Your Brand under Attack: Negative electronic Word-of-Mouth (eWOM) and online Firestorms in Social Media Part 1

Written by Yannick Pyne

Catalyst for an Online Firestorm | Cheeseburger Price

In 2012, just 39 cents were enough to trigger an ‘online firestorm’ that broke over McDonald's Germany. What happened was that the leading fast-food brand had raised the price of its cheeseburger by exactly that amount. As a consequence, many consumers expressed their unhappiness about the price increase by communicating their displeasure on McDonald’s Facebook wall (Frickel, 2012). This in itself does not seem to be unusual within the highly-connected online world in which many companies manage their own social media presences and respond to or interact with consumers. However, it becomes unusual if the number of ‘likes’ and comments on one critical social media comment rise to exorbitant levels. Within 48 hours 81,000 users clicked on the ‘like’-button and 6,800 users commented. The company responded one day later and announced that the price for the cheeseburger would not be raised in most restaurants (Frickel, 2012).

This is only one of many cases in which comments on social media platforms brought companies to their knees and demonstrates the influence of electronic word-of-mouth as well as the power of consumers interconnected in web 2.0 technologies (Pfeffer, Zorbach, & Carley, 2014). The first blog post serves to build-up a theoretical understanding for the changing paradigm of word-of-mouth and of the consumer power with a main focus on negative electronic word-of-mouth and its extreme form of so-called ‘online firestorms’. The managerial contribution of the second blog post is to answer the research question and thereby to reveal strategies for marketers dealing with such negative electronic word-of-mouth.

The Journey | from Word-of-Mouth to Word-of-Mouse

To begin with, it is of paramount importance for marketers to understand the relatively recent shift of word-of-mouth. Traditional word-of-mouth (WOM), which Arndt (1967) defines as the “oral, person to person communication between a receiver and a communicator whom the receiver perceives as non-commercial, concerning a brand, a product or a service” (p. 3), has changed significantly with the development of the Internet (Breazeale, 2009). The claim, mentioned by Stern (1994), that word-of-mouth “vanishes as soon as it uttered” (p. 7) no longer applies (Breazeale, 2009). Particularly, the emergence of web 2.0, often also referred to as ‘interactive web’, offers consumers the opportunity to obtain information and to participate in word-of-mouth in the form of user-generated content (Corstjens, & Umblijs, 2012). Consumers must no longer seek advice “over the backyard fence” (King, Racherla, & Bush, 2014, p. 167) but can rather engage with electronic word-of-mouth (eWOM) and make use of the enormous amount of user-generated product and brand information available.

The definition most frequently mentioned in literature derives from Hennig-Thurau et al. (2004) who define electronic word-of-mouth as “any positive or negative statement made by potential, actual, or former customers about a product or company, which is made available to a multitude of people and institutions via the Internet” (p. 39). In some academic journals (e.g. Barreto (2014); Breazeale (2009)) the expression gets modified to ‘word-of-mouse’ in allusion to the computer accessory. Bearing the definition in mind, King, Racherla and Bush (2014) identify six major characteristics that distinguish electronic word-of-mouth from traditional word-of-mouth and thereby define its unique nature: (1) Enhanced volume, (2) dispersion, (3) persistence and observability, (4) anonymity and deception, (5) salience and valence, (6) community engagement.

Social Media | Customer’s Way for Complaining to the World

The Internet has changed the way customers can express their dissatisfaction with companies and their ability to mobilize mass audience against companies (Ward, & Ostrom, 2006). This to say, “consumer complaining is changing from a private to a public phenomenon” (Ward, & Ostrom, 2006, p. 220). One of the most famous examples for so-called ‘Internet gripe sites’ is which was founded by a dissatisfied customer of United Airlines in 1997 and offers the possibility to ‘untie’ complaints about the airline (Lyons, 2005). Tuten (2010) mentions that the website is “perhaps one of the earliest and best examples of a consumer taking advantage of the new power offered by the internet" (p. 128). The website had received 25,000 complaints from passengers and 200 complaints from employees by 2012 (Roseman, 2012). However, this number seems rather low considering and comparing it to the example of McDonald’s Germany. For that reason, it can be inferred that social media has intensified the empowerment of consumers and their ability for complaining to the world.

Social media platforms are argued to have become the new word-of-mouth (Thomas et al., 2012). According to Blazevic et al. (2014), approximately 90% of the estimated 2.4 billion Internet users worldwide use social media which allows them to consume, create and exchange content. This is also manifested by Safko and Brake (2012) who describe social media as “activities, practices, and behaviors among communities of people who gather online to share information, knowledge, and options using conversational media” (p. 5). People from across the world can use social media to broadcast the good, the bad, and everything in between about a brand to a large audience by sharing, liking, tweeting or pinning it. “This broadcasting capability gives the consumer greater relative influence in the communication process” (Thomas et al., 2012, p. 90) and enables them to take an “active role as market players and reach (and be reached by) almost everyone anywhere and anytime” (Hennig-Thurau et al., 2010, p. 311).

The Clue | Positive Comments travel fast, negative Comments travel faster!

On the one hand, word-of-mouth is still one of the strongest, if not the strongest, marketing tools that exist and in particular, electronic word-of-mouth can lead to beneficial results, such as almost free advertising, customer engagement, increased brand recognition and sales, et cetera. On the other hand, negative electronic word-of-mouth can cause costly or irreparable damage for the brand (Kietzmann, & Canhoto, 2013) as it has the ability to influence all stages of the consumer decision-making process as well as the brand perception and evaluation (van Noort, & Willemsen, 2012). The speed of diffusion of negative electronic word-of-mouth but also the sheer extent of negativity through social media is not comparable to former online criticism (Barreto, 2014).

One of the first academic journals to discuss this extreme form of negative electronic word-of-mouth and new social-media phenomenon was written by Pfeffer, Zorback and Carley (2014). They refer to it as ‘online firestorms’ and define it as “the sudden discharge of large quantities of messages containing negative WOM and complaint behavior against a person, company, or group in social media networks. In these messages, intense indignation is often expressed, without pointing to an actual specific criticism” (p. 118). In accordance with the sub-headline above, research about the spreading of negative electronic word-of-mouth shows that consumers “disseminate negative content to more recipients, for a longer period of time and in more elaborated and assimilated manner than they do positive information” (Hornik et al., 2015, p. 273).

After reviewing a large number of academic journals, there seems to be one recurring prime example for negative electronic word-of-mouth and online firestorms via social media that every marketer should be aware of – ‘#McDStories’. In 2012, McDonald’s started a Twitter campaign using the hashtag #McDStories in which they hoped to receive positive tweets from consumers telling their best McDonald’s story. As soon as Twitter users started to share negative or funny stories about the company, McDonald’s social media team realized that the campaign had developed into a wrong direction (Hill, 2012). This demonstrates how marketers can lose a part of their control to the consumer and reveals that “marketing communication has become a two-way communication flow between the business and communities of consumers that increasingly wield more power over the message” (Thomas et al., 2012, p. 88).

Two sample tweets from the #McDStories Twitter Campaign

Image: (Roberts, 2012)

The first blog post provided an overview of the theoretical framework necessary to understand the emergence of negative electronic word-of-mouth and online firestorms. The second blog post will take a more practical approach, will uncover different company cases and will reveal strategies that help marketers and brand managers to deal with negative electronic word-of-mouth and online firestorms. Furthermore, the initial question will be answered and managerial recommendations will be provided.