8 Minute Read

[October 31, 2023]

There’s an adage almost as old as the internet itself: “Never read the comments.” This cautionary proclamation arises from the fact that, in the information age, trolls have moved from under the proverbial bridge to another place they can accost unsuspecting passersby — the comments section. 

More than ever, exasperated consumers, disappointed clientele and keyboard tough guys are making their way to social media, comments sections and chat apps to ensure everyone knows about their less than stellar experiences with a company or brand. For better or worse, this is an expected part of running a business in the modern era.

The way you deal with the onslaught of occasionally unhinged invectives, however, can have a significant impact on the way consumers perceive your brand. Let’s do a little exploring under the bridge and see how to create peace with, and maybe even make promoters of, the trolls. 

Who Let the Trolls Out? 

When was the last time you picked up the phone and called “customer service” for a resolution to an issue? If you’re like most, it’s been a while. As access to high-speed internet connections grew over the decades, so have the approaches to customer service. Chat bots, help forums and email are now the order of the day when it comes to resolving an issue with a product or service. Gone are the good ol’ days of calling a 1-800 number with the expectation of speaking to a human interested in resolving your situation (unless you happen to need to cancel your cable subscription). While this all may be de rigueur for Gen-Z, previous generations, who also command massive buying power, saw the transition firsthand and still recall a time when they could get results promptly. 

It is, perhaps, this very reason that so many now flock to social media to air their grievances. As companies rely more heavily on social platforms to build their brand and influence consumer perception, leaving a negative comment involves a conscious “hit ‘em where it hurts” mentality on the part of the poster. The emotional truth of an angry or negative post is, “I want as many people to know about this as possible because it’ll result in action by the company,” or possibly, “I don’t want a resolution, I just want to defame.” Understanding the difference between these two, as well having a firm grasp on your brand identity, can help you craft an appropriate response, if one is called for at all. 

Zen and the Art of Troll Maintenance 

Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw said it best, “Never wrestle with pigs. You both get dirty and the pig likes it.” As great as it would be to simply ignore public negativity about your brand, it’s not a luxury many companies have. Brand perception is more tenuous than ever and letting a chorus of negativity grow could have disastrous consequences, with inaction quickly resulting in a loss of control over your brand narrative. Like it or not, engaging with the trolls is now commonly part of someone’s job description, whether it’s your PR person or “community manager.” 

It’s easy to get flustered by negative comments about your company. No one likes being on the receiving end of a gut punch, even less so when that punch has the potential to knock out some profits or positive perception you’ve worked so hard to build. However, when a negative comment, review or post shows up, it’s the perfect time to take a deep breath, center yourself and determine the appropriate next steps. 

A great way to start is by asking questions like: 

  • What is our brand’s personality? This helps determine approach.
  • How would our brand respond if it was a person? Creates an understanding of appropriate tone.
  • What are we hoping to achieve by responding? Is there any potential strategic value?
  • Is it worth responding at all?

Some negative comments don’t warrant a response and the appropriate action is simply to hide the comment and potentially  block the user. This is the case if the post doesn’t have a clear goal and is instead intended simply to spread ill-will toward your company. Truly, this is the easiest possible scenario. Swing the ban-hammer and move on with your day. Other negativity, however, requires a more thoughtful response. 

As an example, let’s imagine a local credit union who receives a comment like,  
It’s been three days and I STILL can’t make a withdrawl!!1! Worst credit union EVER! Do NOT bank here people! 💩🏦 
In this case, the institution should not take an irreverent approach in their response. It’s their customer’s money, and as such, their livelihood. Also, there’s a clear situation here that can be resolved. In this case the appropriate public facing response would be to acknowledge, express concern and commit to a resolution, all in a professional tone. Something akin to: 

“We apologize for the frustration! Our team will message you directly so we can resolve the situation as fast as possible. Thank you for being a member at First Credit Union!” 

Professional, accountable, committed to resolution. A respectable but approachable tone for a financial institution.  

Other businesses can be slightly more candid and playful with their responses. A pizza parlor responding to a negative comment about the taste of their food might be able to create something a bit more personal and humorous. 

“We’ve got pie on our face 🍕🤦 That’s the last time we let the owners cat choose the toppings. Come back in, show us this is your account and we’ll whip up a free pizza you’ll love, promise!” 

Again, a response like this acknowledges the concern and provides a potential solution, all in a humorous tone that directs the issue toward free pizza. Problem (deliciously) solved. 

Some brands have the luxury of taking another approach, colloquially known as “the nuclear option.” This involves engaging directly with the trolls in offensive mode. Very few brands can, or should, take this approach as it rarely fits brand identity and is a potentially risky move. However, when done well, it can be extremely effective.  

For a perfect execution of this tactic, look no further than Liquid Death water, whose actual slogan is “Murder Your Thirst.” Like a latter-day King Midas, Liquid Death seems more capable than anyone of turning internet haters into marketing gold. Take, for example, this campaign in which they tracked down the people who posted negative comments about the product, invited them to prove Liquid Death was the worst tasting water via a blind taste test, and tazed them live on video if they got it wrong. Spoiler alert, they all get it wrong. Liquid Death then upped the ante and publicized their worst comments and reviews by creating a full-length album of '80s-esque songs called “Liquid Death’s Greatest Hates Vol. 3” with negative posts as song titles and lyrics. 

Another prime example of this type of approach is snack company Midday Squares, who are masters of marketing aikido — using the weight and inertia of their haters against them. When a cease-and-desist letter, which the public would likely never know about, came in from confection giant Hershey, Midday Squares responded with a diss-track and accompanying music video. In explanation of their less than traditional approach, Midday Squares described it as being “true to our DNA.” 

Therein lies the crux of this entire blog. How your company responds to negative comments has to be authentic to and aligned with your established brand voice, appropriate to your industry and customers, and have a clearly defined goal. A well-crafted response can alchemically transmute bad press into positive brand momentum that improves public perception, rather than breaking it down. So the next time you receive negative comments, stop and consider how you might capitalize on them for success. Otherwise, you’re just feeding the trolls. 

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