Six Pixels of Separation - The Blog
August 9, 2010 7:53 AM

When Not Responding Online Is The Right Response

The common online rhetoric is to respond to everything that is being said about your brand. That could be a mistake.

With new Social Media monitoring tools - or just some careful snooping around - it has never been easier to figure out who are the people with a legitimate concern and who are the quacks just trying to feed their own need for attention. And yes, there are even those whose only goal is to push their own agenda forward by drawing attention to themselves. There's a known saying amongst the Digerati: "don't feed the Trolls." The Wikipedia definition of "troll" is "someone who posts inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community, such as an online discussion forum, chat room, or blog, with the primary intent of provoking other users into a desired emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion." The point being, you're never going to make someone like this happy or get any level of customer service rectified. Even when/if you respond to their needs with an equitable resolution, you'll soon be trapped in a, "give them an inch and they'll take you a mile," scenario where nothing you do will ever be enough (because their intent was never to get any form of resolution in the first place).

Simply don't respond.

That's going to sound very radical in a day and age where most new media pundits will tell you the opposite. This past week, someone commented in their Twitter feed about a brand and situation they were not happy with (translation: their personal cause/agenda was not highlighted and they felt like the company should pay more attention to their plight). When the company didn't respond, the known troll went after people who were mentioning the same brand in their tweets and asked for their opinion on the company's choice to not highlight their personal issue. Many of the people that this individual reached out to didn't engage or responded in a very succinct and finite way (the Social Media equivalent of crickets in the night). With nowhere to go, and no wind left in their sails, the troll continued to rally for their cause in their own Facebook and Twitter stream, but there was little-to-no traction. With that, the grandstanding became nothing more than the online version of someone wandering the downtown streets blurting absurdities at the top of their lungs until the cops come by and politely ask them to, "move on." 

People know when you have a genuine complaint. People know when you're simply pushing your own agenda.

A smart company is one that can respond with professionalism and resolution. A smart company is one that doesn't spend hours of time and resources trying to please the unappeasable. It's an important distinction, and now that we can see a semblance of maturity online when it comes to individual's and their digital legacies, it's easier to figure out the raisins from the nuts. At first, the ability to make this distinction will not be obvious, and brands (as we have seen) have been sucked into major back-and-forths that have never ended well. Ultimately, the troll is never satisfied and all the brand did was give that individual's actions a platform and some real credibility where none existed before.

It's a delicate balance.

Zappos is brilliantly kind to everyone. Others believe that "your call is important to us" means that you will soon be treated like garbage. Not everyone online is a troll. Not everyone online is out to get a brand in a "gotcha!" kind of way. In fact, the opposite is (mostly) true: Assume two percent of the population is evil. Assume a slightly larger percentage are trolls and take some level of pride in getting a brand to react to their irrational opinions. Beyond that, know why and how you're going to engage online, and when cornered by someone who will never be happy, change the venue: ask if you can give them a call on the phone to discuss or offer to bring them into your office for a meeting or a tour. More often than not they will scurry back to the comfort of their keyboard and the warm glow of their monitor.

A great question to ask yourself...

When thinking about these online shift disturbers, ask yourself: Who is this person? What do they do? Who works with them? Who are they connected to? What are the types of conversations that they have recently had? A bit of research goes a long way, and can easily highlight whether or not there is a semi-legitimate concern that needs to be addressed or if you're dealing with someone who is just looking for a one-sided fight.

Do you think it's acceptable not to respond to certain individuals online? Or are all gripes created equal? What's your take?

By Mitch Joel


Comments Comments Feed
  • Mitch Joel

    Yeah when I've been trolled in the past and I've done both: a) ignoring, and b) inviting them for a phone conversation.

    Both actions were successful. I think when you ignore a troll long enough, they get bored and get onto other things (or people) where they can get a reaction.

    I've found over the years it's nearly impossible to change someone's mind about a situation, who's looking for a fight.

    Reply
    • ...and a lot of times the confrontation has little or nothing to do with what you're directly selling, but more with "how" you're selling or what it is attached to.

      Think about big oil: it's hard for them to react to an online battle when the conversation begins with, "what you sell is what is killing American soldiers." And, I'm not defending big oil (in any way, shape or form), but where do you go from there? Can they engage? Should they engage? Do you really think if they engaged with content about their clean energy efforts or what their doing (in a positive way) for the environment that this will shift perceptions or end the discourse?

      Reply
  • Posted by Pablo Mendicuti
    Pablo Mendicuti

    Yeah, it takes a little time to get to know when to engage and when you can tell you're not going to change their mind due to their own agenda. Sometimes people who seem to be trolling don't turn out to be troll and end up liking the brand. Granted, it doesn't happen often but it can. Do you think this small percentage of "almost trolls" are worth the hassle?

    Good tips on how to tell if they should be engaged or ignored. Thanks for the post!

    Reply
    • Now that would be a fascinating stat: how many Trolls have been converted into brand evangelists? OK, maybe not Evangelists, but somewhat swayed?

      I'm not sure I have ever seen an "Almost Troll". I think it's fair to engage when someone is "on the fence" but the usual Trolls we see in them there hills are a certain breed that are truly out to get their message heard regardless of getting to a point of reconciliation.

      Reply
  • Posted by Kim Gagliardi
    Kim Gagliardi

    I agree that no response is sometimes the best course of action. When our brands are attacked, our initial reaction is to want to respond and defend. But there are some minds that cannot be changed even by the most transparent and sincere outreach. Companies must recognize these no-win situations and choose to ignore them.

    Reply
    • This is where having a strong Social Media Monitoring solution or being able to do some baseline online research on the individual becomes critical. I've been in instances where simply reading their Twitter feed provided a clear demonstration of the value (or hardship) that may come from direct engagement.

      Another trick is to respond to the issue in a more general way, and not indiciate the specific individual that prompted the engagement.

      Reply
  • Posted by Amanda Bendrey
    Mitch Joel

    Very good insight. I think its reasonable to say that companies have to draw the line somewhere. When resources are limited and there are a great number of interactions to address, you have to prioritize. Some people would say this goes against the purpose or intent of social media for businesses, but the big oil example is a testament to the fact that some battles can't be won.

    In response to Pablo, I think whether to work on converting the small percentage depends on the agenda of the company. Should Apple really be concerned about converting a few hundred adamant PC users into Mac fanatics? Probably not worth the time investment. But look at Dominos - converting dissatisfied customers became the foundation of what looks to be a very successful ongoing campaign.

    Thanks for the posts and insights - good food for thought on a Monday morning!

    Reply
    • I'd also add that this isn't about internal bandwidth to deal with legitimate concerns. I believe that all legitimate concerns do require (and should expect) some level of response that isn't based solely on the fact that one individual has more online social media credibility or stature than another individual.

      In this instance, I am only talking about Trolls - where coming to a resolution was never a probability.

      Reply
  • Posted by Parissa Behnia
    Mitch Joel

    As usual, a great (and edifying) read! I for one, like the Zappo's way of thinking. Sometimes, people just want the acknowledgement or "I hear you".

    There's a great management/leadership book I read by Marshall Goldsmith and one of the ideas is to say "Thank you" or send a message like "thank you" to negative feedback whether it is justified or not. The trick is if it's truly not justified, you do have to mean "thank you" because the complaint can often be based on perception and not actual fact.

    We have to have the emotional maturity to rise above it as hard as it may be.

    Reply
    • Emotional Intelligence is a huge component to navigating this successfully. The trouble with "thank you" - in the instances of Trolls - is that you have validated them and given them credibility. If you're doing this and it's only to pander to them, you've been feeding the Trolls and will pay dearly, non-stop... and the point would be to avoid this scenario at all costs.

      Reply
  • Posted by Erica McClenny
    Mitch Joel

    I love the troll definition. I had this exact thing happen on our company Facebook page last week. I coined the term "Social Slamming"- when another competitor comes to an open site and promotes themselves on your expense.

    The funny part is we left the wall post, commented back professionally and he flagged it. Facebook took a look and it came back up. Needless to say, he now looks like the troll when someone comes to our page and reads the exchange. LOL

    @ericamcclenny

    Reply
    • I'm not sure this is a Troll as much as it is a stupid competitor trying to look cute/act smart. The amazing this about Social Media and strong communities is how well they bind together, work together and know what the truth is between the individuals connected.

      Reply
      • Posted by tamera
        Mitch Joel

        This is exactly what happened to me recently on the company blog. An obvious anonymous troll comment was allowed past moderation on one of my posts. Now, I've been around the interwebs for a while now, and am familiar with flame warriors & trolls. My choice was: delete a comment that had already been approved, leave it as the only comment (at that point) on the post, or respond.

        I chose to respond. Which of course I knew would open the door to another comment, which it did. At that point I decided to call out the anonymous competitor who made the mistake of not masking his IP.

        That individual has not posted since then, and the support from my community has been tremendous. I think a lot depends on the context of the post, which is why you (or a brand) need someone skilled in online dynamics to advise what the appropriate response should be, on a situation by situation basis.

        Reply
        • IP sniffing... nice.

          I think the tactic you described works because on confrontation, nothing came back. This gives off the result that you were right. I worry about those moments when the comments keep going, and the back-and-forth only brings out more Trolls.

          Reply
          • Posted by tamera
            Mitch Joel

            Absolutely. And it was an obvious post by a competitor. Had it been truly anonymous I would have chosen a different tactic.

            It also, I believe, leads back to having very specific guidelines posted on your brand site (or your Facebook page, etc.). If it's an inflammatory post and you've stated you won't respond to those types of comments then it's much easier to ignore.

            Reply
            • Because of the evolution of the online channel, I'm not sure it can be so black and white. Perhaps we're moving towards a case by case basis? If we are, it just means a whole lot more work for those who manage this sort of stuff within the organization. I know, that's not what clients really want to hear these days.

              Reply
  • Posted by Heather Whaling
    Mitch Joel

    This is such a timely issue, as I have a client struggling with this very issue. They're taking a beating on a certain review site from anonymous posters. While we know the writers have an ulterior motive, other people who read that site won't know that. We'd like to ignore the comments, but fear that potential customers may go online to research the company and find those incredibly negative (and untrue) statements. We've decided to respond, while keeping in mind that the end goal isn't to persuade the commenter, but to show future readers that these "reviews" aren't the whole story. It's a complicated situation, but I'd love to hear how other people handle "troll-like" behavior on review sites.

    Mitch, thanks for providing a non-echo-chamber perspective to responding. :)

    Heather
    @prTini

    Reply
    • I think people are smart. If they see a bunch of negative reviews and they're all posted from an anonymous source, do you think that this truly impacts their decision? In fact, let's flip this: what do people think when a product or service has only positive reviews (even if there are real people assigned to those reviews)? Don't those seem fake/wrong too? How is it that anything can only have good or bad reviews? While this may be the topic of a future Blog post, we have to figure out what the overall voice is and how the semantics play into this.

      I'm not sure that I would completely ignore any anonymous review, especially if the concerns raised has a form of merit to it.

      Reply
  • Posted by Ray Hiltz
    Mitch Joel

    Very interesting post. Just had a chat with some friends this weekend who, like me, have worked in the service industry for many years,
    The examples of "difficult" customers came up, especially the ones for whom there were no possible resolution possible. Ironically, it was those customers that either were regulars or had "loyalty" programs that proved to be the most challenging.

    Having special status seemed to empower them with the belief that whatever issue they had with service warranted immediate and profuse attention. It soon degenerated into a pissing contest where saving face was more important than solving problems.

    Not having the option to ignore them, the only response possible was to placate them if at all possible and take some comfort in the knowledge that they represented a very small percentage of our customers.

    I've developed a pretty good "shift" disturber instinct. I still would respond, but then quickly move to diffuse by moving the conversation to another medium. Usually, they don't pursue. They're like the belligerent clients who bully the waitress only to smile and say everything is fine when the manager shows at their table.

    Reply
    • As someone who has friends and family in the hospitality industry, I understand where you are coming from. There is always this concern that if you don't please the customers they will never come back and spread bad word of mouth. The problem is, that often by feeding this attitude the restaurant opens itself up to constant abuse because the customers know that they can get away with it.

      It's never about the food.

      Most people that complain do so because in their day jobs, they're the ones who take abuse, so when they have a chance to dish it out, this gives them some semblance of power. I never liked those types much.

      Counter-balance those with legitimate concerns, and you do need to have a good "shift" detector to come to a mutually agreeable ending.

      Reply
  • Posted by 40deuce
    Mitch Joel

    Another great post Mitch.
    As someone who deals with the monitoring side of social media I see this question being asked every day by people: "should I respond to that, or just let it go?"
    There is a big stigma in the industry where people are saying you have to respond to EVERYTHING about your company, but that may not necessarily be true.
    While it's important to be monitoring and watching for people mentioning your brand, not every mention is going to call for a response. There is a big difference between people who are actually complaining about a brand, and those who are just airing their voice or saying something for the sake of saying something.
    If I try a new gum and I tweet that I wasn't really that into the taste, I don't really expect someone from that gum company to contact me and start asking for my opinion on how they can improve the gum. First off, I wouldn't even know how to respond to them. I know nothing about making gum, I just know what tastes good in my mouth and what doesn't. Secondly, I may not have even wanted the gum company to care about what I said. I may have just been saying it because it's a random thought that was in my head and I put it to paper (or more succinctly, keyboard).
    There's a big difference between people who actually have a real complaint and those that are just whining to whine. Companies have to start realizing this. They have to determine what are the things they should be responding to and what are the messages they can just let pass.
    They should always be monitoring for both kinds of these messages in social media but they don't always have to respond. Sometimes this info can just be taken in and taken into consideration when doing future planning, but it doesn't necessitate a response. A company can see that I didn't like the taste of the gum, and maybe others felt the same. They don't have to respond to me and apologize, but they can take my comment into consideration when planning a next flavour by saying "ok, people weren't so into the last flavour we made, what can we do that's different?"
    While monitoring and engaging are important aspects to social media, sometimes companies need to choose which battles are the ones really worth fighting and which are simply people throwing stones for fun.

    Cheers,

    Sheldon, community manager for Sysomos

    Reply
    • There are a lot of pearls in this comment Sheldon - thank you. I grapple with this myself. I see a lot of tweets about either my book or Blog post and I'm worried that by constantly filling my Twitter feed with "thank you" and "right on" that I may be pushing the existing community away.

      As you say, there has to be healthy balance of understanding what the complaint is, who said it and what merits engagement vs. a "thank you" vs. silence.

      Reply
  • Posted by Nick Brown
    Mitch Joel

    I feel like this conversation takes different forms and re-hashes itself frequently, for good reason. Depending on the type of product or service, the first differentiation needed is whether the upset party is a customer who feels legitimately wronged, or just a troll looking to besmirch and call attention. The proof is usually in the details or lack thereof. Some trolls will just paraphrase complaints taken from other places and post them as their own to get a company riled up, which is common when there's no personal experience to draw from.

    As Sheldon mentions, it's not worth the engagement over a pack of gum, but if you sell a high-priced service or product where losing individual customers can put immediate financial strains on the company, choosing your battles is critical.

    Some companies have a policy of NOT responding to people who complain anonymously and most are smart enough not to respond to personal attacks, which is what it generally boils down to with trolls.

    While we absolutely need to be aware of what is being said, my experience has shown that ignoring public criticism is not only acceptable, but the best strategy in many instances, especially if you're loyal customers come to your defense so you don't have to say a word.

    @insurancemhq

    Reply
    • It's amazing how far we have come in such a short while. We used to say things like "Google is like an elephant... it never forgets" (in fact, I use this line in my book), and how having a negative thought "out there" that a company hasn't responded to says something about the company. But now, with so many people online and getting comfortable with these channels, we're all starting to realize that all comments are not created equal. Some require work, some require recognition and others require nothing at all.

      It's nice to be a part of the evolution.

      Reply
  • Posted by Alex Ikonn
    Mitch Joel

    Hey Mitch,

    Thanks for this post. Really helpful and certainly what a brand I am currently managing might go through as they are getting serious online traction.

    I completely agree with you that you can't please everyone and sometimes not responding is the best choice made.

    However, how can you prevent them from spreading false messages across social media networks such as YouTube comments or Yahoo Answers for example.

    All the best,

    Alex

    Reply
    • I don't know that you can prevent them (beyond suing for slander?), but you have to know (and hope) that your product stands up (says what it does and does what it says). If it can, then the positives will outweigh the negatives who will then look like they are taking shots simply because they can versus there being true merit to the negativity.

      Reply
      • Posted by Alex Ikonn
        Mitch Joel

        Hi Mitch,

        Thanks for your response Mitch and everyone else who contributed on this thread. I came back to this post after sometime for a little guidance on trolls. :)

        However, what can be done if the troll is a persistent one and even though you are choosing to ignore them and not respond. They still persistent and are always the first to comment with their non-sense. This is even when your viewers or loyal customers are responding in your place and defending you.

        But they still persist with non-sense ...

        Do you believe those comments and future comments should be left or should you try to eliminate this person from your forum by blocking them to not distract the actual ongoing conversation about something meaningful?

        Should the troll be eliminated? This is the case mostly applies for a private social network.

        Thank you for bringing this topic to attention!

        Alex

        Reply
        • If someone is continually being a nuisance, you're doing everyone a favor by either letting them know or removing them. Try offering an olive branch first or having a personal conversation with the individual.

          Reply
  • Posted by Kneale Mann
    Mitch Joel

    Long before I blogged or went eyebrow deep online, I programmed radio stations. This is where many people feel they are experts and over two plus decades I fielded my share of complain calls, emails, letters and in person "discussions" by unsatisfied listeners.

    To your point, some people will never be satisfied if you named them grand ruler of the planet but changing venues works, it really does!

    After being sandbagged more than a few times, I changed the venue by offering to put this person on a listener advisory board or for them to join us for a movie premiere and thank them (and you have to do it genuinely) for their feedback.

    Some companies are nailing it online.

    Today on Twitter, I commented on the recent Jet Blue story of a flight attendant who activated the emergency door and left the plane. The company's social media team responded within minutes. Bravo!

    RT @JetBlue: @knealemann We're working with FAA & PANYNJ to investigate. At no time was security or safety of customers or crew at risk.

    You will never satisfy the troll. It is a delicate dance and sometimes you should just take your seat and wait for the song to end.

    Reply
    • Based on the comments, I think people are grappling with what a Troll is versus a disgruntled consumer. I think Trolls are never consumers of the brand you represent. I think Trolls are critical just to be critical. That's why changing venues work - they actually don't want to help or do any additional work. They just want to complain and plead their side/logic.

      Reply
  • My take: Don't respond when...

    ...there's nothing to say that will possibly lead to resolution

    ...when there's nothing to say that adds value

    ...when your response might only validate a non-issue as an issue

    Reply
  • Posted by Anthony
    Mitch Joel

    This is a very good point. In my job, it is not possible to respond to all complaints, and it is actually a part of our social media policy to not automatically engage. There is no point getting involved if:
    - the problem can be dealt with through private channels and,
    - if there is no clear benifit to the brand in doing it in public.

    Personally, it is the articulate, reasonable or funny complaints that concern me the most. They are the ones with the most percieved credability and the most potential to spread.

    Angry or unreasonable complaints are usually ignored by the public, and engaging does not create any value for the brand. Ideally, if this happens in a space where the brand has a real presence, informal brand ambassadors will engage on behalf of the company.

    Reply
    • Based on the majority of comments, I'd love to see a Community Manager or PR professional write a Blog post about the difference between a "Troll" and a complaint. I don't think they are one and the same (by a longshot). While I don't think "Trolls" require or deserve any semblance of attention, I do think that any legitimate complaint must be addressed (whether it's in private or public is not my main concern). Every legitimate complaint does deserve attention.

      Reply
  • Posted by Diane K. Rose
    Mitch Joel

    Hi, Mitch.

    The "no response is sometimes the best response" concept is a long-standing public relations option that was around long before digital took over public communications. Although a first instinct is to protect and defend the brand/organization/executive, a corporate communications professional has a responsibility to slow down the internal mob screaming for immediate action and explain why sometimes any response to an irrational comment -- no matter where it shows up -- only fans the flames of a fire that would likely sputter out on its own if left alone.

    Granted, this type of action was easier back in the day when the only public outlets for disgruntled customers and employees were the printed newspaper letter to the editor, a 5 p.m. newscast or a homemade picket sign. The risk of an issue gaining any kind of ongoing traction and going viral in an old-fashioned sort of way was unlikely. Time to calmly discuss a course of action was a given rather than a luxury.

    For all its goodness, today's social media mindset of instantaneous engagement and reaction puts dangerous pressures on an organization's communications personnel. I think about how many times I've seen Twitter handles and Facebook pages worked by junior employees or interns who have bought into the idea that an immediate response is required for every tweet or comment but don't have the experience to understand that the "no response" action is sometimes the smarter one.

    (Wow, this got long. I sometimes still fall back into my old-fashioned, non-web friendly writing habits as well.)

    Reply
    • What happened this week with JetBlue and that one employee is a good example of this. I'm not sure JetBlue should engage, to be honest. They had one very unhappy employee who cracked and did something irrational. What could they possibly say that would put a rational framework around it?

      Reply
  • Posted by Kimmy
    Mitch Joel

    I normally don't feed the trolls. However, I will admit that I can fight and bicker with the best of them. I try to limit my arguments to a select few topics. And more recently, I notice, people deliberately try to start issues, just to cause chaos. I find myself typing an argument, and then deleting before I send, more often now. I guess I am just getting tired.

    Reply
    • Bruce Lee used to write a ton and then light the papers on fire. The point was to put the thoughts down and get them out of the body. Nothing wrong with that. When it's a Blog post that I find myself responding to with any semblance of aggression, I tend to write it in Word and then once it's finished, I decide if it merits publishing or if it's just good enough to be out of my system.

      Reply
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