Tips for Dealing with Online Negativity

I’ve recently counseled some clients who have been struggling with blogger negativity. Their experiences offer lessons in how to deal with this common problem.

Anyone who embarks upon a social media campaign risks opening him- or herself to attack. Even the most noble causes can run afoul of extremists. In the vast majority of cases, these problems can be contained with sufficient planning. The trick is not to get caught flat-footed by criticism you didn’t expect. In fact, when managed professionally, negativity can actually enhance your image by demonstrating that you’ve thought through the issues in detail.

Negativity can usually be anticipated and blunted if you deploy a few basic tactics:

Anticipate. Before launching a blog or public forum, know what you’re getting into. If you have critics, they will use the opportunity to air their gripes. Even if you don’t think you have critics, you should be prepared for them to emerge from unexpected places.

One client chose to blog about his adventures exploring new geographies. He was proud of his efforts and so was completely blindsided when environmentalists began attacking him. Had he thought through his topic more thoroughly, he might have anticipated such criticism.

Most businesses are poorly prepared to anticipate criticism because they only see the good in what they do. Here’s where an outside perspective may help. Come up with all reasonable arguments against your story and prepare a defense for each. It may be worth hiring a domain expert or journalist to help poke holes in your case.

Keep calm. The knee-jerk reaction to criticism is usually “How dare they!”, but reacting defensively rarely works. Critics are inclined to be blunt when they think they’re shouting into an empty well, but they’re more civil when confronting a real person. Use their anger to reinforce your rationality. Count to 100 before responding, maybe take a walk around the block and then consider if there is any validity to the critic’s comments. Conceding that someone has a point — even if you don’t plan to do anything about it — is the fastest way to disarm him. Simply saying that you heard his comments will go miles toward soothing his anger.

If you really want to confound a critic, look up his phone number online (this usually isn’t difficult). Even if you end up leaving a voicemail, the mere act of personalizing an anonymous interaction often heads off a confrontation.

Don’t censor. One client got so flustered by unanticipated negativity that he began deleting critical comments. NEVER DO THIS. Censorship won’t silence your critics; it will only send them to other forums you don’t control. It’s okay to edit obscene or inappropriate remarks, but don’t delete them just because you don’t like what they say. Once you have created a public forum, you must live with the consequences.

A little criticism actually isn’t a bad thing. It makes you look more credible. Respond to adversaries using the tactics outlined above, but don’t use your power to silence them. It will backfire on you.

Address issues, not people. Your most vociferous critics may stoop to character assassination to dramatize their case. Don’t go there. Address issues, but leave the name-calling to the amateurs.

You also don’t have to speak directly to your critics. If people are harping on one issue, post information that addresses several critics. DuPont did this a few years ago when rumors popped up that Teflon caused cancer. DuPont didn’t address its critics directly but instead set up a website to tell the truth about Teflon. By refuting the rumors with scientific evidence, the company quickly put the issue to bed. Bloggers helped out by linking to DuPont’s informational website. The company never got down in the muck with its detractors, but effectively dispatched the rumors with facts.

If you employ these four tactics, you’ll be able to cope with nearly every challenge to your credibility, even the unanticipated ones.

Secrets of Blogger Relations

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Since embracing social media two years ago, Dell Computer has learned a few lessons. One of its key blogger relations people shared some secrets last week in a keynote interview at the New Communications Forum in Santa Rosa, Calif.

Richard Binhammer is charged with monitoring and engaging with the active ecosystem of people who blog about Dell. In a keynote interview with John Cass, Binhammer talked about negativity, a concern often voiced by PR people. Dell has had its share of blogger criticism, going back to the famous Dell Hell incident of three years ago. But by methodically reaching out to complainers, the company reduced negativity from nearly half of all online posts to about 20% in a little less than a year. The secret? “Just talk to people,” Binhammer said. Most of the time, all they want is to be heard. Demonstrate that you’re listening and you can resolve most complaints.

But here’s an interesting fact: After reducing that negativity factor to 20%, the Dell team has been unable to bring it consistently below that level. Binhammer, whose background is in politics, theorizes that 20% is a natural floor, in the same way that 20% of the population always votes for the same political party, regardless of who runs.

This is worth remembering. Even the best businesses have a few unhappy customers. Your mileage may vary, but you should never expect to achieve 100% satisfaction. It’s more likely that your blogger relations program will get you to a manageable yet stubborn base level. That’s your floor, and you probably can’t do much to break through it.

Finding Resources
Binhammer also shed some light on how Dell allocates its communications resources. With so many tech bloggers out there, you’d think the company would have a small army of communications folks monitoring and responding to conversations. In fact, it has just two people sharing the job. The reason? Dell is lining up the whole company behind the effort to get more engaged with customers. PR monitors the airwaves, but doesn’t try to resolve every issue. Most comments are forwarded to the appropriate group for response.

I wish more companies would do this. Bloggers tend to be well-informed and passionate, which means that their inquiries and comments demand knowledgeable responses. Companies that simply delegate the response to PR are failing to benefit from the really rich conversations they can have with their most informed customers. Everyone from sales to engineering should want to speak to customers whenever possible. Why let marketing have all the fun?

Social Media’s Breakout Year

This article originally appeared in BtoB magazine.

Marketing changed forever the night of February 4, 2007. That was the night that Super Bowl XLI, the most-watched advertising event of the year, featured no fewer than four ads created by ordinary consumers.

Frito-Lay’s 30-second Doritos spot drew the most attention. Produced in just four days at a cost of fewer than $13, it scored second in comScore Networks’ ratings of ads viewers said they’d like to see again. That spot, along with campaigns from Alka-Seltzer, Chevrolet and the NFL itself almost overnight put consumer-generated advertising on the map.

Social media has had a breakout year. While most of the innovation is still in the consumer marketing sector, b2b marketers are joining the party. Businesses that cautiously circle the blogosphere over the last couple of years jumped in with both feet last year. Corporate blogs targeting business customers now include Kodak, Marriott, Pricewaterhouse Coopers, Accenture, Southwest Airlines, Extended Stay Hotels and Wells Fargo.

Podcasts, those digital radio programs that almost no one had heard of two years ago, are now mainstream, with more than 90,000 programs listed on search engine PodNova. In the technology market, which has led the way in social media adoption, podcasts have become a standard companion to the more mature web cast. The convenience of the portable offline medium appeals to busy decision makers.

As an advertising medium, podcasting still hasn’t found its footing. EMarketer forecasts that podcasts will be a $400 million advertising market by 2011. That’s dramatic growth over current levels, but still a drop in the bucket compared to the more than $60 billion that Jefferies & Co. estimates businesses will spend on online advertising in 2010.

The real action in b2b podcasting is in programs produced by businesses to connect with their customers. Companies like American Airlines, Deloitte & Touche, Chrysler, General Electric and General Mills have launched programs about everything from business travel to nutrition. Needless to say, podcasts are ubiquitous in the publishing market. Directory Podcast Alley lists more than 1,500 podcast programs about business.

But it was video that hogged the spotlight in 2006. The phenomenal popularity of video download sites like YouTube (which logs 65,000 new videos each day), Google Video and Revver, combined with controversy over copyright issues, have made video the social media poster child.

Online video appeals to marketers on several levels. It allows them to inexpensively test ideas and to repurpose clips that would otherwise end up on the cutting room floor. Online video also offers a low-cost alternative to television, typically the costliest line item in the marketer’s budget. Plummeting equipment prices and open-source software have made it possible for amateurs to produce reasonably good quality programs at very low cost. Video is also a particularly effective medium for viral marketing, the brand of promotion in which people link to and share popular content with each other.

There have been some notable business-to-business viral video successes. Blendtec, a Utah-based maker of blenders for home and commercial use, scored a mega-hit with “Will It Blend?,” a series of Letterman-esque shorts in which Blendtec founder Tom Dickson pulverizes everything from golf balls to computer components using the company’s products. The clip showing an iPod being turned to dust has logged more than 3.5 million downloads on YouTube alone.

Eastman Kodak scored a smaller hit with “Winds of Change,” a humorous, self-deprecating video that was reportedly never meant to be seen outside the company. YouTube watchers overwhelmingly praised Kodak for acknowledging its past mistakes and vowing to be a leader in digital imaging.

Video and other viral marketing techniques have their downside, though. While word-of-mouth marketing can spread positive buzz with astonishing speed, buzz can work both ways.

Unilever N.V. experienced both extremes last year. It’s “Dove evolution” video, showing a young woman’s transformation into a billboard beauty, scored millions of downloads and positive comments. Yet a video invitation to customers to create videos for a Dove advertising campaign was so poorly received that the company shut down comments on YouTube.

All this activity rolls up into the bigger phenomenon of viral marketing, which is gaining traction in the b2b world. Grand Central Communications spread the word about its new product—a service that consolidates people’s phone numbers—by seeding the blogosphere with free accounts. Bloggers’ mostly rave reviews were noted by mainstream media, which gushed about the service.

Nokia Corp. is in its eighth iteration of a similar campaign in which high-end cell phones are distributed to influential bloggers whose commentary, both positive and negative, is posted on a company Web site.

Both companies are counseled by Comunicano, a marketing boutique that specializes in blogger relations.

Andy Abramson, who runs Comunicano, describes the strategy as “a story that pops in the media because of all the heat generated below. By the time the media bites, the story is already baked,” he said. “Once you have a fully-baked brand, it’s almost impossible to compete with.”

Jupiter Research reported in March that 48% of brand marketers plan to use social marketing tactics in the next year, a 10% increase over the previous year. However, an earlier Jupiter study also reported that seven in 10 consumers don’t trust product information they find on social media. The emergence of new services like PayPerPost, which pays bloggers to write about products, has stoked the controversy.

It’s hard to believe that the concept of social media marketing barely even existed two years ago. For now, the trend has all the characteristics of a craze, and no one knows whether it will go mainstream or crash and burn. It’s clear, though, that plenty of businesses will try their hands in the coming year.

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