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How to Face an Internet Mob (and Win)

STEALTH Media Face Internet Mob scaled 1

This is a story from last summer.

Once Upon a Time…

There was an event called Saskatchewan’s Cutest Pet (2019). Everybody involved was excited obviously, because pets are awesome. This was potentially the start of an annual tradition. 

We explored the legal issues related to holding a contest like this and found, basically, that we had quite a bit of freedom. It wasn’t gambling, not a lottery, not a sweepstakes, we weren’t charging an entry fee to enter, and there was no purchase necessary. All we wanted from participants was a cute photo of their pet(s). They could then share the contest with friends and family to get some votes. Simple.

So… Nobody has to buy anything? Then why bother? Can our client even make money from this? Well, sort of – In the long run! This campaign had two goals really:

  1. Increase traffic to Cherry’s website since we were hosting the actual contest page there – and hopefully some people would explore the website after playing in the contest.
  2. Increase top-of-mind awareness and liking of Cherry through a fun and memorable shared community experience.

We set a timeline of 1 month for the contest, from July 1st to 31st. 

We decided on a $1000 cash grand prize, thinking that could create a buzz.

It Was Even Bigger and Better Than We Expected

Relying on social media to spread your message can be finicky, to say the least. What seems like a great idea might be totally ignored by the public, and it’s hard to know why. Meanwhile, some pretty dumb trends come and go all the time, such as the world-famous tide pod and cinnamon challenges.

We didn’t need to engage the whole world with this contest though. We only wanted to make a splash in Saskatchewan, where Cherry Insurance does business. The Cutest Pet Contest FAR surpassed our expectations. There were over 2000 pets entered and more than 60,000 unique people voting and playing along. And almost everybody was from Saskatchewan! Check it out:

Then Everything Changed… When the Axolotls Attacked

In the age of VPNs and fake social media accounts, we knew it would be difficult to run a “fair” contest. But, we wanted to try. One of our contest rules stated that while only Saskatchewan residents could win prizes, they were free to share the contest with their out-of-province friends and family.

About halfway through the contest, a new competitor emerged and rose very quickly to the top of the rankings. Within the span of a single weekend, they rocketed past other competitors that had been battling it out for almost 3 weeks. At this rate, it looked like they might get 10x the votes of the second place competitor. It wasn’t even that good of a picture. It was blurry. We thought the whole thing was strange.

Listen, in this writer’s opinion, Axolotls are pretty cute. Definitely interesting. The moral of this story is not to hate on Axolotls. They are some kind of silly, part-dragon, part-fish. Just look at that face (°__°)

The main problem was that votes for this particular contestant came in from unusual locations, all around the world. Our contest software could show us anonymized location data – meaning that we didn’t see names or addresses, but we could see that somebody from Kyiv, Ukraine voted for the axolotl… and from Israel, and Poland, and Australia, and Mexico, and the UK, and France, and from dozens and dozens of other countries all over the globe.

Are they using bots? Did they hire some sketchy company to cast votes? What is the deal here?

If (what seemed to us like) an obvious cheater completely trounced the contest, we thought that would really sap the fun out of things. Particularly for the top 30-ish contestants who were hustling hard to get their pet some fame, and had genuine friends and family from Saskatchewan backing them (remember, we had location data).

We decided to remove the axolotl, privately informing the contestant of our decision with a brief email message.

In less than an hour, all hell started to break loose. Our email addresses, contact forms, google map locations, and social media accounts started getting bombarded with literally hundreds of negative reviews and hate messages… Ryan’s phone was lighting up “you just want a dog to win”, “f*** you guys!!”, “corrupt company!”, “taking a little girl’s dream away!” ding, ding, ding, ding…

Huh?! How is this possible?

We soon discovered that there was a large Facebook group for axolotl owners and fans, with 25,000+ members. Apparently, this individual was making daily posts asking for votes in the group. Then when we removed her from the contest, posted in the group asking for help, including links on how to contact Cherry. To her credit, she didn’t ask the group to mob and review bomb us, just to prove that they’re real people.

But… internet mobs sometimes take on a life of their own.

Decision Time: What’s Actually Important?

We needed to decide what to do, so we held a quick meeting with Cherry and went over the options. We could defend ourselves and fight back, but that would probably just incite the mob even further. We could acquiesce to pressure and reverse our decision, but isn’t that like giving into bullies? We could ignore it and wait things out, but this problem was building rather than shrinking, and it was starting to get ugly for Cherry’s online reviews and ratings.

At the same time, we were getting private and public messages of support, including a few members of that Axolotl group trying to defend us. They thought it wasn’t fair for a large worldwide group to take over what was intended to be a small local contest, and thought everybody should calm down and back us. If this was you and you are reading this, thank you again!

We obviously couldn’t please everybody in this situation, so we had to decide who matters most. This was the fundamental question. On one hand, we had a loud majority of voices calling Cherry every name under the sun and bombarding online reviews – but they were from all over the world. Pretty much everywhere except Saskatchewan. In other words, they were never going to walk into a Cherry Insurance – all they could do was cause damage from afar.

Luckily when we wrote the rules, we anticipated that there would be things that we couldn’t anticipate. We added a line in there about, “We reserve the right to intervene in situations of cheating, unfair play, or any play that goes against the spirit of the contest.” In this case we reasoned – given that we called the contest “Saskatchewan’s Cutest Pet” and that we made numerous references to “friends and family” – our intent was clear and we should stick by it. It shouldn’t matter if the whole world was against us. The only group that had any real importance to this situation was Saskatchewan locals.

We created a Facebook media post explaining the situation, our decision, and our thinking behind it – trying to be as transparent as possible. We emphasized our #1 wish was to run a fair contest for local Sask residents. This post had a “lightning rod” effect – people still argued, but it was mostly contained to this post and things calmed down elsewhere.

Credit to Cherry – it’s scary when your reputation is being attacked. Reversing the decision to make everything stop was very tempting, but when we explained what we thought, they agreed with the decision. They were willing to endure some short term pain to give people of Saskatchewan – who might actually stroll into their business one day – the best contest possible.

Reviews and emails stopped coming in after a couple of days. Apparently the axolotl fan group received a warning from Facebook not to attack other groups and pages, and later, we noticed that the group was closed down completely. Wow.

We submitted appeals to Facebook and Google to have all fake customer reviews removed, which was quickly done. Those two companies are very serious about maintaining legitimate reviews, which is great! In the end, everything was cleaned up and back to normal.


Set rules carefully. Specific is better than vague, but vague is much better than nothing. Mentioning the “spirit of the contest” gave us a leg to stand on. In the future, we may just prevent votes from outside of Saskatchewan, even though that might hinder friends and family sharing. Still undecided.

Get your facts straight. Our biggest mistake was probably when we assumed that it was multi-voting with VPNs, bots, or vote buying. That was a failure of imagination. Our initial explanation of the removal was therefore incorrect and open to attack. The optics were bad, even though we would have made the same decision if we knew the reality of the situation.

Give mobs a safe target to attack, then let them burn out naturally. Most social media channels do not allow “brigading” (directing members of a group against a specific target) and every legitimate website wants to crack down on fake reviews. Your can work with those companies to sort things out after the fact. In the meantime, it’s good to draw all criticism and discussion to a single post, if possible.

Contests are great! If it takes off, then it’s a fantastic bang for your marketing buck. And they’re fun as heck. Expect more from us in the future, and give us a ring if you want help with marketing campaigns or Saskatoon web design for your own business.



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