Lessons from a (failed) social media campaign

Failure might not be as sweet as a resounding success, but it’s certainly the fastest way to learn. I thought I would share my first dalliance with a sort-of-integrated-campaign so that others can learn some lessons from my errors, and maybe point out things that I missed. I entered the company organizing TEDxYouth Berlin as an intern in late October, and was keen to flex my mind as quickly as possible. Here are the results:

The brief

While TEDx Berlin had almost sold out, relatively few people had signed up to attend TEDxYouthBerlin. The problem seemed to be that the target group, 13-21 year-olds, tend not to make arrangements in advance – if they were to come, they would probably decide on the day. With about two weeks until the conference, we needed to create a buzz which would get people talking, excite them to make that jump, and come along for what was to be an inspiring and enjoyable afternoon.


I met with the TEDxYouth board, a group of sparky teenagers from around Berlin, and listened as they spoke about their idea – to paint the leaves of trees outside local schools with white paint, and to hang TEDxYouth flyers from them. This seemed like a fun idea which would certainly get people talking, but it would be a lot of work, and might get them into trouble. Thinking of novel ‘guerrilla’ ideas, I was reminded of a theatrical production at university that relied on the curiosity of individuals to publicise their play. They sent out messages containing a phone number – when it was dialed, the caller would hear a robotic message telling them to arrive at a certain place at a certain time. There, they met a mysterious guide and were taken to the theatre.

This seemed perfect for TEDxYouth – our target group consisted of naturally curious young people, a demographic that carried mobile phones and were eager to explore. I mentioned the idea to the youth board, and they thought it might have a positive impact.


We had to decide on a way to spread the number, and to attract people to call it. Drawing on the name Ted, I designed a few posters playing on the question “Who is TED X.?” and “Where is TED X.?”. The board settled on one which included a grainy image of a young man (it’s me, by the way).

The board discussed the poster with some friends, who told them that they probably would dial the number. We bought a Pay-As-You-Go sim card, and recorded a message on it, telling callers about the location of TEDxYouthBerlin, and to visit the web site.

Web and Social Media

I wanted to create a story behind the poster: a mysterious and charismatic young man called TED X. was arriving in Berlin and would appear at the time and the location of the TEDxYouth conference. The posters were to be placed around Berlin by an anonymous group trying to track him down. ‘They’ would set up a WordPress blog and a Twitter account, which curious individuals could access and interact with, and which would eventually lead them to the main TEDxYouth Berlin site.

The WordPress site, with a map and disguised links to the TEDxYouth Berlin website


The Twitter page

Meanwhile, Ted himself was looking for friends. I created a Ted X. profile page on Facebook, and gave the youth board its login details. Their job was to Friend request every schoolgirl and boy in Berlin overnight. In finding a Friend request, curious and web-savvy young people would search for Ted X, and come across the TEDx site. Their curiosity would also be piqued by the sudden appearance of hundreds of TED X. posters.  For more direct access, we also put a link in the profile’s info page.

Ted Ix (Ted X) – the Facebook profile

What went wrong?

For those of you hardened in the world of guerrilla and social media campaigns, some difficulties that might have arisen are probably immediately obvious:

  • We didn’t have enough time. In order to create an integrated campaign like the one wanted to enact, we would need to have meticulously planned the putting up of posters, the creation of an attractive and believable story, and the development of our online media beyond the slap-dash pages we created.
  • We didn’t do enough work. Social media takes time and guts to operate and make sticky, and for sites to appear when searched for. With the youth board at school, and while I was working on arranging TEDxBerlin, there were too few people to keep it up. In terms of the posters – Berlin is a huge city. In order to create any sort of real impact, we would have needed to travel huge distances, and to have spent hours sticking up posters.
  • The idea wasn’t totally clear. Who was supposed to be looking for TED? Were they in charge of the Twitter account? Where did the Facebook profile fit in? None of this was entirely obvious to me or the youth board, creating gaps in the concept through which we could lose potential attendees.

There were, however, more unforeseeable problems:

  • The youth board got busted. The schools they targeted weren’t happy about them putting up posters and spraying their trees white (though they did use washable chalk-paint).
  • Facebook has some security settings. Our TED X. character couldn’t add very many friends as a certain number of rejections causes the account to be temporarily blocked. Nonetheless, he did make 65 friends, and we recieved a lot of messages asking who we were. Hopefully some ended up clicking a link on his page that took them to the main TEDxYouth Berlin site.

The real death knell came, however, when we realized that

  • The answerphone message didn’t work. Calling the number took the caller to an automated message recorded by the mobile service provider. The posters, then, became forgettable and practically useless.


In conclusion, the idea itself probably wasn’t right given the timeframe and workforce we had.

Luckily, although I can’t claim any hand in it, the turnout for the conference was actually very good, and everyone who attended had a fantastic time. Our mini-campaign might not have worked, but it definitely made me think about how I would do things in the future.

  1. Firstly, it’s vitally important to know the ins-and-outs of the technology being used and the security settings of social media platforms.
  2. Beyond this, any sort of integrated campaign requires a lot of time and detailed knowledge about the target area and group. It’s not a good idea to start a complicated campaign without ironing out its intricacies first.
  3. Lastly, each element needs to clearly link to the next. Even if people had been interested in the Ted X. character, it’s unlikely that they would have got beyond this first step. An air of mystery might make a campaign exciting, but it becomes useless if it acts as a barrier.

I’d like to thank Stephan Balzer, Stephanie Igunbor, red onion and the TEDxYouth Berlin board for supporting this little  experiment – it might not have worked, but it was very useful as an exploratory exercise.

If anyone reading has spotted some more lessons I could learn, I’d love to read your comments.

3 thoughts on “Lessons from a (failed) social media campaign

  1. Good case study Jack. Ambitious idea, shame you hit some snags.

    The fact that you’re analysing and learning from your mistakes puts you a couple of steps ahead of most social media “gurus” out there! Plus, because everyone’s making up this stuff as they go along, it’s still OK to make mistakes… as long as the client gets the risks you’re taking/your account handler is good at BSing them.

    In terms of results, would be good to know what kind of numbers you did achieve…

    Keep learning!

    • Thanks James – you’re right, I should keep an eye on numbers next time. Unfortunately the whole idea ended up being pretty poorly executed, but worked well as an experiment.

      Just remembered I promised you my diss. – I’ll send it over this evening. Really liked your interview in Slow Travel today.


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