What Should Marketers Do When Brand Negativity Goes Viral?

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Here are seven ways marketers can address viral negativity in a world where the power rests with the consumer.

It happens all the time. An irate customer takes to Twitter or Reddit and airs his bad experience with a brand. The tweet or post goes viral and, voilà, the Web has a new punching bag.

It's not just bad customer experiences that go viral either. It could be a botched rebranding. A misinterpreted product. A vocal and obnoxious executive who can't seem to stay off social media. All of these can bring unwanted negativity to a brand. Worse, ill sentiment can rapidly spread through the Web—often before the brand's employees begin the work day. This adds a complex layer to marketers' increasingly full plate.

Here are seven ways marketers can address viral brand negativity, or potentially prevent said negativity from going viral in the first place.

Do some canvassing

It's imperative that marketers listen to customers online at all times. When foul or galling messages arise, do some cross-checking. “Acknowledge the issue at hand, especially with those directly talking about it,” says Lisa Sigler, product marketing manager at customer experience management company Clarabridge. “Sometimes people exaggerate for effect. Uncover the truth. Research the issue; determine if there are nuances to the actual situation at hand.”

Think more like a customer, less like a business

Everyone's had a bad brand experience in some form. Marketers have to remember that they're customers, as well. “Consider the situation from the customer's point of view. It's only then, from their point of view, that we can fully understand and view the facts and be objective about any particular situation,” says Donna Pahel, director of digital marketing and e-commerce strategy at digital software provider EPiServer. “When we only view [these things] from the brand's point of view, this tends to drive our actions in a self-serving manner versus being in service of our customer.”

Consider the virality of the situation

It's easy to feel overwhelmed when the Google Alerts and Twitter notifications start tumbling in over each other, but these aren't always the best indication of virality. “Sometimes it feels like something has gone viral, but in reality there are just a few people talking about an issue. You have to look at the influence and network of each person to determine your next best action,” Clarabridge's Sigler explains. “The half-life of a tweet is reported to be less than five minutes, and the next bad news story is sure to come along quickly and replace you in the headlines. Still, that doesn't mean you should ignore the situation that caused the negativity; you still have to handle the issue.”

Recognize the power of today's consumer's voice

“Today's customers are highly connected and empowered—with just a few taps of their thumbs, they're broadcasting powerful messages about our brands and their experiences with them,” EPiServer's Pahel  notes. “Their voice is powerful and connected customers are fully empowered. They're either our best advocates or worst adversaries.”

Although some consumers have considerably more influence than others, that doesn't decrease the likelihood of an unknown user submitting a viral post. Indeed, it's often these less influential users who add voices to a viral conversation.

Apologize

Not just with a company statement either. Marketers who try to foster goodwill in the face of controversy may not negate the negativity, but consolatory gestures could sap some of consumers' ire. “Consider refunds or discounts to affected parties, and most important, fix the systemic issues so the situation doesn't happen again,” Sigler says.  “Fixing issues can be the hardest part, and it must be part of a customer experience program. Help empower the team responsible by giving them the credibility and attention they deserve across business units and with senior management.”

Be honest with yourself

As with many aspects of life, honesty is essential. In the case of managing viral negativity, brands should first look inward, lest facts come alight through other means. “Sometimes we have to take our medicine when the facts are stacked against us; in these instances, responding with transparency and candor is usually a viable path forward,” Pahel says.

Embrace omnichannel

Often, companies botch customer service opportunities by being misinformed (or worse, uninformed) about the particulars of a customer and his situation. The coveted omnichannel strategy can help to address this by design; marketers who integrate stand to avoid many negative situations.

“If you change the way you engage customers on one channel, it may only be one step in an overall strategy,” says Paige O'Neill, CMO at customer experience company SDL. “It's vital for organizations to ensure that channels are so connected that they become irrelevant, placing the focus on delivering true omnichannel engagement."

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