Yarn Harlot Outperforms KFC: What to Do When a Promotion Goes Wrong

A few weeks ago I blogged about the KFC Free Grilled Chicken Fiasco. KFC not only screwed up the promotion — they couldn’t even get the apology right.

My wife, PDX Knitterati, alerted me to a similar kerfuffle in the knitting community over an event called Sock Summit. Like the KFC promotion, consumer demand overwhelmed the organizers’ ability to handle the traffic. But unlike KFC, Sock Summit bounced back with a very effective response.

There are lessons here for all marketers in how to handle a promotion that goes south.

For those among my readers who aren’t familiar with the needle arts, Sock Summit is a knitting convention with workshops, classes, and a marketplace, organized by Stephanie Pearl-McPhee (who writes the Yarn Harlot blog) and Tina Newton of Blue Moon Fiber Arts. As this story develops, it’s important to know that:

1. There is a very large, very passionate knitting community in this country. They read blogs, buy product, and spend money in huge numbers.

2. The lineup of speakers and teachers at Sock Summit is full of big-time names. Really big-time names. If Sock Summit were a basketball camp, the instructors would be folks like LeBron James, Shaquille O’Neal, Dwight Howard, and Brandon Roy.

It’s a first-year event. Registration was to be online. The organizers looked at other knitting conferences, tried to calculate the number of people who would register, and then put together a system designed to handle a much bigger number.

The response was much bigger than they ever dreamed. The server crashed. Some people were kicked out of the system before they could complete their registrations. When they were able to get back in, many classes were full.

I mentioned earlier that the knitting community is both large and passionate. When they found that they couldn’t get the classes they wanted, some got cranky. Really cranky.

Angry emails poured into the organizers’ mailbox, and into  various knitting blogs and forums.

After getting the server back up and taking care of as many registrations as they could, Stephanie Pearl-McPhee posted an explanation, apology and general response on her blog.

You can read the full post here.

And you should. It’s long, but it’s really, really good. Where KFC got it almost completely wrong, Yarn Harlot got it right.

  • It’s personal. Where KFC President Roger Eaton’s message appeared to have been composed by a committee of lawyers and PR flacks (“Everyone wants to get the great taste of our new product, so we can’t redeem your free coupon at this time”), Yarn Harlot’s message was clearly written by a human being. An embarrassed, frustrated human being who wants to do the right thing.
  • It explains the problem. Pearl-McPhee spells out the thinking and preparation that went into the system they built, their surprise when the system crashed, and their efforts to get it back up and running.
  • It clearly explains what they’re doing about the problem. KFC made a vague offer of a rain check that could be redeemed at some point in the future. Yarn Harlot takes personal responsibility for repairing the damage, and gives consumers an easy way to communicate with them:

We’ve decided to make sure that everything is accurate by doing it all MANUALLY, ourselves. That means that if you have trouble, you should write to us on the Contact us page with as many details as you can, and we’ll sort it. If you already wrote us, we’re on it. The first refunds went out today, and we have all our staff working only on this, and we hired more staff, and the IT company is lending us staff. It should go fast, but please be patient. We’ll sort everybody out as best we can, as quickly as we can.

It acknowledges that there are limits to what they can do. All of their efforts do not eliminate the fact that there is considerably more demand than supply.

I might quarrel with Pearl-McPhee’s attempt to put the issue in perspective

We’d like you to remember, before you email… that your problem is that you didn’t get into a knitting conference. It is actually not like Tina and I napalmed a village of orphan babies and then ate their puppies and it is up to you to exact revenge.

Although she is absolutely right about this, she risks appearing to belittle her customers’ frustration. I’ll give her a pass, though — the line is in character with the tone she often takes on her blog, and her readers likely will accept it in the proper spirit.

The honest, heartfelt message appears to have done its job. In the days following this post, many people deleted their comments from the message boards (email, alas, is forever), and some folks even donated money to Doctors Without Borders, a favorite Yarn Harlot charity.

Nobody’s perfect. If you’re in business for any length of time, something will go wrong in an interaction with a customer, or a group of customers. KFC and Sock Summit offer instructive examples — one negative and one positive — in how to treat customers after the fact.


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