Digital marketing started to find its footing in the late 1990s, but it really kicked into high gear over the past decade or so. In that time, there have been countless examples of companies trying something new — and not always for the better, and making digital marketing mistakes along the way. Digital marketing can be a fickle mistress — it’s not always clear what the results of a new campaign will be, and there are plenty of ways for it to go wrong. But one thing that’s become more and more clear is that when something goes wrong, it usually goes wrong for the same reasons over and over.

As San Francisco’s only B Corp-certified digital marketing agency, these are the kinds of gaffes that we help our clients to sidestep or overcome every day. We felt it was important to take a few minutes and spread some of that knowledge around to our audience too. As far as we’re concerned, helping everyone to market their business with greater care and to greater effect is good for our industry as a whole. Digital marketing shouldn’t be a zero-sum game, bringing us to our first digital marketing mistake.

Treating Digital Marketing as a Zero Sum Game

In game theory, a zero-sum game describes a condition wherein it’s only possible for one party to benefit at another party’s expense. Like, if there are two monkeys and ten bananas, they each get five. For either monkey to benefit, those extra bananas must come from her friend’s pile. One increase is balanced by one decrease.

Digital marketing isn’t like that. Rather, it’s a positive sum game, where the increase doesn’t come at anyone’s expense — it just increases the total pool. Things get messy when brands treat digital marketing as though it were inherently predatory and try to undercut rather than outperform each other.

It comes off as petty, for one thing, but it’s also destructive for the industry as a whole. A lot of strong innovation comes from a desire to thrive and excel, and by focusing your efforts on sabotaging another brand, the whole lot of us lose out on the opportunity to witness innovation and experimentation that we, our brands and clients, and our audiences could all benefit from.

Misreading Your Audience

This one’s tricky, but when it goes wrong, it goes really wrong.

Trying to get in touch with your audience is a great idea. We’re big fans of drafting Personas to help establish whom you’re marketing for and how to best communicate with them. But these personas should be deeply written characters with coherent motivations and well-thought-out lives. They should not be the kind of one-dimensional, giant-headed, satirical caricatures you commission at carnivals. When you reduce your audience to a few traits, you set yourself up for monumental failure and universal ridicule.


Take Microsoft, for example. In a rare turn a couple of years ago, Microsoft decided to try a new approach when recruiting interns: getting hip with the Millennial jive (and if you thought that was tone-deaf, just wait and see what Microsoft came up with).

In a recruitment email for college students in the Bay Area, Microsoft promised an after-party for “bae interns” replete with “hella noms, lots of dranks, [and] the best beats.”

“Here’s to getting lit on a Monday!” shouted Microsoft, in rapturous exuberance, while Millennials everywhere cringed mightily.

So, let’s unpack this digital marketing mistake. They promised food, drink, and music, then ran it through a Jersey Shore thesaurus, but their efforts to seem “hip” backfired harder than when your uncle tried to rap Usher songs at wedding karaoke. And as icing on the cake for any recreational pharmacologists on their mailing list, that’s not what ‘drank’ means. Since I’m assuming Steve Ballmer doesn’t spend his weekends robotripping, I’m forced to conclude that this was a case of failure to fact-check.

Their approach came off as more than just out of touch. It was downright insulting to the one group of people they wanted to reach (twenty-somethings and prospective interns) and utterly ridiculous to everyone else. That brings us to our next section.

Lacking Good Judgement

Ever watch a commercial, or witness a digital marketing campaign and think to yourself, “how could they have thought this was a good idea?” So have we.

Take McDonald’s UK’s exploitative ad in which a young boy, asking his mother about his deceased father, turns melancholic as he realizes how little he seems to have in common with the man, until he, awestruck, his heart filling with pride, discovers that he and his father both enjoyed the fish sandwich. It’s so absurd that it’s above parody. The ad was quickly pulled amid serious backlash, but the damage was done. The Filet O’ Fish is now inseparably entwined with childhood bereavement in the minds of many.

Another major recent example was Pepsi’s ad in which Kendall Jenner offers a refreshing soda to a riot cop, defusing a tense moment during a Black Lives Matter protest, apparently ending racism forever with the healing magic of fizzy corn syrup. It was presumptuous, infantilizing, thoughtless, and uniquely capable of pissing off everyone. Either you’re on the side of the protest, in which case the ad comes off like a slap in the face, or you’re on the side of the riot cops, where you feel lampooned and offended. In either case, no matter where you stand, your values are being mocked.

There are dozens of examples of digital marketing mistakes like these (and plenty of hilarious listicles ready to name-drop them), but you get the idea.

How do you avoid making the same mistake? Step outside your own shoes, get a focus group, ask your mother, and avoid leveraging anything somber, sensitive, or substantial for personal gain. If it’s tasteless, don’t run it.

Boarding Bandwagons Blindly

This next one isn’t so much about tastelessness, necessarily, but it does come from a lack of good judgment. In this case, the error comes from an overzealous or uncautious jump onto a new trend without stopping to wonder whether it’s right for your particular brand. Augmented Reality is a great example. Now, we’re big fans of augmented reality marketing here at Colibri, but that doesn’t mean that we’d counsel every single one of our clients to make it a marketing priority yet.

Now, for some brands, this is pretty obvious. There aren’t too many ways that augmented reality could help a law firm, for instance, at least not with the kind of tech applications we’re seeing on the market right now. But what about a tech company? What about a major tech company with a huge financial stake in AR and VR technology? Even they may get ahead of themselves.


Take Facebook’s recent misstep with their Oculus Rift video, in which a cartoon avatar of Zuckerberg tours the hurricane-stricken Puerto Rico, showing off the impending “Spaces” service. Now, sure, the choice of venue is pretty tasteless. But that’s not the only reason this marketing initiative was a dud. Despite its best efforts, the ad made the Oculus seem like Google Glass all over again. Now the Oculus does have some very real applications for gaming, education, teleconferencing, and creating versatile ad hoc workspaces. Still, it’s a long way off from even a serviceable VR experience. Its low resolution and uncanny focus cause headaches, eye strain, and motion sickness after even short periods of use. Beyond that, the tech is years away from being able to offer the everyday AR experience Facebook seems to envision. The demo video comes across as insular, self-congratulatory, and deluded.

As far as tech bandwagons go, just ask and answer two questions before hopping on board: does this feel like a natural place for your brand, and does it seem like something your audience will be excited to engage with? If so, go forth and conquer. If not, maybe find another avenue.

And while we’re on the subject of tech, and public perception, we come to our last digital marketing mistake.

Feeding the Trolls

Now, we can’t say that this is entirely within a brand’s control, but sometimes it’s like brands are deliberately setting up the punchlines. There are a ton of memorable examples of this. The Chevy Nova and Ford Pinto come to mind (and a small wonder they didn’t sell well in primarily Hispanic markets). Still, the digital marketing era takes those opportunities to whole new levels. With digital marketing comes interactivity.

Burger King

Consider Burger King’s recent marketing experience. In a coy attempt to sneak extra ad space and play with some 4th wall breaking, the company ran an ad that took advantage of speech recognition tech in Google Home devices. While A&W has been running five- or fifteen-second ads for a while now, they have doubled down on brevity. Burger King went the other way, using their 15 seconds of ad time to say something to the effect of “we can’t tell you everything about the whopper in fifteen seconds, so we have an idea instead — ‘OK Google, what is the whopper burger?’” Any Android or Google Home devices would then read out the Wikipedia description of the Whopper, extending the ad time in a harmless little gambit.

Except, in the days before Google cracked down and pushed an update to its devices to prevent them from falling for the ploy, the Wikipedia page was routinely vandalized to list all sorts of jokes and ingredients, letting the ad unknowingly self-sabotage itself in a perfect feat of trolling.

Trolling 101 teaches that if you give them a canvass, they will paint.


In these cases, it’s all about how your brand reacts. Take it in stride, and make something new if you can. Take Wendy’s for a great example. Their Twitter feed is a source of endless mirth precisely because they’re willing to play the game, and join in on the trolling.

Interchanges like these are par for the course, and people are absolutely loving the brand engagement:

digital marketing mistakes
Screenshot: @Wendy’s Twitter (

How to Avoid Digital Marketing Mistakes

If there’s one thing we hope we’ve made clear, it’s that when digital marketing mistakes are made, it tends to be for a few fairly common but easily manageable reasons:

  • Lacking authenticity.
    Living in a bubble and coming off as tasteless.
    Making hasty generalizations about your audience.
    Not anticipating the potential for ripostes.
    Marketing your brand in avenues where it just isn’t a great fit.

So, so long as you steer clear of those basic digital marketing mistakes, your brand should be able to navigate the digital marketing landscape with grace and dignity.

Colibri Digital Marketing

Navigating the digital marketing landscape with grace and dignity about sums us up. We’re the digital marketing agency in the heart of Silicon Valley, ready and able to market your business in the 21st century. If you’re ready to work with the best, go ahead and click the big friendly button to schedule your free digital marketing strategy session! It’s a great way to give your digital marketing a check-up and identify any potential digital marketing mistakes, problem spots, and pitfalls before that fateful misstep!