Comments Unbecoming

About a quarter of all online advertising marketers have tried to run a viral campaign. This data point comes from Jupiter Research’s Viral Marketing report, released earlier this year. The report says what we all already, grudgingly know: only a small fraction of those launching campaigns designed to go viral capture any momentum at all.

Planning a viral campaign may be just about the most operating-without-a-net stunt in all of advertising. It’s great if you pull it off, but chances of success aren’t in your favor.

What interested me most here was the number of brands willing to allow consumer’s comments to be posted directly alongside their creative work. The connection between comments and viral strategies isn’t often discussed, but most viral plans involve the placing of creative on some social space: YouTube, Facebook, or MySpace. All of these spaces are wide open to the public, and anyone can drop a comment about the creative, brand, product, or anything — and not all of it is necessarily nice.

Engaging directly with consumers often means that you, the advertiser, must venture onto their turf: blogs and forums, sharing sites, and the collaborative corners of the Web. When you go there, you don’t necessarily have to listen to what people say, but recognize that other people might.

Here are five things to remember when dealing with the comments you may gather when you place something into a community space.

Have a Thick Skin

People tend to act out their worst sides when they post on the Web. You could post the Web-video equivalent of “Citizen Kane” on YouTube and someone will post a “this sucks” comment. Look closely at comments that are posted and recognize that many people are simply exercising their right to anonymous idiocy. A comment that contains nothing of substance, just a random smear, is totally worthless. Leave it alone.

Remove Comments only Rarely

If you’re operating in a forum that allows you to delete someone’s comment (say, your own blog), do so extremely judiciously. In the case above, for example, it’s generally better to leave a non-specific negative comment up on the blog and not respond to it. That way, it quickly fades away and gets buried by all the other comments that come along. If you delete the comment, you run the risk that the poster will come back, see his work of art deleted, and decide to retaliate with even more of the same.

Be Aware of Real Issues

It’s always possible that a real customer with a real complaint may decide to use an open forum to discuss the issues. I heard of a particular company that put up a video on YouTube, only to find a customer asking tech support questions in the comments. You can’t always rely on your customers to know the right way to contact you and, increasingly, items like YouTube videos show up in search results.

So, imagine that someone owns your product and it breaks. A Google search returns one of your videos, the user doesn’t watch it, and instead focuses on the comments section. The user has reached out to you, and it’s your responsibility to respond.

Get It There

While the public spaces where you may put your video belong to the consumers, there’s no rule that says you aren’t also allowed to participate. The most important thing is to identify yourself in your screen name as a company representative and dive right in.

Others may differ on this opinion, but you can be as vocal and engaged a participant as you would like. OK, if you spend all of your time patting yourself on the back, it won’t go over well. But you can invite feedback, ask that people send the work on, and engage with people saying bad things… you can say whatever you want to say to people.

Don’t Count!

Comments are like votes, and it’s easy to get fixated on the number that you are (or aren’t) piling up. The raw number of votes doesn’t necessarily equate with how good the content is or how engaged people are. The one exception, of course, is when there are absolutely no comments at all. That looks bad to everyone, because it just seems like no one is engaged at all.

The best way to combat the lack of comments: invite your close friends — the people who are on your mailing list, visit your Web site frequently, or are on the beta test list. If you begin with them, there’s a good chance you’ll get a solid base of comments.

Putting something out into the world to go viral means you’re introducing a bit of chaos into your media plan. That certainly isn’t a bad thing, but you always remember that this chaos may show up in those open forum spaces. Just be ready for it.

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