News flash: the Internet is not the most honest place on Earth. And as high-profile hoaxes of late have shown, dishonesty online can have a myriad of effects.
A YouTube video revealing a shark in Lake Ontario went viral in early July. Within days, Discovery Channel fessed up: the video was a hoax intended to market its Shark Week, but the campaign was so successful parents were discouraging their kids from swimming in the Great Lakes. The pro-science, pro-health channel could hardly be seen discouraging children from physical activity and enjoying nature.
Before the reveal, even the most astute of social media mavens and traditional media outlets got snared in this net. It called to mind the wonders of April 1, 2014, where just about everyone (particularly Google), was putting out questionable news stories, tweets and videos — with many of them getting traction.
The hoax, like the traditional in-person practical joke, never seems to get old. It works when the news posted is outrageous, but also touches a nerve — such as an injustice, or when it offers free money. Celebrity deaths are often picked up. Faux job ads will make the rounds. Lately, content with video (easy to cook up with today’s editing tools), particularly entertaining ones, will get traction.
The hoax as a marketing tool is one social media marketers should handle with care. The content may seem funny in the office. But does it somehow offend as part of the joke? Will a person or a business experience a loss of reputation because of what you’ve done? There are victimless crimes, sure, but not that many of them.
More importantly, while the hoax never gets old, the Web is wising up. Once bitten, twice shy. Any outlet who got caught by the shark video is going to be extra wary next time. Annoying certain folks can make a campaign backfire and lead to brand damage.
As the window on this opportunity closes, would-be-hoaxers need to do due diligence before they try their own stunt. Does the message match what you’re trying to accomplish? Will there be no harm? Is there a plan A, B, C and beyond if things go badly? Is there follow-up to capitalize if you get lucky and go viral? And, perhaps most importantly, is the hoax content truly entertaining? If you’re going to try to fool them, at the very least, do it right.