Companies and brands that enjoy the upside of social media, more than likely are struggling with the downside of negative comments, gibes and the outpourings of cantankerous individuals, which may inflame passions worldwide. The Urban Dictionary has classified the proliferating new generation of Internet critics as "trolls" – those who typically unleash "cynical or sarcastic remarks on an innocent by-stander, because it's the Internet and, hey, you can."
In this new media era, when corporations are vulnerable to the virally contagious effects of Facebook or LinkedIn "like" buttons or the "retweet", the challenge to businesses is learning how to separate trolls from true complainants and finding ways to handle inflammatory commentary with a cool head. Companies may be damned if they ignore the moaning of difficult "customers" and damned they get drawn into argument with them. An increasingly valued skill is the ability to handle a complaint without aggravating a situation.
Criticism can come from anywhere and to all types of businesses, from small restaurants and bars through to major corporations such as food manufacturer Nestlé or the recently embattled national airline, Qantas. And while large multinationals may be able to withstand waves of criticism better than their smaller counterparts, none can afford to ignore the viral capabilities of the digitally enabled complaining consumer.
"Negative comments are something every business deals with at the end of the day," notes Brian Giesen, director of digital strategy Australia & Asia Pacific at Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide. Regardless of the size of a business, it is important to respond to criticisms, says Giesen. And these days a response is expected within 24 hours, but companies should consider this touch point. "Anytime a customer is unhappy with your business presents a golden opportunity to reach out to them, fix the issue and turn it into a positive," he says.
Front of mind in this new era, Giesen points out, should be that social media has brought with it the perpetuity factor. "You are not only turning around the perception of one customer with social media and digital in general, every time you are commenting and responding it is up there for the permanent record," he says. "In two months or three years from now when somebody searches for your company's name, there's every chance that negative comment and your response will show up in search results." Replies to disgruntled individuals not only address the complainant, but also all of their social groups and followers, dramatically increasing the reach of messages.
Unreasonable, defamatory and vexatious comments may create an indelible blot within search engine results and on review sites with social media sites reluctant to remove content once it's posted. Sometimes contacting site owners directly to ask for the removal of content can further inflame situations. For many, calling in a lawyer to try to deal with such issues is an expensive solution.
Counting on Prosumers
According to Liem Viet Ngo, a senior lecturer in Marketing at the Australian School of Business, one of the driving forces in online comments and reviews is the rise of the "prosumer" (professional consumer) combined with the "groundswell" phenomenon. Highly sophisticated and informed in their choices of goods, prosumers are often characterised as young hip influencers who are empowered by social media and noted for being extremely demanding.
Groundswell, a term adopted by Forrester Research's Josh Bernoff and Charlene Li, refers to the shift in the way the world works due to all the customers creating and commenting online. Bernoff and Li split people's behaviour on the Internet into six segments: creators, critics, collectors, joiners, spectators and inactives.
For companies and their brands, content creators and critics who post reviews and ratings of products online – some of them negative – are of the most concern, believes Ngo. "Generally we have to monitor and engage in event prevention rather than correction. We can't wait for negative messages to turn into crises," he advises.
Prevention requires being engaged enough online to be able to gauge customer sentiment prior to launching products or promotions. Qantas opened itself to criticism recently when it launched the #QantasLuxuryhashtag competition on Twitter, in which it invited Twitterers to post their idea of luxury to win a pair of first class Qantas pyjamas. At the time, travellers were still smarting from the grounding of the airline's entire fleet during negotiations with the Transport Workers Union in late October 2011. The result for Qantas was an embarrassing public gaffe that led to its Twitter stream being "trolled" with negative comments attached to its #QantasLuxury hashtag, indexed in Google search results for posterity.
Ngo says companies need to understand online customer behaviour and the motivations behind posting negative reviews. "We need to understand who are the key influencers and who are the critics, creators and inactives," he says.
The Internet may be evolving the business of reputation management, but Stuart Gregor, managing director of Sydney-based Liquid Ideas, says there's a risk in overreaction. "By that I mean reacting to every single small complaint from an ex-employee to someone who has an axe to grind. Then there's the other extreme when a company just ignores it all and puts its head in the sand. You might have got away with that a decade ago, but you simply can't get away with it now."
Gregor says the challenge is for companies to decide who are the serious and the serial complainants and the legitimate issues that need to be sorted quickly. "You have to be relatively vigilant, but you also have to treat them as individually as you can," he says. Research is required "as some people will just complain", observes Gregor. "Not all complaints are equal, some are more equal than others," he insists.
As Giesen notes: "Nowadays a Twitterer with 50 influential followers can be as powerful as a celebrity with 50,000. "Qantas got a further taste of Twitter-power when, just days after the grounding of its fleet, an A380 aircraft carrying actor Stephen Fry between Singapore and London was diverted to Dubai after an oil problem forced pilots to shut down one of its four engines. "Bugger. Forced to land in Dubai. An engine has decided not to play," Fry informed his three million-plus Twitter followers.
In such circumstances, rapid action is required, suggests Gregor, who points out the longer a complaint sits and festers the worse the outcome is in an environment where word can travel in a nanosecond. Playing for time "looks like you are ignoring it and it legitimises the complaint". Being upfront and honest about the situation is the only option.
Ngo says companies need to actively manage their brands in the social media space. "The combination of prosumer society and the groundswell phenomenon has changed the way we see and manage brands," he says. "A brand is not just simply an identifier of a commodity or a set of mental associations held by the consumer. The groundswell effect means social media brands need to be built as a continuous, dynamic and social process where the meaning and the value of the brand is co-created by stakeholders, essentially the customer." In this context, Ngo says creating and managing collaborative brand engagement platforms helps companies to better deal with negative messages.
7 Tips for Keeping the Trolls at Bay
- Do your research. Check to see if the commenter has a track record for complaining. Or, do they have an axe to grind?
- Follow the 24-hour rule. The quicker a negative is resolved the better.
- Remember everything is permanent (sometimes even if you delete comments). It is unlikely you'll get legitimate negative comments taken down by websites.
- Answer publicly as that stays as a permanent record in web searches.
- Talk like a human rather than a corporate spokesperson, but don't be too informal.
- Don't make light of anybody's predicament.
- Don't feed the trolls.