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Avoiding a Social Media Firestorm

A recent study offers insights for detecting, preventing and mitigating online firestorms


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Whether based on fake news or on an element of truth, negative word-of-mouth posts going viral in an online brand community can have a devastating effect on an organization’s reputation and ultimately on its future prospects. Guarding against bad press online, whether from malicious trolls or genuinely dissatisfied customers, is a critical part of reputation management.

Most major firms have online brand communities to reinforce their connections with customers and increase their reputation, brand patronage and customer spending. These online communities offer satisfied customers the ability to easily and widely spread positive word of mouth about the company. However, online brand communities offer dissatisfied customers the same ability to spread negative word of mouth. A negative word-of-mouth post can become viral, creating an ‘online firestorm’ as the post is widely supported and shared by other members of the community. The result can be significant damage to the brand in terms of lost customers and lost reputation.

As a result, managers are intent on detecting when a negative post has the possibility of going viral; preventing a negative post from going viral; and mitigating the damage if a negative post does go viral.

A study of nearly 475,000 negative posts across 89 Facebook brand communities identifies the factors that indicate a negative post is likely to go viral, as well as the most effective company responses to prevent a negative post from going viral or to mitigate the damage if it does.

The study, conducted by the University of St Gallen’s Professor Marcus Schogel and Dr. Jochen Wulf and colleagues from Babson College, Kedge Business School and Melbourne University, yielded the following insights for managers seeking to detect potentially viral negative posts: 

  • Negative posts with words that indicate that the emotions of the sender are highly aroused (e.g., angry, frustrated) were more likely to go viral than negative posts with low-arousal negative words (e.g. sad, disappointed).
  • Negative posts from brand community members with strong structural ties to the community are more likely to go viral than negative posts from brand community members with weak structural ties to the community. Structural ties were measured by the number of messages sent to the community by the member before his or her negative post.
  • Negative posts from brand community members with linguistic styles in their writing similar to the linguistic style of the majority of the brand community were more likely to go viral.

Word recognition software was use to compare linguistic styles as well as to identify high-arousal vs. low-arousal words.

Using the same word recognition and Facebook data, the study delivered the following insights related to the prevention of online firestorms:

  • For negative posts that reflect high-arousal emotions, an explanation from the firm (“we were unable to assist you promptly because the store was busy”) is more effective than empathy (“we understand how you feel and hope you have a better experience next time”) in preventing the negative post from escalating into an online firestorm.
  • Alternative responses — from ignoring the post to suggesting a channel change (“please call our customer service line”) to offering compensation — are ineffective and sometimes counterproductive. For example, the brand community may get frustrated if the interaction between the complaining member and the company is taken offline.

To mitigate an online firestorm that is gaining steam, the study revealed the following:

  • According to the data, the best approach is to alternate empathetic and explanatory responses to the negative post. Online messages build on one another; presenting mix messages in corporate responses reduces the effect of a firestorm — especially if the firm begins with a greater mix of explanatory messages but then migrates to a greater number of empathetic messages.

The detailed results of the study offer clear pathways for brand community managers to:

Detect potential firestorms by checking the tone of a negative post, the connection between the sender and the community, and how closely the language in the post reflects the language in the community;

Prevent firestorms by offering a prompt explanation for the problem and, especially for emotionally charged posts, avoiding sympathy that will only frustrate the unhappy customer; and

Mitigate firestorms with a steady stream of messages that alternative between empathy and explanations.

Access full research paper here: ‘Detecting, Preventing, and Mitigating Online Firestorms in Brand Communities’, Dennis Herhausen, Stephan Ludwig, Dhruv Grewal, Jochen Wulf, Marcus Schoegel, Journal of Marketing, 2019

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