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Proper online strategies can reduce the virality of negative posts by up to 11 percent.

In September of 2015, a Philadelphia police officer said he was denied access to the restroom facilities at a well-known coffeehouse chain. He decided to post what researchers described as a ‘high-arousal negative complaint’ on the coffeehouse chain’s Facebook page:

“So I walk into [the coffeehouse] in full uniform and ask the young blond liberal behind the counter if I could use their public bathroom for which I need a key code and she states in a loud voice, so all the other customers can hear that the bathroom is for paying customers only… It’s hip for this generation to berate and totally disrespect cops in front of the public… I hope my fellow brothers and sisters in blue see this and know that we have each other… and not to patronize [this coffeehouse].”

The online complaint quickly amassed more than 20,000 shares, 6,600 likes and 2,300 comments, prompting the well-known coffeehouse to respond with an offer to “take all necessary steps to ensure this doesn’t happen in the future.”

Despite the outreach, the damage to the business’ reputation was done. With millions of small businesses and restaurants relying on social media to help them market their wares and services, keeping online complaints from going viral can play a key role in maintaining a positive brand image. It can also prevent a potential drop in revenue from angry customers.

The coffeehouse example is just one of many that researchers from several universities discussed in a study recently published in the Journal of Marketing. The researchers examined 472,995 negative comments in the public Facebook communities of 89 S&P 500 businesses in a bid to understand how to detect, prevent and mitigate online “firestorms” in brand communities.

The “firestorms” were defined as negative posts that engendered likes, shares, comments and support from other customers in a short period of time.

Interestingly, brands only responded to negative posts 70 percent of the time (331,370 out of 472,995). When they did respond, the responses usually came within an hour (93 percent of the time) and fell into five main categories:

  • The business suggested moving the conversation to a private channel: 61 percent
  • The business apologized: 53 percent
  • The business provided an explanation: 8 percent
  • The business expressed empathy: 6 percent
  • The business offered compensation: 3 percent

The researchers found that 15,762 negative posts “achieved above-average virality and got multiple [business] responses, suggesting that 3 percent of potential online firestorms evolved during the period of observation.”

Preventing potential firestorms
Overall, the increased use of empathy and explanation led to decreased virality. But, each one performed better depending on the situation. The use of empathy actually increased virality and made things worse in response to high-arousal posts such as the police officer example above. In contrast, providing an explanation in response to high intensity, high-arousal posts significantly decreased the virality. The opposite was true for less emotional negative posts. In other words, empathy worked better when the negative post was not emotionally charged.

Apologizing and requesting to move the conversation to a private channel were also found to be contributing factors in decreasing virality.

The researchers were surprised by one finding: immediately offering to compensate the unhappy customer often made things worse. It also led to other unhappy customers posting their own complaints (presumably in the hope that they too might receive something from the company).

Indeed, offering compensation to unhappy customers seems to have conflicting opinion among experts. According to the research, it can dissipate customers’ frustrations but offering it without explanation indicates an admission of guilt, which can generate even more negative feelings among customers. To prevent that from happening, the researchers suggested that an offer of compensation is most effective only if it follows an explanation or empathetic response from the business.

Mitigating a firestorm after it erupts
If a firestorm of complaints has already gone viral, the tactics should change. The researchers found that businesses should attempt to vary the types of responses and focus on more empathy in later responses.

In contrast to preventing a firestorm, the use of channel changing and apologizing actually made things worse once a storm has already erupted. In addition, the researchers noted that offering an explanation is a viable first response at this stage but subsequent explanations often made things worse. Offering compensation, however, did help mitigate virality but researchers suggested that it should only be used as a last resort.

In analyzing one mitigated firestorm, the researchers pointed out an airline that initially responded with empathy (“We’re sorry for the inconvenience”) but neglected to offer an explanation or provide any help for the upset customer. That response did not help calm the situation but a subsequent response providing an explanation and offering compensation did the trick.

How long can you expect a viral event to last if it does erupt? Most of them (78 percent) erupted and dissolved within 24 hours, according to research.

Preventing damage, preserving your brand
If steps are taken to prevent online complaints from spreading, the researchers estimated that an appropriate response strategy can reduce virality of negative posts by 10 percent. Once the post has already gone viral, an appropriate response strategy can reduce virality by 11 percent.

In either case, preventing the spread of online complaints means stopping hundreds of angry customers from sharing and supporting negative word-of-mouth. In other words, protecting your brand — and your bottom line.

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