a lot to learn from this. Don't get started in social media without an objective, a reason for customers to join you, control of your identify, and a plan to drive participation. Don't put Facebook and Twitter buttons on your Web page or your real-world signage until you're ready. And for lord's sake, don't put invitations on your sales receipts. Until you know what kind of party you're throwing, where, and what the entertainment is, it's nuts to invite people to join you. And it's clear evidence that the frenzy over Facebook has run way out ahead of reasonable marketers with actual strategies.





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I sympathize with Ms. Goyette's complaint about Facebook's ridiculous handling of "placeholder" pages and related issues. In this instance, a QR code on the receipt could take a mobile device user sitting in the airport waiting area directly to the correct Facebook page.


Seems like they do have a strategy & objective. Listening is one of the pilars of social media that many brands neglect. Also, promotion of causes via social has proved to be successful. Sounds like you got some sour snacks.....


I think there are some very real concerns here. However, I also think that the invitation on the bottom of the receipt is a good idea. With a little clearer message and direction the strategy really could work. However, without the page being easier to find it'll likely be too difficult for the average individual and never be seen. Give incentives on why someone should join and a clear path on how to join and you will see a much better success rate.

~ Brother Trevor

Jeffrey Breen

Perhaps they're just trying to build excitement for when their narrow, ALL CAPS Facebook page will be ready.

Volker Schaefer

On the other side - the number of fans on facebook tells you nothing - my completely unknown company has more than 2600 fans on facebook without doing anything: http://www.facebook.com/OnlineBizNow

I think Facebook is a fake and pose world where the best software tools win.

Josh Bernoff

@Brother Trevor, that's exactly the right advice. The receipt could work great, if there was a good reason and a good Facebook page on the other end of it.

ed lee

Forrester has talked in the past about earned, owned and paid media - surely host is simply using, in this case, owned media to drive to social media. with many of our retail clients, they are looking to leverage all of their owned assets first, before venturing into paid. it's easy to point out the mistakes without recognizing the limitations and acknowledging the things host has done right here - and which the team would have had to fight pretty hard to execute.

Josh Bernoff

Ed: If I thought this would actually drive any traffic, I'd agree with you. But the customers need to be able to find the page and do something useful there, first.


Pick on someone your own size, Josh.

Gail Gardner

Being defensive when someone is offering valuable actionable advice for free is not the best business plan. Josh is right about who will find their Facebook page - and it is NOT most of their target audience - and without offering a reason to friend them on Facebook few will act anyway.

There may be technical limitations on how much you can print on a receipt using the receipt printer, but there is a good solution for that: receipt tape with the message you want to convey or even coupons printed on the reverse. If I were them I would order register tape printed with my message and be sure to use the ENTIRE Facebook page URL with an incentive to make it worth someone's time to type it in.

Josh Bernoff

@Dino: HMS Host generates $2.5 billion per year and revenue and has 34,000 employees. A company this size needs a strategy.


I think the biggest problem is to find a way to drive traffic, I tried different ways but still it didn't help, can you suggest the most lucrative way.

Jimmy Mackin

Most businesses are screwing it up.

Excellent post with practical takeaways for business of all sizes.

Thanks Josh.

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