When Complaints Go Viral

Have you ever been offended by a brand? I mean, where they really did wrong by you? You know…the big things. like the latte you received that was supposed to be a mocha. Or that time you purchased the exit row seat, but the fold-out movie screen was broken. I’m talking about the big issues.

As a passive aggressive Midwesterner, I know that the only appropriate way to solve the problem is to rationally…maturely…logically…rant about it on social media. Chances are, nothing will come of it. But hey…maybe I could get a coffee card or a few airline miles out of it.

For your station, complaints about something that was said on your station, or an opinion about that new song, are the types of things you get used to seeing as you engage with listeners on social media channels.  Complaints happen. But on occasion the right complaint can be the tinder and spark that ignites a viral firestorm of negative feedback for your brand.

When that happens, the way you respond can either throw water on the fire, or gas.

A recent study (Herhausen et al, 2019) in the Journal of Marketing looked at 5 years of Facebook content from companies on the Fortune 500 list, in an effort to look for ways to detect, prevent, and mitigate these online firestorms. They were able to identify some best-practices that could help any organization handle viral negative word-of-mouth conversations.

Identifying the complaints most likely to go viral

Complaints that contained “high arousal” words, that conveyed significant emotion, were the most likely to catch fire. Additionally, the closer the relationship the consumer had to the brand and other brand community members, the more likely the complaint was to go viral.

  • Look beyond the specific complaint, to the words that are being used.
  • Look at how connected the individual is to your brand or others in your community.

Responding to complaints – Preventing the firestorm

The best solution is prevention. The research pointed to a few possible ways to prevent or mitigate a complaint from going viral. These are worth making a part of your operations, so that you don’t have to address them in crisis mode.

  • Not responding is the worst response. The research was clear that silence increases the likelihood of a post going viral.
  • Speed is important. Responding sooner helps slow the spread.
  • Personal is important. Don’t use the same response for each complaint or comment. A personal response will slow things down.
  • Empathyin your response is important, but it can fall short if the complaint is emotionally charged. “Customers who are experiencing severe emotions (either anger or sadness) are not able to shift attention but are always looking for an explanation.” Respond with empathy, but watch for signs of a greater need.
  • Change the channel. Early in the conversation, try to take the conversation offline. Maybe to a direct message, an email or a phone call. Doing that sooner than later can help you avoid getting engaged in elaborate and unproductive discussions.
  • Change the channel quickly. Once others have gotten engaged in the conversation, taking it offline with the original poster can leave others dissatisfied with the response. If the conversation has gone on in public for too long, offering to take it offline could add fuel to the fire.
  • Apologize if appropriate. Nothing slowed a viral complaint better than a quick apology and an explanation. Both are not always possible. But if they are, use them.
  • In your response, satisfy the complaint and the community.

Of course, there is not a one-size-fits-all approach to managing listener feedback. But the research points to steps an organization can take to significantly decrease the likelihood of negative word-of-mouth conversations in online communities.

About the research:

Detecting, Preventing, and Mitigating Online Firestorms in Brand Communities – Herhausen, Ludwig, Grewal, Wulf, and Schoegel – Journal of Marketing – May 2019 – American Marketing Association

Additional reading on this study: How to Keep Complaints from Spreading – Harvard Business Review – https://hbr.org/2020/05/how-to-keep-complaints-from-spreading

Carl E Bliss
Director of Interactive Media
Northwestern Media

Carl serves as Director of Interactive Media at Northwestern Media’s network of radio stations. You can keep up with his adventures at carlbliss.com, and twitter.com/ckbliss.


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