Wherefore Art Thou Manners? Internet Trolls Are a Dark Side to Brand Engagement

A disturbing element of online behavior has real consequence for marketers who wish to be open with consumers. We recently discussed several social strategies for creating a more active dialog with important audiences. We got all excited about the benefits of hearing unvarnished feedback and being able to discuss issues with people in a forum where they would be comfortable being straight with us, and which could then open up more in depth conversations in other channels.

Then we started to look at some of the recent examples of others trying to do the same thing.

  • The New York Police Department @NYPDNews account started a now infamous #MyNYPD Twitter hashtag campaign, innocently (in hindsight, naively!) inviting citizens to post pictures of themselves with NYPD officers. Before midnight, more than 70,000 tweets containing photos of police brutality were posted – passing #HappyEarthDay as the trending topic of the day. There were plenty of positive and proud photos also submitted, but they were overwhelmed by the others. So that was bad. Clearly, they didn’t know their audience and miscalculated the potential negative side. The NYPD campaign is reminiscent of McDonald’s #McStories campaign in 2012. Tweeters then took the opportunity to bash the fast-food chain via social media.
  • NFL commissioner Roger Goodell’s attempt at a Twitter chat under the #AskCommish was “sacked” by trolls. (Thanks to Mashable for that clever metaphor!). Most of the trolls’ questions were just stupid, but many of them crossed over to flat-out mean. “As a feckless multi-millionaire who shamelessly shills for billionaires, have you considered a run for Congress” from @Steve_U_DS is disrespectful, but @rdelaune asked, “How do you govern a league with your head buried deep in your a**?” That is not only unnecessarily snarky, it is not even clever.
  • After nearly universal critical praise and a stellar box office run, one nasty “review” from Kyle Smith of the New York Post became a focus point for rabid discussion of The Lego Movie earlier this year. This has become something of a disturbing trend in film and other cultural criticism, where snarkiness is rewarded by further promotion and discussion – just because it’s snarky and unfounded. Great. It seems the worse your attempt at criticism, the more people talk about it.
  • In an example where bloggers had a very negative reaction and where the marketer responded, a campaign for Diet Coke carrying the theme “You’re On,” which the Coca-Cola Company introduced in North America only three months ago, was turned off after being mocked in social media, according to a recent story in The New York Times. The ads were replaced with a theme “Just for the taste of it,” which introduced Diet Coke in 1983 and has returned at least three times since. The abrupt end for “You’re On” comes after several advertising and marketing bloggers noticed that in some ads the theme appeared above the Diet Coke logo so that it could be read as “You’re on Diet Coke.” (In other ads, the order was reversed: “Diet Coke, You’re On.”) According to the bloggers, “You’re on Diet Coke” evoked a cocaine habit along with the history of Diet Coke’s sibling, Coca-Cola, which once included cocaine as an ingredient.

Are brands too sensitive? Is Coke pulling an ad due to the comments of a few bloggers an example of good listening or is it victimization by bullies? It certainly seems anonymity makes us meaner. I find it very troubling that people are so mean on social and digital media, when generally, people are pretty polite in person or in channels where the individual is recognized and would like to be taken seriously. We seem to have lost our collective manners and sense of respect, and even go further by celebrating the people who take things to a low level, even when those negative claims are not substantiated in fact.

The result is that marketers who truly do want to give audiences a voice, are hesitant to do so because it’s so distasteful to participate. Sure, you could just tell me to grow a spine about this, and suck it up because the good of the open, anonymous Internet outweighs the bad. I believe that to be true, but I also know that convincing executives that they should take seriously these channels as brand engagement opportunities is increasingly hard when there is so much childish behavior. When social participants speak in respectful tones – even when you have constructive criticism or a legitimate gripe – then more marketers will be willing to listen for real – and not just as a one-time PR campaign.

One forum where people seem to act like adults (for the most part) is on Reddit, where your reputation is visible and provides benefits for influence and reach. Conversations on this forum are much more respectful, although by no means gentle. There is real debate and lots of heated discussion. That is what brands need – honest and real feedback from mature people who will actually stand behind their comments. Twitter and even LinkedIn are so anonymous that it’s easy to leave manners behind.

How are you gathering social feedback and reaching out to audiences today? Feel free to be as snarky as you like in the comments below. But if you want to be taken seriously by your peers, you’ll likely write it in a way that is at least respectful.

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