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8 ways to deal with negative comments in online communities


How do you respond to a negative comment in an online community,  on Facebook? Shut the Page down, ban the commenter, suck up to them? How about a bitchy tweet on Twitter? Fight with them? Ignore them? Promise to do better? Many social media guidelines have a one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to addressing negative criticism in social networks, but assessing the situation and the potential positive vs negative outcomes of responses is a skill that comes from experience. PS:  Your marketing intern may not have that skill!

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Another common question is how to be “authentic, honest, transparent” and human yet corporate-y. Well, every company does it differently, but let’s look at corporate vs personal voice when dealing with negative comments.

1. Ignore the negative social media commenter.

Everyone will eventually get bored and find something else to do. Unless they go off and create an anti-community such as Dell Hell, alert the Press and continue to pursue their point of view. One negative reviewer may disappear OR connect with others.We often use “ignore but monitor” in our communities for issues we know about and have responded to publicly already OR where the member is new, a bit crazy or usually positive but having a bad day. Appearing to ignore can also leave room for more debate to grow which, when managed, is a good thing!

From imaginearea (a poet):

I wrote a poem entitled ‘Teenagers’ a few days ago. It was the first poem I had ever written. I was completely unprepared for some of the negative comments I received.

I am not against negative comments but abusive negative comments can feel really painful.

After getting over my initial shock I realised that these comments were actually doing me a favour…they created a heated debate between those who loved my poem and those who didn’t…this led to much more traffic to my article than I would have got if all the comments were positive.

In short, I know I must develop a thick skin to protect me from the abusive comments but I must also see all comments as much needed PUBLICITY for my work. (successful blog)

I’m not convinced that the social media equivalent of “any publicity is good publicity” works, but it certainly makes you known. For better or worse.

2. Lawyer Up!

Sue them, or at least threaten to sue them. Send out letters to tell them you MIGHT sue them if they don’t remove the item. Sometimes it works such as when Volkswagen told some YouTubers to remove the VW logo and colours from a video, other times it can blow up a large online community e.g.  threatening to sue Whirlpool.net.au on behalf of 2Clix (2Clix Sucks?). Something bad that had only a few views suddenly jumps to millions when you tell the online community Digg to remove information (The Hole That Digg Dug). Law as bullying tactic rarely works, it just incenses the community. But using the Law when someone is out of control can be pursued when nothing else works. Though to be honest the crazies in my communities over the years rarely listen even to cease and desist orders.

3. Deflect to a more positive discussion

This one is recommended a lot by social media “experts” – thank the commenter, ask for more information and then bury them in talking. If there is more than one negative reviewer, try the “thankyou – oh look something shiny!” approach. In one case our community that had been quiet were suddenly up in arms about the change of a logo (yep seriously, in an online game). We realised they were bored. So we ran (in the virtual world) an Olympics for them and they shut up about the logo change. Try saying “thankyou – and here’s a competition for you”. It won’t fix their ‘problem’ but if their problem was boredom or just community induced psychosis, a campaign, game or competition will cheer their little souls up mightily. 😛 But be warned, when Marketing are put in charge of social media, rather than customer service, people figure out very quickly that all they will get back is chatter, not fixes.

4. Remove the comment, Ban the commenter

Remove the comment, remove the commenter, remove the responses to the commenter. Ignore any site you don’t have control over and come down hard on the ones you do have control over. This one works suprisingly well over the “me-too” commenters who settle down quickly. But it’s not going to last forever. A good backup is to remove the comments from say, the Facebook page and the note in the sidebar and in the comments every so often “the official channel” for reporting issues and concerns. Really depends on your community if this will work  – and the timeliness of your removal of issues, and the strength of your moderators. Just remember, the community trusts the moderators to keep a social network (like a Facebook Page) safe and relatively free of nastiness – it’s actually your duty to remove really bad comments and commenters. Freedom of speech belongs on their own page, not yours! We are also judged by the company we keep – “social” media does not have to mean “friends to all”. Feel free to filter out – block or ban – those who do not share the value systems of the community.

5. Educate the disgruntled customer

This can sit under Corporate voice or Human voice.  Use every negative comment as an opportunity to educate.  When you see someone tweeting how a your product failed them, on Twitter, respond on your blog with news of the upgrade, a workaround or information on how to improve the issue. You don’t have to refer to the Twitterer in the article, if you think it will inflame the commenters more, but certainly respond with educational material. And sometimes the customer is just plain wrong – misunderstood, didn’t install properly, didnt’ read the instructions. Educate one, usually means educating many in social networks online.  Many a negative comment is a cry for help – telling them how to fix the problem will sometimes kick back a positive review to follow the negative one. I see this a lot on iTunes – edited reviews with a fix for the problem.

6. Confess All and Beg Forgiveness

There is a temptation to use this one a lot, especially by social media newbies. I’m not sure why the need to say “sorry” to consumers who are ignorant, wrong, rude, and bullsh*tting comes from, unless it’s the out of date mandate of “the customer is always right”. Or fear that the customer could do a better job of antimarketing the brand than the marketing department can do of marketing the brand. Or just that good old fashoned “OMG someone doesn’t like me/us”. I think it’s dangerous to overuse Confession and Beg Forgiveness – unless you really screwed up bigtime e.g. BP Oil Spill, Exxon, and so on. Remember if your values are a little offbeat such as Cotton On (baby shaker t-shirt) then you will get heatedly discussed about online – change your values or use one of the other options to deal with negative comments. Timely apologies for delays and a good explanation and asking for patience is fine. Thanking the community for their input and a promise to get back to them (and do it!) is great.  But do not go overboard with confession/begging – communities sense weakness and often intensify the debate to see more grovelling, while capturing the moral high ground.

7. Stand up and Fight

Consumers, as much as companies are not ready for the shift to engagement. Shouting out loudly about bad service can sometimes bring about a response from the company who equally loudly names and shames the customer. When two blondes claimed they were denied service on an American airline, that airline took to YouTube to point out it was not because the blondes were “prettier than the cabin crew” as claimed, but because they acted up. This one is easier for small companies who are passionate about their products and services and have no compunction to come out swinging if denigrated online, but harder for big companies to do.

This may end up being the most important response you can make to World War Three breaking out online – as groups with different value systems move into each others ‘ circles, our politically correct lives are about to be turned upside down. But it’s necessary – lack of debate leads to stagnation. Prepare to take on your customer, do not apologise for normal business practices and defend yourselves. Your company may just depend on strong leaders online, as the coming generations take note of corporate karma they will be observing that “those who stand for nothing, fall for anything”. PS Nestle social media admins criticising activists on their Facebook page for poor grammar and spelling is not what I mean!

8. Own It and Wear It.

Some of the best responses to online criticism I have seen have been to “own it”. Charlie Sheen is a master of turning a negative into humour. When Foursquare users were being called “douchebags” for updating their Facebook and Twitter status with their location, Foursquare brought out a much sought-after badge called… you guessed it… the Douchebag badge.

I wonder if banks will create a Skinflint Miser badge or if you can earn a Road Hog badge from the Department of Motor Vehicles? Heh probably not. But Harley Davison have “owned” badass for years, turning a negative brand image into a must have attitude. Humour and a strong sense of the brand identity can turn a negative into a positive.

What else? Have you seen a situation where the brand responded or did not respond to criticism? Did it work?

The next time you hear someone say: oh you should always do xyz when you see criticism online, you know that there are other options. At least 8 of ’em, maybe more.  Some work better than others, depending on the situation. I can assess a situation pretty quickly online – and know whether to leave it, or response, or fight, or play it down or deflect or use humour. I’m rarely surprised anymore except from time to time how positive and supportive people can be after a huge row online. The quiet ones speak up when the dust has settled and often act as the voice of reason after what was an unreasonable time. And that’s a great surprise to have!

Laurel Papworth

Named by Forbes™ Magazine in the Top 50 Social Media Influencers globally, named Head of Industry, Social Media (Marketing Magazine™) and in the Power150 Media bloggers (AdAge™). CERT IV Training and Assessment certified trainer (Diplomas and Certificates etc) Adult Education. Laurel has manager Facebook Pages for Junior Masterchef, Idol, Big Brother etc. and have consulted on private online communities for banks Westpac, not for profits UNHCR & governments in SE Asia. Lecturer, social media, University of Sydney for 10 years and Laurel has 11,000 online students. Laurel Papworth personally connects to 6 million followers online and has taught around 100,000 people in the last 10 years how to be social media managers.

177 thoughts on “8 ways to deal with negative comments in online communities

  1. For an organization – What about asking the commenter what’s wrong and offering to help fix it? Won;t work with psychos but will definitely present a moderate image to the rest of the silent watchers. And for the genuinely distressed, opportunity to fix what you screwed up.

    1. HI Ashish,
      We often take into social networks our value system. We are being reasonable, the upset party is not. 😛

      If you were an airline and some girls said they had been refused service because they were blonde, you would of course investigate. Find out what was wrong and plan to fix it. But when you find out the true story, what do you do? ignore the fracas online? (now going to traditional media who love a good story like that?), Confess to something that didn’t happen, and refund them their money just to shut them up? Would that work? Would you use humour and add “blondes welcome here” to your website? Would you fight back with a YouTube video telling the “real story”? Get the lawyers in?

      Make a decision and do it fast, because the views and favourites of the girls’ articles are increasing by the thousands per second.

      By the way, if you ignore the girls, or reward them with a refund, what does that do for staff morale?

      We have choices in our communications and “The customer is always right” is not engagement. It’s patronizing and the fans on a facebook page or the members of a forum wont thank the company for pandering to overly vocal critics.
      Your mileage may vary 🙂

      PS What would YOU do in the airline case?

  2. If you dare to place yourself out in the open, and you must if you dare to succeed, then negative comments are simply a right of passage. It’s how you deal with them that can separate you from the chafe. Respond instead of react and most importantly, be honest. People will listen.

  3. I’ve used all of these approaches in the past (with the exception of lawyering up) with a high degree of success. A lot of it does depend on the general tone of the community you’re speaking to. Whirlpool on one hand (in my experience) tends to respond well to the “Stand up and fight” angle if you’re clearly in the right, and not well at all to “confess and beg all forgiveness” unless you’ve clearly stuffed up.

    Long story short, there’s certainly not a “one size fits all” approach for responses, and successfully deciding which approach to use only comes with experience. I’m fortunate to have a small team of people who are long time veterans of various online message boards and have acquired the ability to tell the difference between obvious trolling and genuine concern.

    Great read. Thanks!

  4. Great read. Love the 8 ways to deal with negative comments. I get you have to look at the situation and use one of the 8 ways to see which is the most appropriate for that particular comment.

  5. RT @TopsyRT: 8 ways to deal with negative comments on blogs and social media | @SilkCharm | Laurel Papworth http://t.co/ZHtVQLD #media140

  6. Ta! RT @rossdawson: @silkcharm presenting 8 ways to deal with negative criticism online Here is her framework http://t.co/OkqpqWbF #ahritech

  7. Brilliant piece, Laurel; so helpful. That graphic is outstanding. Many thanks for the learning. Thanks also to @StevieHamilton for the heads up; what a find! Best regards, P. 🙂

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  26. I have never met Laurel. I only know her on/from Twitter. I’m yet to read anything Laurel writes about Social Media which doesn’t make sense, or shouldn’t be studied by anyone (make that everyone) using Social Media networks.

    I’m (over) familiar with using Social Media as a ‘recreational’ tool. That (my former) approach is (and was) fraught with danger (as I found out the hard way).
    Using Social Media as a professional (or business) tool (or as a way to connect with old/former friends) is beneficial and profitable (and not just in an economic sense, but in a ‘health of mind’ sense).
    I have never found criticism for its own sake to be beneficial to anyone (neither the person dishing it out, nor the person on the receiving end). But unwarranted criticism is a part of life. It’s how we deal with it that will make or break us.
    Some of us didn’t have parents who were very good role models (or mentors). My question would be, ‘What’s stopping anyone (in this net age) from finding a good mentor?’
    Outside of pursuing my personal goals, I have two aims in life. 1 To introduce as many people into Social Media as I can to the Social Media wisdom of Laurel Papworth. 2. To find her a chauffeur (Laurel’s not a very good driver, and Laurel could utilise her time better if she wasn’t driving).

  27. In the social media world bad press cannot ultimately be considered good press. The digital foot print will remain regardless; I agree with this article that either ignore or positively engage the viewer. This job should be executed by customer service and/or PR professionals within the company.

  28. #8 is my favorite, if you are a douchebag, just own up to it, online or otherwise. 😉 This honestly works for a lot of people I know, online and in real life. Haha. Seriously though, all are useful ways of managing reputations online. It’s good to have a list like this handy to be able to choose ones’s approach wisely.

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  30. Love the response from South West. with more and more people taking to social media to voice a complaint or post a concern, the 8 different ways to deal with a negative comment is a great reference for someone who hasn’t come up with their own plan.

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