How to assess negative online conversations

“Your call centre sucks.” “The software upgrade you promised still hasn’t been delivered. When will it happen?” “Your product looks different to how it appears in your advertising.” “How can buying more of this help save the environment, as you claim?”

All fairly standard complaints, yet many organizations, conscious that bad experiences and reviews travel much further and faster than positive ones on the Internet, remain unsure how to handle negative online discussions.

Some – too many – choose to bury their heads in their hands and hope the problem will somehow disappear. For others, not least in Asia, the prospect of losing face remains a deterrent from engaging in social media, or at least in any meaningful form.

For the majority, the issue is more structural – siloed teams having to deal with questions and complaints that they don’t understand or over which they have no responsibility, thereby making their response, or lack of it, appear unresponsive, uncaring, even evasive.

Whether it is called customer service, community management, online reputation management or simply reputation management, the ability to identify and contain negative discussions before they escalate is a critical skill that all organizations and all parts of the organization in the social media front lines need to learn.

Before working out how to respond to online complaints, first it is essential for companies to have a systematic approach to assessing which negative posts or discussions they should prioritize and respond to. Some useful process maps have been developed to help companiestrade associations and governments work out which types of posts to respond to and how to do so.

Yet these graphics typically fail to point out the importance of the broader context of these discussions and how or why they may be escalating. Here are some additional criteria which can be helpful in evaluating negative conversations:

Criteria for assessing negative online conversations

  • Topics: Some topics resonate more loudly than others, though this will vary by organization depending on the nature of the issue. Product complaints should be taken seriously, yet allegations of tampering or contamination are potentially much more damaging than poor packaging and can impact both the corporate and product brand. The extent to which a negative post may escalate should also be considered in relation to the broader reputation of the firm beyond product quality and customer care. If you are an energy or pharmaceuticals company, or increasingly in FCMG or retail, you are more likely to suffer at the hands of customers and other stakeholders than if you are a manufacturer of widgets.
  • Influence. If the complaint comes from a recognized top tier blogger (let alone one of your employees), then it is essential that the post is evaluated carefully. In other cases the number of followers and readers of an individual’s online presence, or their Klout or Kred scores (less useful in North Asia), can reveal their online influence. In addition, you will want to consider into what category – eg. activist, customer and recognized industry expert – they fit and a low, medium or high score assigned accordingly.
  • Virality. Certain types of content tend to move quicker than others through the blogosphere, particularly video and graphical content, which have the ability to prove a point (eg. unlocking ‘unbreakable’ Kryptonite locks) or dramatize an issue.  And the more engaging the content, the more likely it is to be seen and shared.
  • Location. Most attention on negative posts focuses on top influencers and owned social media channels such as Facebook pages or corporate Twitter streams, and research [registration] shows that customers on an organization’s page expect it to respond to their questions. However, the continued popularity of online discussion boards across Asia, the ability of their users’ to remain anonymous and the relative lack of investment in owned channels means that companies must also keep a careful eye on third party channels. In my experience, many online issues in Asia start on forums/BBS.
  • Language. Before Google Translate, you could pretty well rest assured that complaints in Japanese or Korean would not spread to other languages. This is no longer such a safe bet. Conversely, it remains true that if a negative post is in English, it is more likely to travel across channels, communities and cultures.
  • Speed. The speed at which a complaint is circulating is also important, though this is typically an outcome of the topic and nature of the complaint, who’s made the complaint or is talking about it, its virality, location and language. If the post has shifted from your own social media channel or industry discussion board to Twitter or Sina Weibo and is being re-tweeted, then it may require internal escalation.

Assessing negative conversations requires regular listening to online discussions and managing of your official channels, a good understanding of the kinds of topics that may cause your organization problems and close relationships with the myriad internal and external stakeholders who may be impacted by online discussions.

Above all, it calls for a cool head and good judgement.


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