How to respond to negativity in online communities

Online communities are great places to connect with customers. But how do you handle the trolls?

Most brands and their business leaders understand the importance of using online communities to connect and engage with key constituencies. It’s an increasingly important element of doing business in a world where customers and clients want companies to have a human voice, not just a faceless brand identity.

But communities are filled with living, breathing people who are not always at their best. Some use community forums to air legitimate complaints against your company. But others are simply spoiling for a fight. So how should you deal with that kind of negativity?

First, you can limit your exposure to hostility by being very selective about the communities you join. Find out if the community’s principles and values match your own and if it’s well managed and moderated.

Not all interactions need to be positive, but they should be respectful. If they’re not, a moderator should step in and diffuse anything that feels like indiscriminate trolling.

Make sure you understand the community’s policies and procedures before you jump in. Also, assess your own goals for participating and only choose communities where you can play a valuable role.

What are you looking to accomplish? What kinds of discussions will you participate in and what topics are merely a distraction? Resolve to be proactive and not merely reactive. If you do find yourself in a situation where things are getting nasty, here’s what to do:

First, don’t ignore negative comments. These communities exists with or without you. If you avoid responding for fear of being attacked further, it’s unlikely to stem the tide of criticism. In fact, it can make things far worse.

In the digital world, those who show up reap any and all the benefits. If you don't show up, you’re forfeiting your chance to come out ahead. The exception is obvious trolling that clearly has a harmful intent. The last thing you want to do is give oxygen to a troll by going 50 rounds in a fight you can’t win.

Ask yourself if the comment or complaint is valid. Before jumping in with a response to a negative comment, do your homework. Are you dealing with a legitimate complaint ("Airline X lost my luggage and it’s been a week since anyone contacted me") or random angry venting ("Airline X is terrible -- they’re out of peanuts.")?

Be transparent and respond promptly, especially to comments that could steamroll into broader discussions that can easily get out of control. Show the community you are willing to own your mistakes, fix them, and make sure they don’t happen again.

Never respond with anger. We’ve all read online restaurant reviews in which angry customers go on endless rants, picking apart everything from the decor, to the service, to the wine list. And this is where many small business owners fail by responding with equally angry comments because it feels pretty good to fight back. But the effect is disastrous.

Casual observers now have the impression that the business owner is just as filled with rage as the reviewer and customers decide to stay away. Hostility and anger can represent a tremendous opportunity, but not if you see it as a way to get even.

Remember, online conversations exist for a very long time and you’re not just responding to the hostile individual, but to every person who reads the exchange.

Even if there is anger in the thread, a thoughtful, empathetic response will win over not just the some active community members, but many lurkers who never comment but who represent the vast majority of readers.

Call in reinforcements. Sometimes, you’ll need a little help responding to negativity, so don’t hesitate to invite ambassadors into the conversation. A key employee trying to fix the problem, a manufacturing partner, a loyal customer, all can help defuse a potentially explosive situation by offering solutions and a different perspective.

But remember, this is an opportunity to have a genuine discussion, not to engage in PR or marketing. Anything that reeks of spin will earn you even more criticism.

Lasly, remember that every comment you make, every conversation you engage in, becomes part of your long-term digital archive. So think about how you want to brand yourself, what you stand for, and how you want others to perceive you.

If you are consistent, honest, and empathetic, you’ll gain the kind of respect and credibility that can help deflect any future negativity.

Scott Gerber is the CEO of The Community Company and coauthor of the book Superconnector: Stop Networking and Start Building Business Relationships That Matter.

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