Be nice when you say bad things online

This is a guest post from Mitch Joel — President, Twist Image and author of “Six Pixels of Separation.” His new book “CTRL ALT Delete” was released in May 2013. See the original post this is adapted from and more like it on his blog.

Is anyone still willing to argue that consumer reviews are not one of the most powerful forces online?

You could argue that having over 24,000 reviews for Fifty Shades of Grey on Amazon (this is factual) is just a whole lot of clutter that no consumer is going to sift through. I would argue that the number of reviews, the five-star rating system, and semantic feedback add a powerful validity to a product’s (or service’s) success.

Consumers reviewing stuff is the great equalizer that brands still need to face. It’s not a thing of the past and it’s not something to take lightly. When someone tweets out to their network about the need for a product or service, whatever comes back is a consumer review (albeit a smaller and more real-time way). It’s not just the more in-depth stuff that you see happening on Amazon.

We can debate the semantics over a better definition of the word “brand,” but it will be a futile debate if you’re not including this (somewhat) new and powerful platform that consumers now have to share their version of the truth.

How do we stop any/all of the bad reviews?

In short: you don’t, you can’t, and you should never expect to. What we’re now seeing is a healthier view of brand perception (warts and all… and whether the brands want to see and hear it or not). Think of anything that you may want to buy in this moment, now head over to YouTube, and do a search for it. How many video reviews and demos are there? How many thumbs up and thumbs down from viewers, how many people have watched these video, and how brutal are the comments? That’s just YouTube.

When consumer reviews first took hold (and, I would say, that Amazon was truly the first to capitalize and commercialize their success), brands were being pushed back on their heels. They weren’t sure how to respond, improve, and resolve these many situations. Times have changed. Companies like Bazaarvoice (and other competitors) have really matured the space over the past ten years.

The consumer expectation is that they can see candid and real consumer feedback on anything and everything. And, if they can’t, they can just ask their connections via the myriad of social media spaces that they play in. Even Seth Godin understands the power and value of consumer reviews and empowerment, as witnessed by his latest startup, HugDug. Negative reviews aren’t necessarily a bad thing.

When good things happen to bad things.

Going back to 2008, I would often quote a line I had heard from Bazaarvoice about their data on consumer reviews. It was this: A negative review converts more effectively to a sale than a positive review. It sounds counterintuitive, but it makes sense. We’re forgetting sentiment. We’re forgetting that your negative experience or comment may, in fact, be the thing that I am looking for.

As an example: You give a boutique hotel a poor review because it is dimly lit in the hallways and the furniture is modern and not comfortable looking. I happen to love those features of a boutique hotel, so your negative review actually reinforces my purchasing decision. Now, this type of thinking has evolved.

Business News Daily published an article titled, “Negative, But Polite, Online Reviews Aren’t So Bad for Business.” From the article:

“Not all negative reviews have the same damaging effect, new research suggests. Online negative reviews that are offset by a politeness factor can actually help sell products and services and boost brand perception, according to a study in the Journal of Consumer Research.

In a series of five experiments, the study’s authors examined how including a marker of politeness in a negative product review affected the image of both the reviewer and the product. For example, phrases like ‘I’ll be honest’ and ‘I don’t want to be mean, but…’ are ways to soften the arrival of bad news and warn a reader or listener that negative information is coming.”

Not to be mean, but…

Fascinating, right? Our humanity is now evolving as technology matures. Human beings are getting better at reading, understanding, and making more informed decisions through these consumer reviews. It also teaches marketers a very powerful lesson (that they often do not want to hear): Not everyone is going to love your brand. Some people will downright hate your brand. But, if they use kind words (even when they’re saying something negative), that can have a profound and powerful positive effect on sales… and consumer relationships.

We like to think of consumers as being either with us or against us. In fact, there are many shades of grey in the consumer relationship (see what I did there?)… and it’s something that brands need to better understand, work with, and use to improve their ability to develop and nurture better direct relationships.

In the end? Be nice to consumers, because they may say something bad about you in public (but in a nice way)… and that (could be) a good thing.

About Mitch Joel

Mitch Joel is President of Mirum — an award-winning Digital Marketing and Communications agency. He is also a blogger, podcaster, journalist, speaker, and the author of "Six Pixels of Separation" and "CTRL ALT Delete." Mitch is frequently called upon to be a subject matter expert for BusinessWeek, Fast Company, Marketing Magazine, Profit, Strategy, Money, The Globe & Mail, and many other media outlets.

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