Written by Yannick Pyne
Ways Out | Connecting it to the real World
Although the importance of this topic seems to be extremely high, research is still in its infancy. There is a wide variety of academic articles available that describe the changing paradigm of word-of-mouth, yet there is only limited literature available that examines how brands can deal with negative electronic word-of-mouth and online firestorms within the social media context. This may be connected to the fact that its emergence, its development and its consequences happened in a rather short period of time. However, from popular press articles, Thomas et al. (2012) gathered and analyzed a variety of company examples. Thereby, they identified five general coping strategies, delay, respond, partner, legal action, and censorship, which will be illustrated with cases below.
A delay strategy is based on the idea that a negative electronic word-of-mouth campaign or online firestorm will be diminish on its own, allowing the company to not directly respond to or even ignore it (Thomas et al., 2012). This offers the advantage that the brand can “review the complaints and develop a thorough response to the issue” (Thomas et al., 2012, p. 91). Furthermore, the brand does not need to engage in a tug-of-war with consumers and can, in some instances, reduce the run time of the negative publicity. A disadvantage of the delay strategy is that a company may be perceived as unresponsive and unwilling to listen which can make the situation worse as consumers could get even more angry (Thomas et al., 2012). For example, two employees of Domino’s Pizza violated health-code standards while preparing sandwiches and posted the video on YouTube in 2009. It quickly spread over many different social media platforms, was viewed by millions of people and damaged Domino’s brand reputation. However, Domino’s decided for the delay strategy and was accused of having responded too late (Vogt, 2009).
The respond strategy “involves listening to, acknowledging, and potentially addressing the negative feedback generated via social media” (Thomas et al., 2012, p. 93), ranging from individual responses up to reacting to mass audiences (e.g. in online firestorms). Thus, the respond strategy offers the company the opportunity to be present in the conservation, to keep at least some control and to act in an authentic and transparent manner (Thomas et al., 2012). Consumers may turn from ‘madvocates’ into advocates as “68% of consumers who posted a complaint or negative review on a social networking or ratings/reviews site after a negative holiday shopping experience got a response from the retailer. Of those, 18% turned into loyal customers and bought more” (RightNow, 2011, p. 4). Nevertheless, a company needs to be careful to not anger the consumers more and needs to develop a feeling when, how and to whom to respond (Thomas et al., 2012). The example, illustrated in the first blog post, from McDonald’s Germany serves as a prime example of a sophisticated response strategy as McDonald’s decided to not only listen to the consumer, but also retract the business decision that initiated the online firestorm.
A partner strategy opts to build a relationship or association with outside spokespersons “who assist in promoting, managing, and/or defending the brand message” (Thomas et al., 2012, p. 96) and rather serves as a prevention tool for negative electronic word-of-mouth. It is an offensive strategy as it includes consumers in the marketing communication process and shifts brand control to the consumer. For example, the Coca-Cola’s Facebook fan page was created in 2009 and managed by two brand advocates for a long time (McDonald, & Meldrum, 2013). On the one hand, by making use of the partner strategy, a company is likely to be perceived as transparent and authentic which are pillars for a successful social media campaign (Safko, & Brake, 2012). On the other hand, a drawback of collaboration is that the brand gives up control and risks that the brand damage is high if spokespersons turn against the company. Moreover, if a company releases too much power to the consumers, it can happen that the company is not always presented in a positive light (Thomas et al., 2012) (as e.g. #McDStories).
A legal action strategy involves judicial proceedings to gain direct control and is, due to the anonymity of electronic word-of-mouth, often connected to defamation of a company (Thomas et al., 2012). Adopting a legal action strategy can be useful under some circumstances, yet it can lead to “public relations catastrophes, where communities of consumers side with the individual consumer, further impacting negative perceptions of the brand” (Thomas et al., 2012, p. 99). This to say, it can be the case that the brand is still damaged after the litigation ends. Similarly, a censorship strategy involves removing unwanted information from the Internet which is associated with a lack of transparency and authenticity from a consumer’s perspective (Thomas et al., 2012). Furthermore, “in dealing with negative social media campaigns, censorship can aggravate consumers and create further negative publicity via word of mouth that can quickly spread among networks of consumers” (Thomas et al., 2012, p. 100).
To provide an example, Greenpeace used social media to attack Nestlé over its use of palm oil in its KitKat bars. They uploaded a video of an office-worker opening a KitKat with a bloody orangutan finger in its packaging on YouTube. Nestlé invoked copyright infringement rules to delete the video and informed Facebook users it would remove any posts that contained an altered version of the KitKat logo (e.g. brand name changed to ‘Killer’). Even though Nestlé managed to pull the video from YouTube, it continued to spread through the Internet (Ionescu-Somers, & Enders, 2012). This demonstrates that it is hardly possible to censor the Internet and to maintain or get back control. Nestlé appeared hostile and sarcastic to consumers and their brand image was seriously damaged (Steel, 2010).
Image: (Greenpeace, 2015)
On The Finishing Straight | Where to go from Here
From the information provided, it can be deduced that social media is ubiquitous and companies should make every effort to create and maintain an authentic face in these platforms. The value of social media for companies is unquestionable as it offers direct communication, which had previously been inconceivable, with (potential) consumers. Nevertheless, it makes companies susceptible to negative electronic word-of-mouth and online firestorms which can seriously harm the brand. According to Fournier and Avery (2011), today’s brands are not shaped by positive mass communication anymore, but by their ability to avoid or mitigate negative electronic word-of-mouth. That said, the elaborated strategies can, if used correctly, help to prevent the situation from turning worse. However, it would be instructive for marketers but also for future researchers to observe the role of traditional media, due to their ability to disseminate information to a large audience, in the aggravation of negative electronic word-of-mouth and online firestorms.
The blog posts answered the initial question by providing the theoretical framework and giving an overview on strategies and real-life cases on how to deal with negative electronic word-of-mouth and online firestorms in social media. Nevertheless, “it is important to note that these strategies are not mutually exclusive; there can be overlap because of the interactive marketing communication model that operates in today’s business environment” (Thomas et al., 2012, p. 91). Therefore, a company could use the strategies subsequently or in combination appropriate for the individual situation. Additionally, there is no intention to convey the impression that this topic can easily be approached and managed by every brand. The highlighted strategies are not cast in stone as it “depends on the size of the company, the resources available (including staff, budget, objectives, and target audience), the technology available, and the particular issue to be addressed” (Thomas et al., 2012, p. 103).
Nearly 60 years ago, Drucker (1954) claimed that consumers have always held the power position in the economy. The Internet, social media and electronic word-of-mouth have increased and will further enhance this power. Companies need to realize the call for action here. It is of paramount importance that marketers understand the dynamics of electronic word-of-mouth, no matter if positive or negative, and know how to adapt to this trend quickly in order to ensure that their companies are still around 60 years from now. The following managerial recommendations can be derived:
(1) To avoid social media because there is a danger of negative electronic word-of-mouth and online firestorms is the wrong approach. This does not make the company invisible, but rather ‘mutes’ it. (2) Companies need to understand that the times of pure one-directional and top-down advertising are over. Social media is no short-lived trend and it is essential for companies (3) to realize the consumer empowerment and to accept the limited options for controlling discussions about their brand. Companies which manage to do so (4) can eventually derive benefits from it as consumers share their wants with companies in real-time. (5) Social media is not free and managing electronic word-of-mouth requires sustained commitment of time and staff. (6) Companies should develop a good understanding for the factors driving negative electronic word-of-mouth and the consequences for marketing communications. (7) Marketers should define guidelines and a strategy how to handle and respond proactively to negative electronic word-of-mouth and online firestorms in advance. Here, (8) they can work with ‘early-warning-systems’ (e.g. via Google Alerts) and regular monitoring. In case of an ‘attack’, (9) it is necessary to understand the benefits and risks of each coping strategy and to know when to use which. (10) Companies should be aware that it is possible to turn negativity into positivity and thereby turn brand ‘madvocates’ into advocates. (11) It is also advisable to observe future research and findings on this topic. Lastly, but probably most importantly, (12) the quote
cited by Benjamin Franklin holds for negative electronic word-of-mouth and online firestorms in today’s social media context.
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