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McDonald’s decided to spend its money buying a hashtag on the popular social media website Twitter.

First, I’d like to know how you can buy a hashtag, but that’s an aside. The real issue is what happened after McDonald’s changed its hashtag from #MeetTheFarmers to #McDStories.

The original hashtag was meant to introduce McDonald’s Twitter followers to the company’s promotion of fresh produce. It worked well. Then, in a flash of brilliance that turned out to be not so brilliant, the company’s social media manager decided to open the door to the universe by expanding its Twitter promotion. Enter #McDStories.

Who doesn’t have a positive McDonald’s story, right? Indeed. And who doesn’t have a negative one. Duh.

You can probably guess what happened next. Followers started using the new hashtag to relate their own McDonald’s stories – chipped molars, regurgitation, food poisoning …. The list goes on.

I think the big lesson here is not how to respond to negative reactions on Twitter or some other social media site. Rather, the real lesson is how to prevent it from happening in the first place. This all could have been prevented had McDonald’s not insisted on opening the door to the universe. All they had to do was keep running the promotion that was working.

When things are going well, don’t change them. Rule #1. Rule #2 is, always ask what might go wrong.

Had McDonald’s social media manager lived by those two rules we wouldn’t be talking about them right now. That second question is particularly important. In social media – and on the World Wide Web in general – once something starts spiraling out of control, it’s hard to get a handle on it. If it’s out there, it’s out there. So put some thought into your moves before you make them. Ask, what can go wrong with this? If the answer is something too big to control or too embarrassing to let go on, don’t make your move. Do something else, or nothing at all.

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