How the Sainsbury’s Customer Service Letter went viral; my theory
Posted on: 25/01/2012, by : Laurence Borel

I am sure you’ve all seen the lovely Sainsbury’s customer service letter that was doing the rounds in the social media world today. I’ve been doing a bit of digging around to try to understand how the story went viral; here’s my theory.

If you Google ‘Sainsbury’s Customer Service Letter’ you’ll find 420,000 search results; some are related to the Tiger Bread story, others aren’t. If you look at the date when the articles were posted, you’ll quickly find out that the Sainsbury’s Customer Service story in fact broke out in June 2011.

In June 2011, little Lily’s mum, blogged about the customer service letter, which was then picked up by a number of blogs, and the usual suspects (including forums), in the UK and beyond. The story of course trended at the time, and died down, as you would expect, after a few days.


So how on earth did that story resurface in January 2012? 

I first spotted the photo of the letters on Facebook this morning which I promptly re-shared on my wall… Between 2 users Parker Lim and Jai (see screengrab below) we’re looking at 38K shares, and 120K likes so far… that’s pretty impressive.


Somehow, somewhere, Parker Lim spotted that picture and shared it on Facebook, but the second ‘Power Facebook User’,  Jai, mentioned in one of his comments that he spotted the pictures kicking about on Twitter on 23rd January.


 Looking at how content spreads 

As you can see from the graph below, there’s a clear spike in mentions around 18th-19th January, followed by another spike around 23rd-24th January. The initial spike was caused by Parker Lim’s Facebook share (arguably). The second spike is much bigger, as the story started leaking out of Facebook, onto the Internet.



I did a quick Twitter search and identified this Tweet linking back to a Bitter Wallet post written in June 2011 as the fire starter. Then, a number of other Twitterers with high (marketing) influence such Contagious, The Idea Agency, Marsha Collier, but to name a few Tweeted about the story and it started spreading like wildfire on Twitter, dripping down to blogs, forums, Google+ etc and then back to Facebook.



Detective work over! Any comments/insights on how the Sainsbury’s story went viral today appreciated! I am still trying to figure out where Parker Lim originally found the letter (and yes I’ve Facebook messaged him to find out!)


19 thoughts on “How the Sainsbury’s Customer Service Letter went viral; my theory

  1. Really interesting research here. It obviously highlights the importance of opinion leaders to get messages viral. I think that as long as you produce a message that remains timeless (like the letter) it has more longevity and more of chance of eventually going viral.

  2. Detective work not quite over! The news originally broke by Lucy, Lily’s mum posting a link to her blog on her facebook. I am a uni friend of Lucy’s and then read her blog, thought it would make a neat thing to tweet about, and about 4 or 5 people that followed me retweeted it. Within a day there were 25-30 further retweets then suddenly on Friday 17th June, it went berserk on twitter, being in @toptweets twice. However my username was left off the retweets and the links were changed, then the images were merged allowing people to share it even more easily. I was quite happy about this to be honest as my mentions list would have gone mental! I have been in contact with Lucy over the last few days and we are both amazed at how it’s suddenly gone viral again, mostly because of that one shared public image on facebook. My theory of the second resurgence is that people couldn’t re-share images on facebook last June, and this has made a much wider audience for the story. 😀

  3. Hey Matthew, your comment is spot on! Saying that, I always find that more natural blog posts (i.e. with a personal touch and not solicited by an agency) get shared a lot more.

    Litwerally I am slowly finding more pieces of the jigsaw scattered over the Internet as I go along. I think you’re absolutely right about Facebook. Parker Lim frequently posts funny images on his Facebook profile and that’s probably how the story re-emerged.

    The question is, where did you find my post? 😉

  4. I can answer that, as Lily’s mum. I spotted a referal to my blog today from this page and posted it to my facebook page, copying Litwerally in. I am equally fascinated by the second trend, and am about to mention you in my blog, if you don’t mind.

  5. we loved the analysis of how this got trending a second time around – thank you for that Laurence.

    I just wanted to let you know that as of today, thanks to Lily’s letter, Chris’ response and the thousands of comments, posts and tweets the product formerly known as Tiger Bread will be called Giraffe Bread:

    Kind regards from the Sainsbury’s press office!

  6. I first read the Sainsburys letter when it was offered as an example of brilliant customer services, in light of the recent #LAFitness debacle, where they would not terminate the contract of an unemployed, pregnant lady.
    The lesson: In the next trend of bad publicity, share some good!
    PS As a breadmaker, making Tiger Bread is one of the hardest to do!

  7. Never really got to say how great your research was here, you not only found how it all started but how it naturally progressed. These are some of the great examples why customer service must integrate with social media and a lesson for some companies to improve their customer service.

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