Hackers: The Flies in Social Media Marketing Ointment
Marketers are just beginning to get a handle on the myriad ways social networks can be used for brand-building, but some ugly problems are threatening to spoil the party. Hackers have been tampering with some of the most exciting and potentially lucrative channels -- like Twitter and Pinterest -- smearing brands, blasting obscenities and stealing customer data.
02/25/13 5:00 AM PT
Did you hear? McDonald's has just acquired Burger King! Also, someone at the company apparently has a potty mouth. Another unusual and unexpected corporate trade also happened last week -- Cadillac acquired Jeep.
These events, of course, didn't really happen. In both instances, hackers gained control of the brands' Twitter accounts and began sending out erroneous -- and in some cases, highly offensive and racist -- tweets.
The companies soon seized back control of their accounts, and life went on.
Most likely that will be the upshot of the latest attack, which involved Zendesk. However, because it provides help desk software from the cloud and hosts customer support portals, the hack of its system may have more widespread repercussions.
A hacker penetrated Zendesk's network last week and -- unbeknownst to its administrators -- accessed the accounts of three of its clients, the company acknowledged.
The hacker had access to the support systems those clients store in Zendesk's systems and apparently was able to download the email addresses of users who requested support.
Zendesk didn't name the customers, but they have been identified in multiple news accounts as Twitter, Tumblr and Pinterest.
A small percentage of its users may have been affected but no passwords were involved, Twitter tweeted.
Zendesk declined to provide further details.
The Drip, Drip, Drip of Social Media Hacks
None of this is pleasant for the companies involved, which must deal with the painstaking work of patching the security breaches, notifying customers, and doing what they can to rehabilitate their reputations in their eyes.
While these hacks may have been inconsequential in terms of monetary damage, they surely will lodge somewhere in consumers' memories. Even if only vaguely, consumers may associate a social media campaign of a certain company -- or by a certain provider, such as Twitter or Zendesk -- as unreliable, especially if these episodes continue.
Furthermore, what about the struggling-to-emerge social commerce sector? Consumers are not likely to trust their purchasing information or personal data to a channel that is routinely breached.
There is no sign that companies will loosen their embrace of social media en masse due to security concerns, however.
"Some companies will shy away from social media tools, because they may not have the proper guidance to handle these hacks, said Susan Baroncini-Moe, author of Business in Blue Jeans, scheduled for publication in May.
As the situation stands right now, "the better solution is to increase security and improve their handling of the problems that do arise," she told CRM Buyer.
Risk vs. Reward
Right now, the benefits of using social media outweigh the costs, especially for small businesses, said Bill Corbett, Jr., president of Corbett Public Relations, who recently hosted a Social Media Action Camp in New York City. The day-long event was attended mainly by small and medium-sized businesses.
"Hacking was mentioned, but it was not a major concern of attendees," Corbett told CRM Buyer.
"Small business, in my opinion, and from those that I speak with, will continue to use social media and will expand the use of social and digital media in the years to come," he predicted.
That may be because small businesses are operating on the assumption that a hacker is more interested in their larger counterparts, Corbett speculated.
Nevertheless, the long-term trend looks worrisome for brands' relationships with Twitter, said David Johnson, principal of Strategic Vision.
Hacker attacks will jeopardize the integrity of social media campaigns if they start occurring often enough, he told CRM Buyer, and they will make the general public less willing to respond.
"It could throw into question the entire trust factor for these campaigns and channels," Johnson warned.
The industry is not at that point yet, he acknowledged, "but each hack gets us closer."