Walgreens Starts a Twitter War

Twitter Wars are riskyIf you’re going to start a Twitter war on behalf of your brand, you’d better make sure you have some key weapons in your arsenal:

  1. a simple, easy-to-understand story
  2. a fair and just cause
  3. an army of fans ready to fight for you

Yesterday, Walgreens started a Twitter war with Express Scripts, a prescription drug insurer–around a fairly complicated issue.  The company has created an entire web site dedicated to explaining why its contract negotiations with Express Scripts broke down.  It uses 326 words to describe the “Issues at a Glance“–contract negotiations don’t often lend themselves to being explained in 140 characters.

An issue like prescription coverage is a highly sensitive, personal issue.  For many customers, it’s hard to understand which large corporation they should blame when contract negotiations break down–and it’s always tough for a large national brand to credibly position itself as a victim.  (And do you really want to?)  Which makes this a tricky communications issue in any medium, let alone the minimalist world of Twitter.

Still, Walgreens had some other weapons in its arsenal:  Twitter’s Promoted Products.  It took to Twitter with this tweet, which it paid to promote yesterday:

[tweet https://twitter.com/Walgreens/status/157336319717146624]

The company also paid for #ILoveWalgreens to be a Promoted Trend.  Over the course of the day, the brand tweeted about the Express Scripts controversy several times (in addition to promoting other brand features), answered questions from customers about the issue, and engaged with both supporters and critics.

Walgreens ran #IloveWalgreens as a Promoted Trend during its Twitter war with Express Scripts

Adam Kmiec, Walgreen’s Director of  Social Media, tells us that Walgreens had three goals in taking the issue to Twitter:

  • “We wanted to tap into all the reasons people love Walgreens and drive awareness of this conversation beyond just our followers.
  • We also knew that there were thousands of customers who were upset and inconvenienced by not being able to use their in-network pharmacy benefits at Walgreens because of Express Scripts’ stance. We wanted to give these customers a forum to be heard online.
  • We also wanted to help make any transition as easy as possible and ensure that our patients fully understand the issue. So we also had a process to redirect them to the right answers or take the conversation offline.”

The use of paid advertising to drive these types of conversations, however, drew some vocal critics.

Some accused the company of trying to “pay for love;” others objected to the self-promotional language of the hashtag itself:

[tweet https://twitter.com/lruettimann/status/157545974280105985]

Express Scripts responded, tweeting out a series of 6 “Facts” about the negotiations with Walgreens. (“Fact 2:  Walgreens’ proposed rates/terms would make them the most expensive pharmacy in our network.”)

When companies start pointing fingers and slinging mud in public like this, nobody ends up looking good.  Over the course of the day, Walgreens shifted more and more of its tweets to issues other than the Express Scripts controversy.

So what about that army of fans?  According to Kmiec, the Promoted Products campaign reached more than 25 million people.  Twitter told Kmiec that it was “one of the best performing branded trends ever and reached performance levels usually associated with non-branded trends.”  Drugstore News reports that the positive tweets outweighed negative tweets by a ratio of 12 to 1.

Still, using paid messaging to manage a crisis was a risky move.  In spite of the reported numbers, the “conversation” was not always a positive one, and marketers who are thinking of using the service to appeal to the public should be prepared for rough terrain.

#IloveWalgreens tweets: even with Promoted Products, Twitter can be rough terrain for marketers

What do you think?  Gutsy move that showed customers that Walgreens wasn’t afraid to take on a tough issue?  Or did Walgreens make a PR crisis worse by adding fuel to the fire?