After I quit my ad agency job back in 2010, I spent six months working in a corporate marketing department while I built my freelance business on the side.
Pretty much immediately, I learned that the marketing department was facing a dilemma:
They wanted to start a blog to generate engagement and leads, but management was afraid that a blog—with comments and a focus on creating community—would invite the few outspoken, negative customers out of the shadows and into the comments section, where they would rip the company a new one.
It’s a pretty normal fear—that content marketing will invite or even encourage bad press. And, hey, it’s a justified fear. By putting valuable content out into the world and by engaging with your customers through that content, you open yourself up to not only positivity, connection, and trust, but also negativity and internet trolls.
Content marketing’s value in driving engagement, generating leads and sales, and building company reputation makes it worth that risk. But how can we take advantage of that value while mitigating the risk of negative reactions?
Based on my own experiences across ad agencies, corporations, and my own business, here are five tips for handling negative reactions online.
1. Make a Plan Before It Happens.
This is where content marketing strategy (and simply content strategy as a whole) comes in.
Before you start that blog, open up comments, and invite reader engagement, make a plan for the kinds of engagement you expect—like comments, social media replies, email responses—and how you will handle negative reactions if they come up.
Here are a few questions that will help the planning process:
- Will you allow comments on your blog posts/articles or not?
- How will you filter or approve comments?
- How should your content person (social media manager, blog manager, forum moderator) respond to the following scenarios:
- A reader has left a respectful comment disagreeing with your content
- A reader has left a disrespectful, profanity-filled, or hateful comment disagreeing with your content
- A reader has left a comment about a negative experience or problem with your company
- A reader has left a comment praising or thanking you
Create guidelines for online engagement up-front …
Create guidelines for online engagement up-front and communicate those standards to every customer- and content-facing person in your company. This will help your team avoid panic when negativity rears its ugly head. And don’t be afraid to communicate those guidelines publicly, so that users aren’t surprised when profanity lands them in the delete pile.
2. Don’t Take It Personally.
This one is short, simple, and important. Even if you wrote that article or you own the company, negativity usually isn’t about you. Before you respond to any situation, it’s important to take a deep breath and realize that it’s not personal.
3. Build Bridges and Solve Problems When You Can.
Responding respectfully and kindly, trying to solve the problem, and offering your assistance makes a huge difference in the perception of your company.
Recently, I was featured in a somewhat controversial New York Times article and the haters came out in force. I got emails calling me names. I got comments calling me entitled. And I got lengthy rants from people who disagreed with the premise of the article in which I was quoted…and who seemed to have no other outlet for their frustration.
One email in particular stood out. Where I had deleted all the emails and comments that were pure hate, this one seemed to have some genuine questions. I wrote back and told the man I was really sorry if he’d had a negative experience with someone like me in the past, that I would be happy to answer his questions, and that if he wanted to have a conversation, he needed to be more respectful. Name-calling and hate speech would simply mean no further response from me.
In short, I required respect and I reached out with empathy.
By the end of our short email correspondence, not only had the man apologized for being disrespectful, but he thanked me to taking the time to have the conversation with him. And while we agreed to disagree about the topic, the anger and frustration he’d felt had seeped away—all because of a tiny bit of empathy, a refusal to battle, and an invitation to have a respectful conversation.
And if your users see you responding to negative tweets, Facebook posts, or comments with kindness and creating respectful, balanced dialogue, it can only help your reputation as a trustworthy and human person or company.
4. Understand Who Your Audience Is…and Who They Aren’t.
When you know who you’re talking to, you’ll also know where to put your energy. If your audience is high school students who are applying to college, don’t waste your time trying to convince people who don’t want to go to college that they really do. If your audience is people with an emotional disability, you may not want to spend your time trying to convince people without a disability that invisible disabilities exist.
You and your team have limited time and it’s easy to stop a comment/tweet/Facebook fight by simply refusing not to participate.
5. If You Have Done Something Wrong, Own It.
We all make mistakes and when it comes to the internet the worst thing you can do is pretend that you haven’t. Owning your mistakes, apologizing, and making a genuine effort to make things right will take you far.
Finally, a Story from the Customer’s Perspective
When I am researching a big purchase or a long-term company relationship, I start with the negative comments. I want to know what the worst-case scenario is. And I want to see how the company handles their complaints.
I want to see how the company handles their complaints.
The companies with quick responses, empathy, and negative comments that are just a bunch of hot air? Those are the ones that earn my business. Not the companies without any negative responses.
That seems to be true across the board. After all, even negative reviews can boost sales. And great responses to negativity can create a bedrock of trust for your customers.