How to handle a negative UGC epidemic? : The impact of negative user generated content (UGC) toward brand image when it becomes viral and how company could respond

Written by: Sky Preedanon



With current social media environment, where there is an increase in consumer empowerment through engagement and interconnectivity among consumers on the internet. User generated content (UGC) becomes a tool for consumers to express their idea, attitude, and perception toward brand. With similar characteristics to traditional word of mouth (WOM), but with greater reach and access range by consumers, UGC could create much larger damage to brand reputation. Develop from previous research, author suggests two possible strategies to handle with negative UGC; despondence and partnership. The main keys of both strategies are to develop trust with consumers and to encourage them to create positive UGC, in order to sooth down the negative one. 

Keyword: User generated content (UGC) 

“You broke it, you should fix it You're liable, just admit it
I should've flown with someone else Or gone by car ...,” 

United Breaks Guitars, Sons of Maxwell

This is the part of lyric from a famous music video that expresses frustration of consumer toward company. The music video was created by Canadian musician, Dave Carroll, when United Airline fail to take any responsibility over his broken guitar by airline employees during the flight transit. The music video became a disaster to United Airline brand image and its public relation, once it went viral on YouTube. This is an example of how power of a user generated content (UGC) once it spreads over social media, in current social media situation, where there is an increased in consumer empowerment through engagement and interconnectivity among consumers on the internet. The social media becomes a tool for consumer to express their idea and perception toward brand. Company is no longer the one to present itself on what it is, but it becomes consumer’s role to tell each other what it is via UGC (Christodoulides 2009; Gentler et al 2013; Hennig-Thurau et al 2013). When brand image is affected by negative UGC, it becomes very difficult for a company to control and revive their image from such situation. In this individual report, I am going to explain why it is hard for the company to revive its brand image when facing with negative UGC, as well as what could be a solution to this problem. 

To answer the question, how company should handle the negative UGC, it is wise to understand why UGC has a high impact on consumer, and why it is difficult for company to against it. User generated content (UGC) is one kind of “word of mouth” communication; specifically, “electronic-word of mouth”. UGC is information generated by consumers to express their idea, attitude, and perception. Consumers also use it to communicate with others through online media. The example of UGC could be; a post on Facebook, a tweet on Twitter, a blog, and video on YouTube. UGC can be considered as a word of mouth because its inherits same ability to shape consumer brand perception (Christodoulides 2009; Smith et al 2012). It also has similar characteristic as tradition word of mouth, that it is difficult for the company to changes consumers’ perception toward brand image, once it is formulated by negative UGC. As it is a content created by non-commercial contributor, the consumers are likely to believe and trust the information from UGC, whereas distrust the information from the company official informant such as advertising, promotional campaign and marketing activities (Goldsmith & Horowitz 2006; Goh et al 2013). Despite different in source of information, where offline WOM information come from close social circle such as family and friend, e- WOM, which source of information come from online social media, provide relatively same credibility (Brown et al, 2007). Nevertheless, because of its nature as online media, UGC may be able to create higher impact than traditional word of mouth, as it has higher reach/access ranges, cheaper to create, and ability to be available all the time (Tirunillai & Tellis, 2011). Once UGC is shared through online media, consumers with the similar point of view with the content would share it further to their online social circle. UGC also induces other consumers to share same experience or frustration toward brand via another BGC, which could further negatively impact brand image and reputation (Thural et al, 2013). Then, with the current social environment, where consumers are highly inter-connected, the content becomes exposed to wide range of audiences, and possibly become a viral among consumers. In addition, the consumers in digital era spend large amount of time searching for information online, and rely their decision making more on e-word of mouth and consumer’s online review (Dhar & Chang 2009; Edelman 2010). This means higher chance for consumers to have negative perception on brand, once they search for brand information online. Therefore, when company face with negative UGC that harm their brand image like “United break my guitar” music video, it becomes more problematic to company than traditional word of mouth, which only limit to offline social proximity such as family, friends, and acquaintances. The negative UGC could become uncontrollable epidemic if company could not come up with proper strategy. 

To restore brand reputation from negative UGC, company must carefully plan a strategy to control and put down width spread negative perception toward brand. Thomas et al (2012) came up with five strategies to handle with a negative online contents, these strategies are delay, respond, partner, legal action, and censorship. Delay strategy means the company chooses to wait and observe situation with expectation that the negative brand perception on social media cursed by UGC would die down on it own. While responds strategy, company chooses to listen to consumers’ dissatisfaction, and respond to solve consumer pain-point. Furthermore, company could also choose to partner up with consumers, treating consumers as its own employees. The example of partnership strategy is, when Coca Cola, recognise the Facebook fan page, and creates partnership with page administrators. With this strategy, company is able to influence its online brand reputation, at the same time, enable consumer to express their idea and attitude toward brand. Legal and censorship actions are aggressive strategies used by company to remove unwanted UGC content out from social media. The strategies are only useful if and only if the negative UGC is false and intentionally created to defame the company’s brand. Nevertheless, in author’s opinion, delay, legal and censor strategies are not effective ways to eliminate negative perception toward brand image, if negative UGC is already large exposed to consumers on internet. Delay strategy would only make the negative UGC spread further. Due to dynamic nature of online media, delay respond could mean increase in exposure of negative content to consumers, which eventually increase a damage to the brand reputation. While, legal and censorship strategies, if not implement properly could make consumers perceive such actions as an act of distrustful and hostility by the company. This may result in further spread of negative UGC as consumers now recognise the company as their enemy. In addition, it would be very difficult for the company to restore brand reputation and relation with customers in the future. The reason is that consumer would already distrust the company, while honesty and authenticity are what consumers demand from a company when in come to social media marketing (Thomas et al, 2012). 

In the contrary, respond and partner strategies if implemented properly, could be effective ways for the company to handle the negative viral UGC. The respond strategy is one of the effective way to solve brand reputation crisis, if done correctly and fast enough. Consumer may perceive the company’s action as being enthusiastic and being honest to solve the problem. The main goal of this strategy is to control and to deprive the hype of negative UGC, by clearly show to customers that company is taking an action, in a good way. Furthermore, company may use this opportunity to create active conversation to the customers which are very crucial for managing brand strategy in modern social media era (Christodoulides 2009; Hennig-Thurau et al 2013; Vernnucio 2014). The conversation may be used to correct misinform customers, explain, and clarify company actions. Nevertheless, as mentioned before, the official information from the company may not be trusted as much as those from UGC. To increase the customers’ trust toward brand, the communication should display authenticity and honesty, by being personal and touching – be more human. Nevertheless, the degree of conversation should base in accordance to the seriousness of the negative content. In addition, the respond strategy should be used to induce discussion among consumers as well (Goh et al, 2013). The discussion, then could create another UGC that help to soothe the undesirable perception from negative word of mouth and at the same is more trusted by the consumers. However, company should monitor a discussion closely, to prevent any risk of the discussion being turn into another negative UGC. In addition, a manipulation act of pretending to be consumer to start conversation should be avoiding at all cost, as if got caught the consequence would be catastrophic to brand image. Another effective way in handling negative UGC is by using partner strategies. In this case, company could rely on its loyal customer to help revive its brand reputation. Brand community plays a crucial role in this strategy. Company could create partnership with its brand community, then rely on it to produce positive UGC to counter the negative one. However, company should make its involvement with community transparent. This may reduce the impact of positive content from partner community, nevertheless, demonstrate the company as being honest and transparent, which are likely improve the brand reputation (Thomas et al, 2012). 

In conclusion, the negative UGC is very destructive toward brand reputation once its expose to large audience on social media. It is ineffective to use traditional CSR tools to revive brand from negative perception that was crated by negative UGC. The effective ways for the company to handle with such situation are to respond quickly to control the spreading of negative content, and demonstrate good will toward consumers. Then exploit this opportunity by encourage consumers to start conversation that will formulate another UGC which benefit to the company’s brand. Nonetheless, the responsive strategies could not perfectly revive negative image of brand. Therefore, the most effective way to handle negative UGC is to prevent it from being exposed to large audience. With current online media environment, it requires the company to be proactive. Company should develop an “early warning systems”, that help identify any sign of negative UGC, that has potential to become a threat to brand reputation in the future. Which means company has to make consistency and well planed communication and monitoring strategies. The systems allow the company to respond quickly to negative UGC, prevent it to becomes exposed to wide range of audiences. 











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