Feb 15, 2013 · 3 minutes

There's nothing worse than a story about social media and brands, so I apologize in advance for writing one.

The worst are the ones like these announcing that, with all due respect to the Baltimore Ravens, Oreo was the real winner of Super Bowl XLVII. Or that hilarious CNET story bashing Poland Spring for not Tweeting a shitty Photoshop meme after its product made an appearance in Marco Rubio's State of the Union response.

Thank God social media wasn't around in 2002 when George W. Bush choked on that pretzel. Rold Gold would've had fits. We were promised flying cars, but all we got was Pepsi's Instagram feed.

I'm not saying brands shouldn't care about social media. Nor is there anything wrong with cultivating a voice on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or whatever. But some people refer to what brands are doing on Twitter with such reverence you'd think they were talking about the Arab Spring (ESPN's Darren Rovell has made a lucrative career out of this). And then they focus on all the wrong things, like that fleeting Oreo meme.

So what is important for brands on social media? Beyond not monumentally screwing the pooch, brands simply need to be there for customers when things go terribly wrong.

Look at Mailbox, a new email client with over 900,000 sign-ups. Yesterday morning, their servers crashed, which would be a nightmare for any startup. It's uniquely damaging for Mailbox, which has already irked some customers by its long waiting list. What's the point of rolling out slowly if servers are going to crash anyway? That's particularly acute criticism for something as mission critical to work and play as email.

So while the support team set sbout fixing the server problems, other team members hit the social media pavement, responding to as many Tweets as possible, as quickly as possible. Instead of placing the burden on one poor producer, Mailbox takes a team approach to social media. "We currently have 4 folks rotating through Twitter for almost 24 hours a day," said Mailbox's design lead Elle Luna, who was among those Tweeting during yesterday's outage. "We have long been inspired by Tony Hsieh's approach to customer service at Zappos — believing that everyone should work directly with customers, learn the language of the brand and have empathy for user experience."

Of course, when servers are down, saying "thanks for your patience" over and over again can get old fast. So Mailbox got creative, Tweeting things like this:

And this:

Also this:


OK nothing brilliant there, but that's the point. If Mailbox was spending all its time finding GIFs and Photoshopping memes, users would be pissed they weren't concentrating on fixing the problem. Instead they gave each user individual attention (within reason) and did so in way that was light-heartened, yet still lightweight.

The idea of "social-media-as-customer-service" is something Mailbox takes to heart, says Luna. "We don't see a difference between customer service and social media. To a user, and therefore to us, it's all one and the same. And we'll meet folks wherever they feel most comfortable — whether through email, Twitter or Facebook. We even sift through Instagram hashtags, jumping into the comments to give people insights about the reservation line."

Following the freak-out over Oreo's Super Bowl blackout Tweet, Slate's Will Oremus wrote, "The real lesson here is that, at a time when most brands are so bad at social-media advertising that royal screw-ups are the norm, the bar for a Twitter campaign to be considered a smashing success is about knee-high. Clear it, and you'll have a viral hit on your hands, with reporters tripping over each other to tell the country how you did it."

Sure, but did it help Oreo sell more cookies? Will Poland Spring's so-called "social media fail" make you less likely to buy a bottle from the dudes standing outside the subway? And remember Oreo's Justin Timberlake-themed Tweet from the Grammies last Sunday? No, you probably don't. The value of Oreo's Super Bowl insta-Photoshop was that no one had done anything like it before, at least not that quickly. By its very nature it lacks repeatability.

So brands: Don't hire a Photoshop person to be on-call 24 hours a day just in case a politician eats a cookie. Don't stress out during the Oscars waiting for the moment Anne Hathaway uses a nasal inhaler. Instead, just be there when customers actually need you. And you know what's the best part? It doesn't take a social media "ninja" or "guru" to do it.