Ask any company that’s run into difficulty with its image due to a social media faux pas or to some bad consumer experience that’s gone viral and they’ll tell you. I think that brands lay the groundwork – they shape the experience but ultimately consumers are the ones who refine that groundwork into the image the world at large has of a brand.
Given that, and given the need for brands to participate in the social world, they’re going to encounter people who have had either a less than optimal interaction with the brand or who just don’t like whatever it is that the brand is selling/doing. Those people might use the social tools to let the world know about it since as we know it’s the less happy people who tend to lead brand discussions and not usually the staunch brand advocates (until they’re prompted somehow). I think it’s important that the recipients of the criticism differentiate between the two main types of people who offer it up: critics and trolls. They need to be dealt with differently.
Critics tend to express their displeasure in a thought-out, rational way. They usually have facts at their disposal and will listen both to other facts and promises to rectify whatever it is that irked them in the first place. Think of a restaurant review – maybe they just didn’t like the food – that’s opinion. Or maybe the food arrived cold and slowly – those are facts and problems which can be fixed. Critics help brands make themselves better.
Trolls, on the other hand, tend to be deliberately inflammatory. They are not trying to help fix anything – they just want people to respond, start flame wars, and get their jollies this way. They usually lack facts, they usually direct personal attacks as part of their rants, and harassment and stupidity are the cesspools in which they live.
What does one do? As we said the other day, you must respond to them both. Don’t do so by attacking them. Get your facts straight, point out opinions (which you respect) from facts, and accept that the critics might help you get better. Trolls go away when no one takes their bait. Good critics acknowledge improvement and it’s fair to reach out to them once you’ve fixed whatever was wrong. Our constant focus on the customer means we need to allow them to help us get better even as we continue to shape the brand we want them to see.