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The double edged sword of social media and #BoatyMcBoatFace

It’s always nice to be asked onto the @bbcbreakfast sofa as a social media expert. We talked around social media, brand marketing and #BoatyMcBoatFace.

Just in case you have been in a CaveyMcCaveface for a while – this digital marketing moment was caused by NERC – who asked the British public to name a 200 million pound boat and then vote for their favourite. A great idea on paper... BUT... As The Drum reported:

“The Natural Environment Research Council's (Nerc) #NameOurShip campaign has thrown up an interesting frontrunner, with RRS Boaty McBoatface taking the lead over RRS Henry Worsley and RRS David Attenborough.”

As Simon Usborne @susborne pointed out “It wasn't necessarily a silly question, but in a nation of bored people genetically programmed to take the piss, it was perhaps predictable that it might invite a silly answer.”

That silly answer was the brain child of Adam Hand, a young gentlemen who came up with "BoatyMcBoatFace" – a wonderfully BlackAdder-equse piece of word play – who then later revoked it (probably under common sense pressure and maybe his mum telling him off.)

However, the name was loved – got voted on – and before you could say “Damn Daniel” went viral and was the winner. 30,000 people voted almost instantly – 124,000 in total and the sheer volume broke the NERC website.

And I think. the vote did something else. It showed us who we are… Online.

As reported wonderfully by Nell Fizzell – the whole episode made her proud to be British. Me too Nell, me too.

It was - it IS a very British affair.

But like with man British moments of rebellion and creativity - the powers that be decided the name was silly and banned the voted for name. They have called the boat – Sir David Attenborough instead – a name which came in fourth by the by.

This U-turn caused a massive internet backlash – which itself made the story go viral and global. In the end the hashtag #BoatymcBoatface has been seen by almost 38 million people. A staggering amount compared to the original hashtag #nameourship.

The story of the u-turn has gone global.

With some newspapers reporting the British government has been accused of “riding roughshod over democracy” and massive media companies like CNN reported about it all. Especially on Twitter.

By favourite quote from Twitter – which I was very happy to be able to crowbar into my interview – was the comment that they should have called the boat – DictatorShip

Fair play @honnydice for this one.

It really is rather funny.

So to bring it back to the point in hand...

Has this #boatymcboatface debacle been a triumph or a PR disaster.

A triumph. On one hand…

Any PR is good PR. Had you really ever heard of NERC before? Which itself is not a great name.

The hashtag #Boatymcboatface got more than 38 million views. At the peak more than 8 tweets per minute. More PR in websites across the globe than most other scientific environmental stories of the last year. The reach the whole idea gained is great for the environment and the agency….


Some lovely stats above...

But was it good for you?

It certainly isn’t for the UK government in my opinion and not something I wanted to say on live TV on the BBC. The BBC being already under fire from our conservative government.

Was #BoatyMcBoatFace A Disaster?

Has the reach of social media and the free advertising (helped by people like me going on the BBC) not really helped their brand?

In my interview, I held back. As NERC does amazing things and I am an environmentalist too (check out the "Get rich or try sharing" t shirt) so I didn’t want to undermine the important work NERC are doing or their message.

But that’s the point – why should I have to try to protect them? They shouldn't they have been doing that themselves?

Just the smallest of chats about social media would have made them realise this was a mistake. And just the smallest about of monitoring would have shown them WHEN they were losing control.

You see this is the "Faustian" pack you make with social media. Sure you want people to share your things, do your marketing for you, save you money on advertising, become your brand ambassadors. BUT… you can’t control the message. Not all the time. What have to do is listen and react.

Just like in a normal conversation. Just like in real life. You have to listen. And if you don’t like what you hear you have to interact - you have to chat with people – you can’t simply stop talking and go with what you want to. If you do, you show very different brand values to the ones you wanted to originally.

So…. the overruling makes NERC, the government and without realising the whole the UK as sad, stiff and pompous. And a bit churlish really.

Other governments and organisations haven’t reacted this way. Which is why you have flags still flown in New Zealand that are a bit silly. And animals called unfortunate names - like "HootyMcOwlFace". And some more offensive names as well when organisations have crowd sourced the names (some of which I couldn’t say on the BBC early in the morning - for fear of offending.)

So is this mistake just techies without a sense of humour?

Not really – it’s just NERC’s without one. As other scientific and clever people around the world seem to have more of a sense of humour. My favourite being the NASA team who allowed the space shuttle to be called Enterprise. But would they have allowed SpaceMcSpaceFace? I don’t know.

A conclusion of sorts: The importance of a name.

#BoatyMcBoatface was a shipwreck waiting to happen in a world of science with no lighthouses. They had no training and no idea what might happen. It went viral. It went social. But without being social themselves...

They were out of their depth, and sadly their real message sank without a trace.

But they could have learned about this kinda thing before.

They must have had someone on the team that “did” marketing. If they did then they would know the guerrilla and very real psychological importance of naming a product or service. As:

"Companies spend 4 – 6 times more on marketing a name which people don’t like and get."

Dan Sodergren (


This is why, ironically, on some levels #BoatyMcBoatfact is such a great name. It’s just not a great name for this 200 million pound serious vessel paid for by the UK tax payer (again not something I wanted to say on the BBC for fear of being cut…)

So what are the brand values of the NERC? Their customers perception of the brand is the brand reality. And so who are the brand’s customers? The government or us? The important thing to think about here are what are the brand values for NERC - how does the brand want to be perceived.

Names are hugely important - think about your own name for a minute - or the name of a new born baby. As apparently names can affect the whole outcome of someone's life.

Would you let the world have free reign over naming your baby? Would you walk into a bar and announce that anyone could name your new born? Even worse put it to a anonymous vote.

Why would organisations - why would brands? We train companies in being open and social but inside philosophical parameters. Customers want to be involved in the process. But you can’t let them control everything.

If you do then you haven’t marketed to the British public before. Give us free reign and we have a cruel and wonderful sense of humour. So NERC could / should have been social without being stupid.

Last thing is we have to remember - This kind of thing has happened before…

If you had been in social media and digital marketing for a few years you would have none when this idea has backfired before.

In 2012, soft drinks brand Mountain Dew organised an online poll to name a new apple-flavoured drink. The message board 4chan hijacked the poll, and, at the time the “Dub the Dew” campaign was abandoned.

I love the quote from their spokesperson who simply said:

[We] lost to the internet....”

I love that statement. It admits the democratization of opportunity that social media and the digital world brings as Clay Shirky said "Here comes everybody."

So similar online votes elected to send Taylor Swift to play a charity concert at a school for the deaf and Justin Bieber to tour North Korea – both declined apparently. And sticking with music - one of my favourites - as it's a double meme whammy so extra geek points is the story of The Met's being Rick Rolled. With the "hijacked" online poll deciding that 80's pop crooner Rick AShtely seminal work "Never going to give you up" would be their entrance song. The real fans were NOT amused.

And then there is the Greenpeace PR moment - with the whale being called “Mr Splashy Pants” or something. But at least with GreenPeace they stuck with it and showed a good sense of humour and captured some of the engagement.

By listening, by understanding and using tone effectively, by re-engaging and playing along with the joke Greenpeace had the last laugh. The same can be said for other campaigns that went "west" like the Waitrose twitter campaign.

Another conclusion then….

It’s all about C’s in social media. It's what we train companies and marketing people. It's content. It's co creation. Which created communities and collective action. NERC had the content, they wanted conversations and co creation, and they needed this to create a community and to get collective action. They got a collective action but it wasn't the one they wanted.

How not? The key thing is they didn't listen. They handed the world something to play with and walked away. They left us to play with their brand. Not a good idea.

The key thing is that with social media you HAVE TO LISTEN.

You have to listen – if you don’t listen and monitor then like all conversations you are in danger of being rude. And us Brits, and maybe now the modern world, will mercilessly take the rip out of a brand that doesn’t listen.

But perhaps #BoatyMcBoatFace is something else perhaps it is the sign that no matter what we vote for - the men in the suits have to have IT their own way. With so many votes coming up - including a rather large one in America - I truly hope that is not the case....

As someone wonderfully asked Jo Johnson, the minister who axed the name:

Can you hear us, Jo Johnson? Je suis Boaty McBoatface. Nous sommes tous Boaty McBoatface.


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