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Stephen Fry, a couple of weeks ago, decided to stop using Twitter. He was offended by one of his many followers calling his tweets “boring”. Thankfully, he is back and even though he was annoyed by the comment he has since DM’d the chap who made the criticism, and we are led to believe everyone is happy again and normal service has been resumed.

In a similar, but much less grander scale, I was nominated as “Pr*ck of the Year” on Twitter; have being associated with a pregnant goldfish; and had both my intelligence and parenthood brought into question. This was all down to a blog post (not on Econsultancy I might add) in which I had written about how a political party was using Twitter at their party conference.

Many organisations have been on the receiving end of similar comments, which stick around for sometime on the web. But is there anything that organisation can do to tap into this behaviour and turn it to their and their customers' advantage?

I wasn’t offended, in fact, I did find it quite amusing and I wondered how my award (which, by the way, I’ve yet to receive) had been judged and who had been on the judging panel. Anyway, what it did spark was a desire to review other similar activity across the social web and whether or not people felt they could be more *forthright* in their conversation, compared with face to face situations.

No surprises here. As it is quite clear the social web offers many platforms where people will show their true feelings, which they wouldn’t necessarily do elsewhere. In fact, it does appear that many will move to the other extreme; rather than keeping quiet (as many people do in face to face situations), they will speak their mind in a very frank way, even to the extent where it becomes abusive. This is something that may normally be classed as 'out of character', but the truth may be that it is very much in character.

The other fascinating thing was the 'hunting in packs' mentality. It appears that if an individual, of perceived influence, makes a comment others will follow suit.  They appear to enjoy the freedom to offer abuse without the potential hazards or threats which may manifest themselves in an offline environment. Following comment threads in blogs and Twitter, it is clear that friends and peers are positively encouraged to 'stick the boot in' by the sharing of links and the compliments that ensue concerning the sharpness and wit of comment made.

Does this show a real side of human nature, that is not necessarily apparent elsewhere? If so, can brands tap into this and harness this behaviour?

Many organisations have been on the receiving end of such complaints and in some cases it has been deserved due to the quality of their offering being sub-standard. However, there are no rules on the social web, so it is very easy for groups to get carried away with the moment, and they may go too far and exaggerate and embellish the facts. Unfortunately, businesses have to take this on the chin. Such comments on the web tend to stick around for some time and bob around in the natural search rankings, specifically associated with brand terms.

So what can be done? Well isn’t the answer staring organisations in the face? These people are obviously social web savvy, prepared to offer opinion and are passionate. Therefore, doesn’t it make sense for brands to welcome such feedback and embrace it? Invite these people to offer feedback direct to them, making suggestions on improvements of products and services, providing really valuable consumer insight which no focus group would uncover.

This approach would demonstrate a brand really cares, it wants to improve and it has taken the time and effort to listen and interact. The outcome of which could be a much improved offering, which people will commit to. Those who had their feedback solicited would feel very much part of the brand community. Ultimately they would become advocates.

Of course, organisations can continue to ignore such comment, in the hope that it goes away. The reality is, it won’t and it will most probably get worse opening the door for the competition to very easily increase their market share.

Karl Havard

Published 13 November, 2009 by Karl Havard

Karl Havard is a trainer and contributor to Econsultancy. You can follow him on Twitter and connect via LinkedIn.

21 more posts from this author

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Paul Mackenzie Ross

Whilst I agree with the summation in the second-to-last paragraph I feel that the method presented here of turning a negative into a positive in an effort to "demonstrate a brand really cares" lacks sincerity.

Brands should *be* sincere not *act* sincere otherwise savvy customers will see right through them and *that* is where the mob can come into its own.

almost 7 years ago

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Jacob Wright

I think this post needs more examples to bring it to life.  Perhaps Karl could tell us all how he "welcomed and embraced" feedback after his controversial blog post and how he managed to turn angry Labour party members into "advocates" for his brand? 

almost 7 years ago

Karl Havard

Karl Havard, Chief Strategy Officer at Econsultancy Small Business Guest AccessSmall Business Multi-user

@Jacob: All I can say is I did my best, by thanking them for commenting and tweeting. But it was apparent they didn't really accept the point I was making. I made a conscious effort to debate with them as articulately as I could. However, my aim was not to achieve advocacy in this post, but to create some awareness around their use of Twitter.

@Paul: I agree, brands need to be genuinely sincere and I didn't mean to portray that they should "act" sincere. My wording of "demonstrate" is associated with the use of social media to demonstrate their sincerity. i.e. they are genuinely sincere and use the social web to demonstrate this. I hope that makes sense.

almost 7 years ago

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Jacob Wright

Karl, I think this illustrates my fear about your otherwise reasonable-sounding suggestions in the above post. 

Theoretically companies could engage with all their online critics, by investing in the personnel to do so, and by carefully monitoring the social web.  But I actually wonder how many of those critics would, in reality, be amenable to such an intervention.  As your own case demonstrates (and in a way Gordon Brown's recent issues with a bereaved mother also do, albeit in an offline manner), critics are critical because they feel aggrieved and want to harm the person or brand they are criticising. 

It could well be the case that, overall, it's just not worth the effort or investment for companies to try to address all of their critics.  Social media enthusiasts like yourself need to demonstrate that this kind of activity can be done effectively, cost-efficiently and with net positive results.  In times like these, with budgets what they are, it's not enough anymore to say that you think it would be a good idea for brands to do this - you need to prove that it's possible in the real world and that the outcome was commensurate with the investment.

My feeling is that the social web merely makes visible the kind of conversations that have always existed around brands.  History has proven to date that companies can deal effectively with criticism by making sure that, on average, people have good experiences with their products rather than fretting about what any one individual feels.  Any successful brand has its detratctors, but the success of a brand is defined by the fact that they have more fans than detractors.

almost 7 years ago

Karl Havard

Karl Havard, Chief Strategy Officer at Econsultancy Small Business Guest AccessSmall Business Multi-user

Jacob, what I did not mention was the method which brands should consider before "embracing" the critics. This is an extremely complex process and needs to take into consideration many factors such as influence, authority, reach, visibility etc. People are using the social web in ever growing numbers, so organisations need to be aware of what is being said about their brand. If there is criticism coming from large and influential groups, then there will indeed be a reason for this. Because the social web makes this criticism visible, brands can make decisions on how best to engage, if they choose to do so. There are many examples of good and bad engagement. 

I'd happily share some example with you outside of this forum.

almost 7 years ago

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matt dailey

Faceless abuse online is nothing new and has been present on chat rooms and online poker for over a decade. It is human nature (and in some people's natire more than others) that bravery increases in line with distance and anonymity. What i agree is new is the speed and breadth whith which negative sentiment can spread and as you say, the lingering impact that the web enables. However i disagree that all creators of negative sentiment should be engaged with and the US airforce has developed a good decision tree to identify and deal with varying levels of sentiment, both positive and negative whether you follow this to the letter or not, i still think that brands need to carefully asses whether or not they respondn just as much as how.

almost 7 years ago

Corinna Witt

Corinna Witt, Owner at Corinna Witt : e-conceptory

I'm working for the hotel industry and hotels have had to deal with this problem for a while. Reviews about their product have been posted on various sites such as Tripadvisor for a few years. Not all of them are friendly. In fact, negative reviews can have a massive impact on bookings coming through. The BBC run a feature on this in their fast:track series a couple of months ago. There is a link on my blog to the video: http://bit.ly/lF1jh

As for dealing with negative comments, I also see this more like a chance than a curse. I believe, companies should react to such comments publicly and start a dialogue. In the case of hotels, why not offer a voucher for another stay at one of the chain's hotels for example in order to remedy a bad experience the guest might have had.

Ultimately, it's all about improving the product, though. If guests complain, hotels should address the problem, sort it out and communicate this back to their customers.

Hotels have been eager for people to post POSTIVE reviews on Tripadvisor and elsewhere and encourage their guests to do so. However, it's impossible to control what people write. Therefore, being aware of what is been posted is crucial to their online business and reacting to negative posts in a way that shows good practice is a great chance to improve trust in the brand.

almost 7 years ago

Simon Newsam

Simon Newsam, Account Director, New Media at Effective Communication

I think Corinna has got it just about right - engage them wherever you can and turn it into a positive. But a lot rests on that word "engage".

It just slips off the tongue / keyboard but putting it into practice can be another matter. Unsurprisingly, some people - quite a few, in fact - don't want to be engaged.

These situations call upon all our social skills. Most specifically, you have to gain an understanding of the individual involved and the true nature of their gripe. And that can be virtually impossible from the rant of a disgruntled customer who, as Karl said in his original article, may well have been more forthright than they are naturally inclined to be.

Good PR professionals can probably help here but they need to have that combination of highly developed online social media and personal skills.

And before you start employing these guys you need to assess the value of the whole exercise and make a call on whether it's worth it. On that point, I was interested to read Matt's comment about the US Airforce's "decision tree". Have you a link to tell me more about that Matt?

almost 7 years ago

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Alex Gavin

Social media tools like Twitter have created the first truly seamless international forum. People are able to send messages of 240 characters or less to a global audience, all in real time. This in itself is a miracle of the media, and sites like Facebook, Twitter and Flickr have revolutionized the act of communicating. As a consequence, face-to-face communication has taken the backseat to the convenience presented by these new mediums.

But every revolution has its drawbacks. We quickly learned that an open forum does not constantly provide unconditional positive regard, particularly one supported by anonymity. For better or worse, these social media sites provide feedback and commentary on every aspect of our lives, and there are no filters to regulate content. The unspoken social norms of face-to-face communication do not apply on the internet, and it is extremely difficult for people to contain themselves in anonymous settings. 

Unfortunately, this will always be the case. The misuse of these social media sites are products of human nature, and when presented with an opportunity to quench their desires, particularly the more devilish ones, humans will use any means available. 

almost 7 years ago

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fashion life

Brands should *be* sincere not *act* sincere otherwise savvy customers will see right through them and *that* is where the mob can come into its own.

over 6 years ago

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