Plotting Your Digital Defense

Bracing your marketing plan for angry mobs and trolls

By Greg Swan

With all the good buzz we read about empowered consumers using social media to connect with brands, build two-way conversations and advocate for what they care about, there's an ugly side to social engagement that most marketers would rather avoid addressing: the angry mob.

If general consumers seem more upset about corporate operations and marketing efforts than in the past, it's probably just that the quiet, angry few now have an amplified voice and an increased perception of their own power. Whether you call them madvocates, disgruntled customers or trolls, these are often the minority who yell the loudest and the longest.

Whether spurred by actual news, like product recalls, C-level scandals or one-off mistakes--like fast food pranks and lost luggage--these vocal critics are armed with the tools of citizen journalism (like camera phones and Twitter) and an unlimited supply of time to attack your brand.

According to a July study from KRC Research, all of this anti-brand buzz matters. The research found word of mouth is the leading influence (88 percent) on consumers' opinions of a company followed by online reviews (83 percent) and online search results (81 percent). If one spends any measure of time looking through media stories, product reviews or searching "[Brand Name] sucks," it's immediately evident how effective these madvocates can be at disparaging a company's reputation.

The best solution: proactive inoculation. Building a strong digital defense is easiest when the waters are calm and budgets are flexible. Start by shaping the conversation around potential issues by providing information on areas of weakness using approved messaging. Drive awareness of this content through search and display advertising targeting topic-based keywords. Then graduate to consumer advocacy programs that let end-users impact your business model. Consider VIP roundtables and blogger tours: strategies to give passionate customers and vocal critics the opportunity to listen, learn and share.

But say it's too late for that and the crisis is already here. How do you quell angry consumers?

  • Understand that a vocal few may grow into a raging mob. Take complaints seriously and demonstrate empathy and planned action steps publicly.
  • Accept that you can't exert complete control over brand communities. Blocking users and deleting comments could have more of an impact on your reputation than ignoring the situation.
  • Own up to the facts. If your company messed up, admit it. Own it. And expect to be taken to task.
  • Move negative conversations offline. The more you can drive angry customers to offline channels, like a phone call or in-person meeting, the more opportunity you have to hear them out and state your case. Of course, everything you say on the phone or in person could easily be posted online. So be smart and strategic.
  • Don't feed the trolls. Some people cannot be satisfied.
  • Assemble your crisis team today (before issues arise). When the ‘you know what' hits the fan, that is not the time to find out which lawyer needs to approve Facebook posts or who answers the customer service lines on the weekends.

No matter the industry, crisis and controversy are an expected part of business and their persistence reinforces the need for proactive reputation management. Today's empowered consumers have unlimited communication channels to praise a brand or organize a boycott. Ultimately, it's the marketing department who will lead the response. Will you feed the trolls?