« When your product itself has potential to go viral, create triggers to push it along | Main | Top 5 corporate blogging mistakes and how to avoid them »

September 24, 2008


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Learning from the 3M Post-It Note debacle: Social media ethics defined:


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.


Wow, thanks for the story -- guess I did miss this one. It's funny that in the blogosphere the "unwritten rules" of how to fairly treat people who create cool content via linking and such is well established, but as soon as you get major companies involved what seems common sense is a whole lot more funky.

Nice to see that the blogosphere offers a nice form of retribution for the afflicted parties!

- Fred


Thanks for helping to spread the story of 3M's social media missteps (to put it kindly). One other guideline I'd like to add - or perhaps to expand on your rule #1 - is "authenticity".

Users on the web are a lot more savvy than they were just a few years ago.

While this attempted viral campaign wasn't exactly "astroturfing" in the traditional sense, it was exposed as being a highly orchestrated recreation of a genuine, spontaneous event. One that was intended to fool the public.

Not cool, 3M. Not cool.


I'd say it's astounding but it's not really when you consider that the majority of companies don't really understand making conversation. They understand profits, not customers. Until these companies learn to work with content creators there will be more instances like this.

I wholeheartedly agree they made a huge mistake. I just wonder how long it's going to take before it's mainstream to talk with your customers that are doing cool things with your products rather than stealing from them.


Wow, I didn't know about that story but thanks for bringing it to my attention. That is a good case study on how a company should not react to a situation like this. The prank reminds me of a prank I was part of in college when a bunch of us completely placed tinfoil all over our friends room. I mean every inch of floor, wall, ceiling, books, tv, furniture, etc was covered. Too bad that didn't spread and get us some attention from the tin foil makers.



@Chel nails it 100%: "They understand profits, not customers"

All too often it is the large, old, public companies that simply do not (cannot?) understand how to use these situations effectively. They don't "get it" that operating behind a curtain of fear and absolute control is terrible for your brand these days.
(a link could be drawn to politics, but I'll leave that for a different discussion...)


Simple but effective list - reminds me of the "rules" they hang in martial art dojos.

In all fairness to 3M - they may not have known any better... I mean from their course of action from the pictures, it really doesn't sound like they understood how the whole social media thing worked...maybe they did, and if so then they deserve a slap on the wrist.

Thank you for sharing

Linas Simonis, PositioningStrategy

"They understand profits, not customers"

That's because CEOs and Wall Street are from finance world, not from customer service or sales or marketing.

David Meerman Scott

Good discussions. Thank you all for commenting.

While "they understand profits, not customers" is likely true, there another thing:

They listen to lawyers too much.

Many people tell me that the reason that their company is not involved in social media is because the lawyers tell them that they should "stay quiet." But in these cases, that exactly the wrong thing.



Re. Listening to the lawyers.

In this particular case, if they had consulted their in-house counsel, I'm sure the lawyers would have told them one of two things:

1) Don't contact the original photographer - you want to maintain plausible deniability that the similarities between his photos and ours are purely coincidental... or... 2) just pay the guy already.


I for one am boycotting 3M's products, and call on the rest of you to declare the same.

Scott Jacob

Another human trait may be in play here as well. I figure the person who goofed was probably young, right out of B-School and had a lofty vision of themself. "A few pranksters in a garage don't know anything about marketing - I can do better"

Why do people try to fight the tide of a viral bonanza? Ego, maybe...

Thanks as always,


Shel Holtz

You're spot on in everything you've said, David, as are preceding comments. However, this would have been unethical behavior in the pre-social media era. While I'm surprised to see 3M behaving this way, I would note that a bad idea is a bad idea whether it's enacted in the social media space or not.

Kami W Huyse

Somehow I missed this, but I have added it to my PRWorst tag at delicious and will use it as an example. As communicators in social media we really must learn to follow the rules of the road.

Funny thing is that under "normal" circumstances corporations like 3M are acutely aware of intellectual property issues. I find it interesting that they thought different rules applied in social media.

Some education is in order.


Michael D. Wentworth

The idea of giving recognition to others is a challenge for the corporate world where a employee's personal contributions are so critical. How does an employee prove their valuable by identifying how cool someone else is? In the social media world, that's value. But, sadly, that's not the case inside the Dilbert world.

Michael Banovsky

Great post. For those of us involved with social media on a daily basis, this sort of clueless marketing decision is sometimes hard to fathom. And, for those involved at 3M, the Internet promises to remember this incident for years to come. M!

Scott Monty

Sigh. When will people realize that "social media" doesn't mean "zero budget" or "you're free to steal my idea"? If anything, there should be even higher ethical standards than other forms of marketing because of the inherently personal nature of it.


I am still in awe over how someone from 3M could NOT have understood the ramifications of their decision regardless of their knowledge of social media.

The photographer

It's the 3M staff lawyers who should be strung up over this. I'm sure they are the ones who told 3M's E-Marketing Supervisor to stop responding to the emails (even though she had initiated the conversation). She was probably too junior to know any better.


Wow - 3M definitely will be used in my presentation as 'what not to do'. Thank you for sharing. Great case study and suggestions.

bryan elliott

Excellent case study. On a separate note, I found a great post by Peter Kim that highlights 134 brands and what they're doing in social media marketing. My blog has the post: http://bryanelliott.typepad.com

Thanks again!


As someone who's about to start a corporate blog initiative for a large group, I'm definitely saving this blog post just in case! Case and point well argued! :-)

Therese Minehan

Thanks for the case study and raising these very important tips. I was surprised to hear of 3Ms less then professional tactic, lets hope this awareness teachers other corporates to play fair.

Rebekah Donaldson

@ Scott -- say more about "If anything, there should be even higher ethical standards than other forms of marketing..." That's intruiging.

Rebekah Donaldson

These are good guidelines!

I hew to the Google mission statement re business ethics: “don’t be evil.”

Which of course is useless because it begs the question.

Still, though, it’s nice and short. Short is good. Long is usually evil.

SO, if forced, I'd rephrase as "don't lie, cheat or steal."

But wait... don't be a truth-telling, by-the-rules-playing, pay-for-what-you-take asshole either...

David Meerman Scott

Sometimes I say "If your mother would say it i wrong, it probably is..." David

Anonymous Musings

I find irony in the inevitable odds that a good portion of the people who are upset with this idea of a company lifting the intellectual property of an individual would find no problem in downloading or sharing music (or movies, or copying software) for which they have not paid.


Thank you for this post. You make a great point. I love your blog. I hope I get the chance to see you in Minneapolis this month.



Wow, I hadn't heard about this story. There's really no excuse for what 3M did. They may be new to social media, but "thou shall not steal" pre-dates media of any kind!

The comments to this entry are closed.


Your email address:

Powered by FeedBlitz

follow me

David Meerman Scott books

I want to speak at your next event!


David Meerman Scott e-books

David's iPhone and iPad apps

Blog powered by Typepad
Member since 12/2004