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What Should Sports Legends Challenge Do Now? (or “How Do You Recover From Complete and Total Social Media Disaster?”)

BREAKING NEWS: They made Spam better.
Creative Commons License photo credit: brownpau

Last month, I laid out the massive unethical social media and online community marketing campaign being executed by Sports Legends Challenge, an upcoming poker tournament that has major athletes (like Jim Brown, Joe Namath, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Troy Aikman and Tony Hawk) and sponsors (like JetBlue, Fox Sports Radio and the Visa Black Card) associated with it.

I’m not going to rehash the gory details here – please read the original post for all of the information. From spamming hundreds of forums and social sites to intimidation via Twitter and deceptive marketing – it’s all there.

Since it was published, I’ve received a lot of traffic to the post from the Atlanta area, where the company is based, including someone who was searching for my home address. I had a phone conversation with Bruce Bibbero, the CEO of the company, that was mixed at best. Though he suggested it would be investigated, I’ve heard and seen nothing of this. In fact, just the opposite. The past damage remains and new damage continues to be made. Just on Friday, I (of all people in the world – me) received an unsolicited e-mail advertisement from the company (screenshot).

So, I got to thinking. If I was Sports Legends Challenge or, better yet, I was someone that Sports Legends Challenge turned to, to clean up this mess, what would I do? For added perspective beyond my own, I reached out to a few friends who I knew would be able to provide me with valuable insight.

They are Brandon Eley, Interactive Director at Kelsey Advertising  & Design, founder of online shoe retailer 2BigFeet.com and co-author of “Online Marketing Inside Out”; Jeremy Wright, CEO at digital strategy agency netmobs, co-founder of b5media and author of “Blog Marketing”; Jason Falls, principal at Social Media Explorer and Martin Reed of community management blog Community Spark and the administrator of the JustChat.co.uk, Female Forum and Soap Forum communities.

“There’s, sadly, a certain side of this that is… awe inspiring,” Jeremy tells me, talking via e-mail. “It’s like the PR company for iPhone developers that turned dozens of apps into sensations and generated millions in new sales through underhanded techniques. They’re being paid to get X result, and the client doesn’t ask why, but is very happy when they get X result times 10. Part of the problem, I think, is that clients don’t ask questions when the results are good enough, so agencies learn that results matter more than anything else. Forgiveness is more important than permission.”

The marketing for Sports Legends Challenge, from all appearances, has been in house and, even if it wasn’t, that wouldn’t take the responsibility away from the company.

“I think some companies also think this kind of behavior is okay, as long as folk don’t find out,” Jeremy adds. “My guess is they start on a slippery slope of paying for opinions, then paying regular folk to make up opinions, then spinning significant fiction to support those opinions, as happened here.”

As they engage in more and more suspect activities and continue to push the envelop, more and more activities become acceptable and justifiable.

“At each step, not only is that step logical, but they figure that if someone found out a bit about it, they wouldn’t mind much,” he says. “Companies will be companies after all. It’s only when, A, someone finds out about everything or, B,  they start to have to defend the lies with more lies; that things get out of hand. In effect, companies forget that if you’d be ashamed of someone finding out the entire extent of your program, you probably shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”

In light of this, the first thing that needs to happen is for them to realize that what they are and have been doing is simply wrong and admit to it. Right now, the company has fostered a culture of unethical marketing and if there is to be any change of tide, they have to understand that these tactics are not acceptable.

“I think the first and most important thing the company would need to do in this situation is admit to the wrong doing,” Brandon said. “Publicly and from the very top of the company – otherwise it would have no weight whatsoever. They need to acknowledge that they had been a part of unethical, and possibly illegal marketing tactics.” All of us agree that they need to apologize in a public fashion.

“The first thing I would recommend is for them to set up a page on their website that apologizes for the errant behavior of people who were approaching the social media space on their behalf, but doing so in a very commercial and spam-laden way,” Jason says. “They should say they recognize that is not the appropriate way to get the word out to interested people about their event and they are sorry for the intrusion before. I would also recommend they ask anyone experiencing any further spam related to their event to report it in the comments of that page so they can address it swiftly.”

“They need to explain why they acted in that way,” suggests Martin. “Company policy? Their own idea?  Then they need to explain how they are going to move forward from here. An apology only goes so far – they need to assure people that they won’t continue to do this in the future. It may be hard convincing people, but they need to try.” Brandon feels that a video apology would help, as well, perhaps containing mentions of the communities that were affected.

Beyond just apologizing generally, they need to reach out to those that they spammed or took advantage of and apologize to them directly and clean up their mess. This will be an arduous process where they need to track down as many of the people they spammed as possible, likely through the help of search engines and those who did the spamming. But, it won’t be much more arduous than the act of spamming was, in the first place. They can start with all of the sites mentioned in my post.

Once these sites are located, they need to e-mail or otherwise contact the owner of the site or the staff, explain what they did, link to their spam and apologize, taking full responsibility for the intrusion. They should politely request that the spam be removed and apologize for wasting the time of the community’s staff.

It’ll never be fully cleaned up, but once drastic measures have been taken to fix the majority of these mistakes, they need to do everything that they can to ensure it doesn’t happen again. Brandon suggests the drafting of marketing guidelines for all employees and agents to follow. These would outline precisely what are and are not acceptable marketing tactics. And then, they need to make sure that those guidelines are closely followed.

Beyond a wholesale clean up and apologies, what else can they do, to not only make amends, but to go further and hopefully start to  build a positive relationship?

“I would recommend that they make up for the intrusion on the social media community by providing something of value back to the community,” Jason says. “Maybe it’s some exclusive poker tips from the celebrities involved, a certain number of free tickets to the event or even credit on a poker site they’re associated with. A make-nice is warranted. The more engaging it is and more excited it gets people, the better.”

He even feels that they could turn this around from being an excellent example of the absolute wrong way to market an event, to being a leader in acceptable and ethical marketing practice.

Counting cards
Creative Commons License photo credit: asubtleglance

“If they really want to go the extra mile, they should take a vocal and public stand – even a leadership role – in helping identify and weed out poker and casino-related spam marketers out there,” he elaborates.  “Aside from pharmaceutical messaging and adult entertainment websites, poker sites are perhaps the most notorious online spam purveyors out there. The only way the poker or casino industry is going to clean up their act online is if someone from inside the industry takes a stand and leads the charge. That is the single-biggest area of impact Sports Legends Challenge can make with this. If they do, they’ll get a ton more customers than if they keep up the unwanted, intrusive spam.”

But, will it be enough? I think we all agree in saying that none of this makes up for the damage they’ve done, but that it could put them on the road of responsibility, allowing people to see them in a better light and, perhaps, in time, be thought of in a good way.

“In my opinion, the reputations of these individuals have been shot to pieces,” Martin says. “Do they even have a reputation? They need to work hard to get it back, or just start over from scratch. Either way, they need to recognize their error and radically change the way they do business. Over time, hopefully people will come to trust them again. If not, it just goes to show that reputation is hard to build, but easy to destroy.”

When companies screw up this badly, there is no quick fix to it,” Jeremy concurs.  “What I mean is that when a company screws up a little bit, they could have bought an ad, publicly apologized, flown some bloggers out or something that showed ‘contrition.’ This works for things that are the equivalent to breaking your neighbor’s window when you’re a kid. I think there are also some reasonably quick ways to deal with situations that are more ‘you killed your neighbor’s cat.’ A bit more effort and time would be required, but we’re talking weeks, not months or years.”

“However, if you accidentally blow up your neighbour’s house? Well, that’s what this is like, and that’d take a lot more than just contrition or some reparations to make that relationship positive again. It’d take a complete reimagining of how you two interact, for a significant period of time.”

8 responses

  1. […] result is an article on my personal site that I hope lays out a strong blueprint that would allow such a company or individual to make an attempt at restoring their […]

  2. Jeez, crossing you off of their e-mail list would’ve been a start…

  3. LOL, Seamus. :)

  4. […] have to go into elevator pitches everytime we introduced ourselves. Patrick’s recent post on How to Recover from Social Media Failure  (paraphrased) is a great example of his thought leadership in this […]

  5. It seems to me these marketing guys have just got a bit out of line…no doubt they are fairly new to the game.

    However, I can’t blame them. It is nigh on impossible to get legitimate publicity in the poker industry….pretty similar to any other competitve market. The poker sites won’t talk about it because it is a rival company behind it, while the affiliates would not be interested.

    To call this spam is a little bit rich. They did have a geuine, unique product and seemed they just wanted to spread the word. Sometimes things need a boost. Don’t tell me you have never asked anyone to Tweet a post or Digg a story or Sphinn an article.

    Before having a go at one company why not dig a bit deeper and see what other poker sites are doing..namely cheating Google.

    The well respected PokerStars indulges in some shady stuff. Take a look at this news story (disguised advertorial) found through Google News in a respected UK online newspaper.


    seems harmless but is in fact giving links to three of PokerStars sites. No mention of it being advertorial /paid links.

    The company sponsors apoker league on the newspaper website.

    Shouldn’t this be the type of site you are ‘outing’ rather than the one you talk about?

    Nice research though:)

  6. Hello Dave,

    Thank you for your comment.

    I disagree very strongly. Yes, I have asked people to tweet about something or Digg something or Stumble something, sure. But, that is not what Sports Legends Challenge did. In fact, no activity like that is mentioned in my article. It is difficult to discuss this because, from your comment, it seems as though you did not read my full, first article.

    Let me give you an example. One of the things I mention in my post is:

    1. Post spam message linking to your site. Post is removed, you are banned.
    2. I e-mail you telling you not to post these sorts of things on my site again.
    3. Posting from the very same IP, a new account asks what resort experience my members recommend for him and his fiancee.
    4. My members make legitimate suggestions.
    5. That new account comes back and begins to introduce your tournament once again.

    Yet, in your comment, you reference my whole article and say “to call this spam is a little rich.” In my opinion, that is the very definition of spam, but not just that, it is deceptive and unethical. You are deceiving my members, lying to them and wasting their time. We may disagree in the definition of spam.

    What I am saying is that, as detailed in my article, it goes much, much deeper than you indicated. To spam online communities into the triple (maybe quadruple) digits, acting like you have no affiliation to the event – that is spamming to me.

    I have been managing online communities for 9 years and it is something that I am deeply passionate about. I’ve seen plenty of spam. I have never seen anything like this. I didn’t really have to out them as much as I did have to connect the public dots.

    I make no comments or judgment regarding the cases you speak about. My goal here was not to talk about everyone in the world who is doing unethical marketing. If I did, I’d have plenty of my own people to talk about. I deal with unethical marketing every day on my forums and I never talk about it. No, this is different. This case was so widespread and so massive that I could not sit idly by and let this company take advantage of the online community space so obviously and blatantly and get away with it.

    Just because others do wrong, that does not justify what Sports Legends Challenge did. Nor does it mean I should ignore it. If you encounter a massive, documentable trail of unethical online marketing, I urge you to take it up with the appropriate parties and to do what is appropriate to expose it, if such action is required.



  7. Hi Patrick,

    I am interested – did the company receive widespread criticism too? I wonder if their spam actually harmed them enough to be counter-productive. One would like to think so.


    1. Hey Kal,

      Thanks for the comment and interest. I reached out to several publications that had covered the event or were sponsoring it to inform them and no one wanted to pick it up. My article was passed around a little bit and, eventually, the event was canceled. I don’t know what impact my writing had, but as I mentioned, I did receive a call from the CEO. I believe it was meaningfully harmful to them, though to what extent is unclear.



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