3 Key Lessons from an E-commerce Promo Gone Wrong

Knox Balbastro
5 min readJun 23, 2019
Shopee endorsers: K-Pop group Blackpink

First a backgrounder. June 6. The internet blows up with #ShopeeScam when fans of K-Pop band Blackpink are denied entry to a concert they supposedly won tickets for. Watch this summary because you can’t make this thing up and I certainly can’t tell it better than this clip from One News PH

This kind of fiasco can happen with any brand so I can’t be too hard on Shopee. As a digital content strategist and creative, I’ve behind-the-scenes handling big promotions. Even with the best intentions and a highly competent team, one little boo-boo can lead to a complete and utter disaster. In this case, it just so happened that a mistake snowballed with the worst elements of social media and marketing: Angry Blackpink Fans + Cheating + Cancel Culture.

Lesson 1: Don’t Mess with Fanatics
Have you watched the delightful animated movie, “Chicken Run” where the farmer’s wife is trying to convince her husband that the hens were plotting to break free of the chicken coup? Wide-eyed but certain she says with a thick Scottish accent, “They’re organized”. Gads, I love that movie.

It sums up this fandom so well for me. People can easily dismiss a K-pop fan. Alone, he or she may seem innocuous enough and a bit absurd for such an outward expression of undying adoration. But a K-Pop fan is part of a virtual organization, with actual hierarchies, and a systematic way to mobilize.

A friend of mine — a massive K-Pop fan and an experienced project manager — told me that she would spend her nights rallying hoards of people from around the world to continuously click on an online button so that their favorite idol could win. When she had to sleep, she passed the baton on to another person from another timezone. This is their passion and the fervor is real.

K-Pop fans are fanatics and they are linked by a common culture and mission. If the Blinks of the Philippines cry foul, they will tell the Blinks of every other country to echo their sentiment, and their feelings reverberate worldwide. Do not mess with K-Pop fans or die-hard communities (YouTube creators, makeup gurus, gamers, Redditors, etc.)

Lesson 2: Don’t Cheat and Prevent Cheating
The long and the short of it. Don’t change mechanics in the middle of a promo. Creative and content should be the guardians of this because nobody likes reading the nitty gritty of promo mechanics, except when they go wrong. Be very clear about what the rules are and look for possible loopholes or ways that the mechanics can be manipulated by someone to win.

But mindful of ways you can protect your company. For most of the competitions I’ve worked on in Southeast Asia, we always left the winning criteria as something intangible — — it had to be judged by a human. For example, best in photography or most creative story. If someone can win through likes or amounts spent then there are ways to cheat. Likes can be bought and you can outspend your competition and just sell your purchases later on. There are also some professional promo joiners out there who have the skills to always be the first to like or first to call, so do be wary of that. Of course, rules vary per country so to be sure, check the promotional/regulatory boards and get advice.

Lesson 3: Respond to Cancel Culture
Nowadays, when people don’t like something, they just say it’s dead. You don’t agree with a friend, FO (Friendship Over). You don’t like how this app mine your info while you surf it endlessly for free content, DELETE. Sometimes, when enough people jump in, there’s no time for proper discourse. You are get canceled.

That’s why brands have to respond instantly when I crisis hits. Shopee’s initial response was not only insufficient — it was a slap in the face for the supposed winners. I read that they offered a thousand Peso voucher to people whose tickets mysteriously disappeared from their inboxes. Insert facepalm emoji here. Also, it didn’t help that the influencers they hired were not their advocates or real Blackpink fans. If they had gotten influencers who had a genuine love for Shopee, they would have defended the brand to no end. Instead, they did things to rile up the fandom even more.

Bonus Lesson!
Competitive brands will jump into the fray when a crisis hits and I think they absolutely should. A disaster for a competitor can be a good time to remind people about your brand. But of course, consider the market. Some places are just more tolerant about being in your face. Case in point, in the U.S. fast-food giants, ridicule each other on Twitter all the time. It’s all good fun but in most Asian countries, people are more conservative. Consumers can perceive a slagging as meanspirited and opportunistic. So I think this response from Shopee’s main competitor Lazada was quite perfect. While the frenzy was happening, they hung back and let the rabid fans do the talking. They posted this on Twitter:

Throwing shade is a subtle art form.

The responses after that were mad and people knew they were in on the joke. However, they kept mum and did not incriminate themselves. I personally believe that in times like this, a competitive brand needs to be present. You don’t need to be a bully but this is an opportune moment, be aware of audience sentiment and seize it.