From the book: Four defenses from negative word of mouth

This week we’re talking about how to deal with negative word of mouth using tips from the new chapter in the revised edition of Andy Sernovitz’ best-seller, Word of Mouth Marketing: How Smart Companies Get People Talking.

While you shouldn’t expect to be immune from negative word of mouth, there are some basic defenses you can establish to help protect yourself:

1. Build credibility before you need it

Let’s say you find a bunch of bloggers attacking your products. You and your PR team could show up to post a perfectly worded response. Doesn’t work. Why? Because you’ll look like a shamelessly self-serving PR team that’s only there to post a perfectly worded response.

When nobody knows you, you’re not part of the discussion. Instead, focus on being a regular participant, a known name, and a familiar face in the room if you want any hope of responding to the negative word of mouth successfully.

2. Bring it inside the tent

Where people complain is often more important than what they say. You are always better off if the criticism happens on your own website, blogs, and message boards, here’s why:

  • Your fans are there and can drown out a few critical posts.
  • It’s easier to respond on your site than to chase criticism across the web
  • Positive responses will be right next to original complaints, telling a complete story
  • If people can’t complain on your site, they’ll do it elsewhere anyway

3. Let your fans do it

If you’ve been successful in creating word of mouth, showing love for your fans, and making your customers happy, then your talkers will be eager to help. Ask them for help in a particular forum or on a particular topic. Not only will they respond, but there’s a good chance they got there first and already have. (Just be careful that your request for help doesn’t look like an organized attack on the critic.)

Remember: A defense from your fans is always more credible than one from your employees.

4. Never get caught by surprise

Conversations happen quickly online, and you need to respond the same day. When a bunch of people are talking about you in a lively discussion, there is no way for you to have a meaningful impact if you aren’t there at the beginning. If you show up a day later, the conversation is probably over and you missed your chance to influence it. If you find a complaint that is weeks old, the damage has been done and it’s probably too late to convert that critic into a happy customer.


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  1. Mike Ashworth

    hi andy, these are fantastic tips however they concentrate solely on online WOM (perhaps word of mouse?)

    do you have any tips on how to handle negative word of mouth between people who are talking about your brand but not online?

    of course, you may not be aware of it (unlike online) which is the big challenge….

    btw did you know that this blog url cant be added to backtype?


  2. Christopher Golda

    Hi Mike,

    We do support this blog on BackType; your comment was picked up:

    If you’d like to be able to claim your comments using BackType (to share them on Twitter, FriendFeed, etc), you need to comment using a URL instead of anonymously. If you don’t have a URL to use, feel free to use your BackType profile URL.


  3. Cale Johnson

    Mike, good question.

    While admittedly a lot of the points in this post focus on the online tools involved in dealing with negative WOM, a lot of the concepts can be applied to offline conversations as well.

    Credibility is no less crucial in offline situations. It’s critical to know your talkers — whether online or not — and earn their respect. While they may not always say great things about you, having a good relationship with them will make it easier to reach out to them to share your side of the story.

    And similarly, negative offline WOM is still an opportunity. A great customer service experience after a problem, an upgrade, a bonus, a sincere apology — all of these things can reverse offline criticism, potentially turning a former critic into a new fan.

    If your customers are largely offline talkers (especially in a BtoB type environment), do what the best sales folks do and frequently reach out to them, ensuring they’re happy with you and your stuff — which should help the positive WOM. If you’re really taking care of them, they’ll be likely to do their part to snuff out negative WOM in offline situations such as conferences and trade shows.

    Thanks for the thought provoking comment. For some more offline ideas, you might check out this case study of what Microsoft does:


    Editor at GasPedal

  4. Torley

    Re: #2, that’s a healthy basis for linking to your onsite resources more prominently instead of having quotes become disembodied and chopped up across the blogosphere, Twittersphere, or whatever buzzword is hot.

    Making fans well-aware that you regularly provide an official source of info — official as in “useful”, not just “legally sound” is key to inspiring them to help amplify your awesome.

    One thing that doesn’t get discussed enough: I love seeing vicious critics be helped by earnest reassurance and transformed into an advocate for the company, but it’s important to remember there are mentally ill people out there who’ll be nice one minute, nasty the next, and they waste incredible amounts of resources. They need to help themselves, nothing you do will change their life, nor should they be the “customers” that drive your actual, useful customers away.


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