Why the Daily Telegraph was right to try twitterfall despite the twitterfail and the lesson for marketers

The Daily Telegraph had a nice idea for its website – run a Twitterfall of terms related to the 2009 Budget in the UK, but within hours of it going up, people were – you guessed it – throwing up comments like “The Telegraph is the worst paper in the UK. I wouldn’t wipe my arse with it.” They took a pounding for it, but I think they were right to do it – even if they forgot the first rule of web2.0.

For those wondering, the first, most basic rule of web2.0 is that once you do it, you lose control, it’s out there and it’s a two-way thing. Skittles saw that recently when they switched out their homepage with social media sites, newspapers and other sites have been hammered by runaway comment sections. It’s a strength of 2.0 but also a weakness – the conversation is only as good as the lowest common denominator.

So it was a daft thing to do but easily seen coming – heck, I remember saying to someone before that if I worked at a paper still and my main competitor set up traffic/weather tweeting systems I’d have them down in less than a day as you could easily flood them with unreliable data if you know how to play the system.

(That might shock some people, but it’s worth remembering that while a lot of web2.0 is built on a fabric of goodwill, kindness, optimism and a little naivety, newspapers are ferocious places where you do what you can to screw over the competition. Hell, I once redirected a competitor’s phone to mine: all was fair in love and war for a scoop. And it was far worse in the 80s and 70s.)

So it was daft to do, but were they right to try it? Yes. They may have thought that people would have better things to do than take the mickey out the feed. (This may have been one of those times where having a PR person about might have had them point out the dangers to the editorial side.) It might even have been worth a SWOT analysis. Ultimately though, papers are trying to show what people are thinking out there and a Twitterfall is as good a way as any.

What they should have done was left it quiet until tomorrow then announced it was happening and what the hashtags would be. That and not started the Twitterfall until about an hour before the event. That way even if people were coming on with abuse, the real content would drown them out.

Another possibility might have been to use a form of Liveblogging instead of Twitter – but that would have involved more staffing and I suspect the appeal of Twitterfall was that it could be automated and Twitter is still the tech du jour amongst many.

Either way, like most experiments, was worth a try, a couple of lessons will have been learned and everyone will have forgotten about it in a couple of weeks – more than likely overshadowed by what’s actually in the budget.