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Social Media Detectives - Power Unleashed

by Leigh Duncan-Durst  |  
September 22, 2009

Recently, one of my newer clients, whose owners have subsequently become good friends, experienced a theft in their upscale gallery, Rug & Relic. While they waited for police response, they decided to put out an APB of their own - using their social media network on Facebook and Twitter. The result? A groundswell of support and the prompt and probable identification of the thieves! Will justice be served? Here's the story:

Several weeks ago, two 12x12 paintings by Chris Vance were stolen from a gallery wall and replaced with an item from another section of the gallery. The theft went unnoticed for three days, as the team was in the process of remerchandising art and other product, at the time. When the owners realized the theft had occurred, the police were called, and a report was issued.
Unfortunately, there was little to go on. The theft was smoothly executed and likely, the work of people who knew the gallery well. There was no video surveillance (although there soon will be) and few physical clues that would aid the police in finding the thieves who stole the diptych affectionately known as "Bubble Boy."
The social media APB was issued to spread the news about the theft and thwart the rapid sale of the stolen art. However, Gallery Owners, Steve and Tove Bormes were entirely unprepared for the groundswell of support they received. The gallery's relatively large fan base spread the news of the theft actively. Within hours, the gallery was contacted by the media and news quickly spread over the week from the online arena to print and televised local news . The story soon hit national news via the Associated Press, appearing in the Chicago tribune and other outlets. The owners admit to seeing both negative and positive sides of the attention:
On the down side, one critic accused the gallery of faking the theft in the interest of self-promotion. "That stung a little" said Tove Bormes "Fortunately, everyone who knows us understands that's not something we'd do -- nor are we sophisticated enough about PR or social media to pull it off." Another friend who was eager to help, established Twitter and Facebook fan pages for Bubble Boy under the name "Chico Buburja" (Spanish for Bubble Boy). Overnight, the Facebook profile garnered 115 fans and the Twitter account garnered a number of Re-tweets. While the action was well intended, The Bormes' encourage people to follow news on Bubble Boy on their official Rug & Relic page on Facebook and @rugandrelic on Twitter.
On the up-side, beyond the rapid spread of the news across media venues, he owners received an outpouring of support and encouragement from a growing network of fans and friends. One local restaurateur offered a reward for the recovery of the painting. Several interested buyers expressed interest in purchasing the paintings upon recovery. Inspired by this outpouring, the Bormes' decided that rather than profiting from the recovery of the painting, they would auction the painting to the highest bidder and donate the proceeds to the Arts Council.
But perhaps the most interesting response was a tip sent by a Facebook user, which led to the likely identification of the thieves. The tipster offered a compelling story and named a perpetrator. The owners immediately recognized the individual as not only a regular Gallery visitor, but a Facebook "friend"! The plot thickened as the team immediately checked out the accused's photos on Facebook. His galleries included numerous photos of a second individual who was also immediately recognized as having visted the gallery on a Saturday in question. The owner recalls the man as acting strangely, wearing a large coat (in 80 degree weather) and lingering near the position of the paintings. When approached for assistance, he responded nervously and left the store soon after.
Based on the events at the gallery that day, the Bormes' were thoroughly convinced of the identity of at least one of the thieves. Police are now questioning this suspect and continuing their investigation. While the jury is still out on the outcome, we're interested to know what you would do in a similar situation. How would you approach getting legal and/or "social justice". Would you:

  • Leave the whole thing to the police?

  • Confront the alleged criminals in person?

  • Confront the alleged criminal(s) online with a carefully worded Facebook note saying "We know it was you. Return it by Tuesday or face the consequences."

  • Publicly "oust" the accused criminal(s) within the social media network and wait for response?

  • "Sick the social media crowd" on the perpetrators, asking them to blast facebook pages, linked in and other sites until the paintings were returned?

  • Send a friend (preferably a very big, hairy, tattooed and mean friend) to "encourage" the return of the stolen merchandise?

  • Send a mutual friend to gain access to the criminal's property to search for the items

  • Visit the thief's house yourself and attempt to gain access to the item?

  • Something else?

All of these have potentially tricky ramifications.... but it'd be especially important not to act too hastily or position yourself -- or your company -- in a position of libel.
While hope lingers that the accused will be brought to justice, the overwhelming response from the gallery's social media network has made a lingering impression on the owners and staff at Rug & Relic, to say the least. The company's new website and blog have not yet launched, but according to Tove Bormes "The way Facebook and Twitter have helped move the case forward have blown me away. I have a newfound respect for the power of social media and our network." Bormes remarked, " It's like we suddenly have thousands of detectives .... and new friends .... searching for us, and giving moral support in the loss. The tip identifying the probably thieves was the biggest thing to come out of this, obviously. But I've also been amazed at the many messages of condolence we've received from total strangers -- people who've never visited our gallery. Photos of the painting have been reposted in major cities all over the country. While it's not very likely these people thought the paintings would turn up in their respective cities - the moral support, and our network's quest for justice goes a long way towards assuaging some of the anger and sense of violation we feel. Who knows? It may eventually bring the painting back to us, too."
In the end, for Rug & Relic (and their network of fans) - this is all a matter of principal. As Tove Bormes expresses it, "Stealing is bad enough. Stealing art is, somehow, so much worse. As one of our Facebook fans put it, 'stolen art–stolen heart.'" She continued to underscore their position "This isn't about the money. The loss was not a devastating one, at least financially. But there is a certain sense of violation that we would like to dispel. Our hope is, our Facebook friends, and their extended networks, can bring this art piece - along with our peace of mind, back to us."
Please weigh in with your comments, ideas and thoughts.

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Leigh Duncan Durst (leigh at livepath dot net) is a 20-year veteran of marketing, e-commerce, and business and the founder of Live Path (

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  • by Matthew T. Grant Tue Sep 22, 2009 via blog

    I would recommend giving any relevant information to the police, rather than outing people or what have you. I think that the potential for vigilantism arising from social media APBs is real and should, all things being equal, be avoided. However, Clay Shirky has a similar story about a stolen cell phone in "Here Comes Everybody" and the problem was that the police in New York didn't really care about the theft until the social groundswell had gotten so large, and had received enough press, that it could no longer be ignored.

  • by Beth Harte Tue Sep 22, 2009 via blog

    Leigh, I think this validates how relationships AND social media can be very important to a business. For example, what if on Facebook other "friends" somehow put pressure or a guilt trip on their "friend" to come clean? A long shot, probably, but just kicking out the idea. Personally, I'd let the police and media handle this one. People are crazy! But I give your friends credit for starting their own movement towards recovering their property. Beth Harte Community Manager, MarketingProfs @bethharte

  • by Leigh Durst Tue Sep 22, 2009 via blog

    @Matthew - I was in another situation where the social media crowd decided to take matters into their own hands... it was a stalking incident where the police couldn't do anything because of jurisdiction... it got really ugly. So I would agree with you about inciting vigilantes. Seems like we should be able to use our networks to collect evidence, build the groundswell and hope for the best. If we can't recover what is taken - we can bask in the support we receive from those who care. @beth I'm proud of them too and think they've handled it well. Ultimately, these people are NEW to social media and self-admitted luddites with technology, for the most part. So this also shows how ANYONE can use social media to build stronger relationships and bottom line. She has customers coming in from several different states who "met" her on Facebook. This is a great case study as well as a testiment to the natural way the owners have of networking with folks online. This is something that is hard to teach to others.

  • by Elizabeth Mon Sep 28, 2009 via blog

    I know social media can be distracting, annoying and very intrusive, but it seems to be one of the best vehicles to get a message to a large audience quickly. With millions of people on these networking sites, I think for emergencies and situations like this, it can help to get the word out or just inform the public of something. It is sad that the gallery has been accused of faking this for good publicity. However, a lot of companies use interns and employees to blog and comment about their products for pr... So sometimes it is hard to see what is the truth? Almost anyone can get on a site nad post information. Despite the good things that come from social media networks, people should be careful about what they hear or read online just like any other media.

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