Domino's Site Crashes During Pizza Giveaway, Chain Blames "Bad Apple" Customers

When it comes to short-term E-Commerce promotions, be careful what you wish for or you will surely crash. Target.com learned that lesson last week and, on Tuesday (Sept. 20), it was the turn for Domino's Pizza. But Domino's explained away its crash with a twist: it blamed "bad apple" customers.

Domino's enjoyed a piping hot multi-hour site outage that day, shortly after it launched a Facebook promotion—which was also shut down—to give away 100,000 pizzas in a new gourmet-style pizza line dubbed Artisan Pizza.(A gourmet is defined by Merriam-Webster as "A connoisseur of good food. A person with a discerning palate." So gourmets seeking a gourmet pizza would go to Domino's or any other chain pizzeria? And "Artisan" tends to conjure up an image of a blacksmith pounding metal into horseshoes, which is probably not the image Domino's wants to project. But I digress.)

Domino's isn't saying exactly what happened to cause the chain's outage, but it is saying that customers—presumably ultra-intent on winning the free pizzas—did something unfair. Ostensibly, it was some sort of denial-of-service variation where they would flood the servers with responses, thereby getting lots of entries in and denying others the ability to do the same. Domino's is declining to say precisely what it thinks was done. But the chain still apologized for it on Facebook on Wednesday (Sept. 21).

"Fans, we apologize again for the issues with the Domino's Artisan Pizza tab on Tuesday. We've been working all night to fix things, and we've determined that there were a few people who were so excited to get a free Domino's Artisan Pizza that they turned to unfair means to get one. This, in turn, led to a poor experience for the vast majority of you who simply wanted to try our new pizza," the notice said. "Before we re-activate the tab, we're taking some time to ensure those few bad apples don't ruin the fun in the future. We know Domino's fans are the best out there and we are so excited to learn of your interest in our new Domino's Artisan Pizzas. Thank you for your patience as we get things back up and running."

Domino's spokesperson Chris Brandon said the promotion started Monday (Sept. 19) and everything came crashing down by September 20 "late afternoon, early evening." He added: "We had a technical problem with the pizza giveaway" that involved "some people trying to figure out a way to cheat the system."

There truly is such a thing as a marketing campaign that is too effective. It's not clear what constitutes cheating. When radio stations used to run promotions ("Be the 15th caller and win a pair of tickets to this sold-out concert"), some said that speed-dialers and scripts designed to continually redial was cheating. But setting aside the word, E-Commerce directors need to think about what actions they are encouraging and incentivizing.Was it highly anticipatable that something like this would have happened? It's a very difficult decision, because it seems absurd to instruct marketers to make their campaigns anything less than as powerful as possible. But with sites at risk of crashing entirely, it might be an instruction that you might have to give.

Ironically, the site crashed on the same day that Domino's issued a statement saying it sold $1 million—in one week—through its new iPhone/iPod Touch application, which itself is only three months old. It wouldn't say which week the $1 million in revenue was logged.

A million dollars of orders in a week is decent for any mobile app. Given that Domino's sells about $125 million worth of pizzas during a typical week—and it's not clear if those mobile sales were on top of existing sales or if the app was merely cannibalizing sales, shifting phone orders to mobile (which would still be a very good thing, profit-wise)—the impact is not clear.

But the mobile statement Domino's issued had an interesting line, attributed to the chain's chief marketing officer, Russell Weiner: "The most exciting thing about reaching these accomplishments so quickly is that the Domino's App is still in its infancy." The implication of the comment was that if it's doing this well now—after a mere three months—imagine how well it will do down the road. That's not necessarily a fair prediction.

With any new mobile app—especially one with a lot of bells and whistles and maybe pepperoni—there's going to be the gee-whiz factor. The novelty of the app may attract a lot of people. The question is whether the functionality and convenience of the app keeps those users using it six months later. That's why it's important to know which week it was. We have a hint in that the chain said it had made a total of $1 million in revenue from the mobile app in the first 28 days since the app's June 8 launch. Therefore, the $1 million-in-one-week week has to have happened since mid-July. The date is a little fuzzy, because the app was launched June 8, but customers weren't told about it for a week. It seems likely that the first week—before it was announced—would have had minimal traffic.

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