I Got Death Threats for a Server Outage That Customers Thought Was a Shady Campaign
The ultimate story of a marketing campaign gone wrong
The ultimate story of a marketing campaign gone wrong
Imagine getting death threats for a campaign you’re running. Now imagine if that campaign wasn’t a campaign at all, it’s a server outage.
A technical time-bomb that’s out of anyone’s control — and it’s blown up in your face.
At hour 1, it started as a fun campaign.
By hour 24 our plans were hijacked by a server outage. The campaign was abandoned.
By hour 48 it was a public crucifixion and a call for my head.
This is the story of a marketing campaign gone wrong and my diminishing hope for online etiquette.
Are You a Member of Any Mob?
If you have a problem with a specific company, do you go looking for an individual that simply works there? Me neither.
However, I’ve learned first hand that a lot of people do.
Last November, I got a text from a family member asking me if I was OK. They’d read threats that I was tagged in on Facebook from customers of a company I worked with.
I logged on to find death threats and rude comments on my public Facebook wall and in my private messages.
“You are a f**king scumbag, I hope you die.”
“You better watch out.”
“How can you steal from people like this with no warning, you thief! You’ll get what’s coming to you.”
“I used to like you.”
Unfortunately, they went on and on. Someone on a public forum even compared me to convicted sex-offender Harvey Weinstein, for my potential involvement in this “campaign.” A tad too far, don’t you think?
The wild thing was, it wasn’t part of the campaign at all.
Media Blackout, Meet Server Outage
These abusive comments coincided with a complete website migration for a company I do work for. They were in the process of changing their entire front and back-end systems and migrating 20 years of data from Magento to Shopify Plus.
It was a big job for a small team on a pandemic-friendly budget. What could go wrong?
Many companies, music artists, influencers perform fun media blackouts as a way to draw attention to their brand. This often coincides with a rebranding and was a perfect fit for what was due to happen… the site had to go down anyway.
The website was turned off with a 503 error code. This means scheduled maintenance and partnered with a nostalgic email from the CEO — it was hoped that fans would start to get excited about what the company was changing.
The plan was to leave it 24 hours while migration occurred and then flip on the new website over the weekend with a countdown timer for Monday’s launch. Minimal disruption to customers, but creating maximum intrigue… how wrong that assumption was.
Unfortunately, the website was turned off on one platform (Magento) and couldn’t be turned back on (to Shopify Plus). The back-end company Cloudflare suffered some form of technical server outage and was unable to process the website’s SSL certificate.
No e-commerce store is safe or trusted without it. What started as a fun campaign was quickly becoming a nightmare. It went sour, fast.
Online chatter escalated and rumors started about the company going bust during COVID-19 or being bought out… and taking everyone's purchased digital content with it.
Without any indication when the server was due to generate our SSL certificate, we and the campaign were dead in the water.
Customers Started To Look for Someone To Blame
With no sign of a new website on launch day and no confirmation of the rumors, tensions rose and a target was chosen — me.
Some believed the lack of a timely relaunch was part of some arrogant and shady campaign to snub them for caring about the brand, stringing them along like a cat chasing a ball of yarn.
Customers thought they were being manipulated and toyed with for fun. This was far from the truth.
It Was Snowballing Out of Control
As frustrated forum posts skyrocketed, staff were frantically working behind the scenes to find a solution, calling anyone and everyone who could shine more light on this outage. The team call that day lasted seven long hours and bathroom breaks were taken on mute… gross, I know.
The team collectively decided that it would be best to only speak publicly when we knew more information about when it would be fixed. We were already in deep water, so we felt it wasn’t worth swimming until we knew which direction land was in.
Everyone was flying blind, but emailing over 100,000 customers who would proceed to frantically refresh and page request your site while it’s down, probably isn’t a good idea.
Reactivating our social media to mention a server outage would also spoil the rebrand, especially if it could be fixed within a few hours.
We were between a rock and a hard place. React, spoil the rebrand, and look incompetent or stay offline until we had some more information, an ETA of when the problem could be fixed, and still look incompetent? Whatever way it went, it was a disaster — a complete lose/lose.
Our impossible quandry:
Is it best to keep 500 angry customers, angry?
Or is it best to anger another 99,500 customers who are currently unaware of anything happening at all?
What would you do?
We all chose the former, but hindsight is 20/20 and that was definitely the wrong call.
As my back was turned, busy with the outage, someone created a fake Twitter account using my photo and added fuel to the fire. They started posting them to an online forum where customers were speculating.
The fake tweets in question were mocking the customers for being kept waiting as if it was all part of a clever scheme.
It felt very targeted and direct, like some individual or some competitor was reveling in this failure. They were actively fanning the flames.
Stoic philosophy always teaches you to not engage in instances like this, so I left it. I know me, I know what kind of person I am — and people will choose to believe things like that about you, no matter how many times you defend yourself.
Many see the story, but few see the retraction.
To this day, there are people out there that still think that was my Twitter account.
Being Individually Targeted for a Company’s Output
Marketing is a relatively thankless job. A good campaign is credited towards the company that executes it, whereas a bad campaign is associated with the individual who orchestrates it.
A company will collect any credit (and profit), but dispose of any blame — that’s how it goes.
Unfortunately, when you put yourself out there as a public figure, you put a target on your back. The price of popularity (good or bad) is constant scrutiny.
You can read more of my thoughts on that here:
My public persona as a marketing professional is established by this blog, so all press created, good or bad, is assumed to be part of a campaign if I’m involved.
That’s just how it is and how it will always be.
What Would I Do Differently?
There were a lot of things to take away from this experience. Lessons learned and failures to admit.
Here’s what I’ve learned (must read):
Never do another media blackout campaign.
Always tell your customers about scheduled website maintenance or migrations. Don’t ever try to make it fun or generate hype, because when something goes wrong (and it will) you’ll be frustrating everyone — the exact opposite of your intentions.
Never ever migrate a website over a weekend. Customer service numbers aren’t reachable and crucial people you need are out of the office until Monday. You’ll be up sh*t creek, without a paddle.
Sympathizing With Affected Customers
I am sorry to the customers affected by this outage and abandoned media blackout. Their frustrations came from being left in the dark — and that lack of information led many to lash out. It’s human nature. I understand that.
48 hours is an eternity in internet time. People felt abandoned and seeing others’ concerns only exacerbated those feelings.
If they were told, we definitely would have become the butt of a joke for a failed campaign but may have salvaged some trust in the process.
The first 24 hours of this 48-hour ordeal were the basis of a fun campaign that was hijacked and terminated by fate. Nothing malicious was ever planned. It simply got taken way off course by an unforeseen server outage. The mistake was not announcing it.
It’s a lesson in communication that I’m more than happy to learn from. My hope in writing it here is that others can learn it too.
A lot of you follow me for my successful marketing campaigns, but I also want you to see my failures and the consequences of them. I believe you can learn from both.
I’ll Take Responsibility, but Not Abuse
The targeted response online has definitely made me gun-shy. I have detached myself from that company as a member of their public team and the industry it serves. I still consult for them, but not as a full-time employee — this was my choice.
Why? I don’t want to be part of a community that can turn on one of its own for a mistake — a lack of communication in unknowable circumstances.
Months of teamwork and tens of thousands of dollars worth of investment in a new website, only to be flushed down the toilet and dismissed as a sh*t campaign by yours truly. That hurts.
The Internet’s Diminishing Etiquette — They Shoot First, Ask Later
99% of people were calm and gracious. They were patient and lovely. I appreciate all of them beyond words, especially with what was thrown my way during the process. They’ve come back to the store and purchased and our conversion rate with Shopify Plus is through the roof.
Those customers saw our actions and were happy to overlook poor momentary communication as long as we were happy to learn from it.
The 1%, however, scare me. The etiquette of the internet is diminishing because of these people. I know firsthand that some are waiting for you to make a mistake, so they can kick you while you’re down. Stepping on you elevates them. They revel in it.
Regardless of how wrong things go, and trust me, things went really f**king wrong — I don’t think a server outage warrants personal attacks and death threats against anyone. I honestly don’t even think a distasteful campaign, which people assumed it was, warrants that.
Nobody got hurt.
Nobody lost money.
Nobody lost their past purchases.
They just weren’t informed of exactly what the brand was doing at that time.
I’m not saying that was the right choice, far from it, I'm happy to admit some fault and learn from it.
However, no individual employee should have to deal with that level of abuse on a brand’s behalf. A brand/company is a collective of opinions and therefore the decision, responsibility, and subsequent blame should be shared.
If my gas company overcharges me, I don’t go on Facebook and slay Martha in marketing for her individual hand in it.
If my roof falls off, I don’t wish death on my builder’s assistant, in a public forum, for all their family to see.
There should be a measured response and consequence for any perceived wrong — and in this case, violence or the threat of violence isn’t it.
The problem is, attacks are some individuals' first gear, it’s where they initially go. I want to run as far away from those irrational people as possible.
Even when the server outage was explained some dismissed it as a lie.
You’ll never reason with those people, you’ll never convince them, they’ll never think to de-escalate first before attacking. Their pitchforks are out and they’ll rile-up as many others as they can in their pursuit of “justice.”
Any good you’ve done over the years will be erased by the bad… because it only takes one knife to wound.
It’s easier to hate, tweet, post, and slam than it is to wait for things to play out and trust people’s good nature — and in this age of online anonymity, instances like this are only going to occur more frequently.
The mob is coming for us all — it’s not a matter of if, but when.