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November 22, 2007

Social Media Marketing 101: Weathering the Controversy

Three hundred million. That’s how many people live in the United States alone, and at least half of them – if not more – have some kind of access to the Internet. Getting five people to agree on something is difficult. Getting 150 million people to agree on something is, to put it mildly, impossible. 

The point is: if you’re going to spend any time in social media marketing, with blogs, forums and other online communities, it’s not a question of if you’ll run into any controversy. It’s merely a question of when, and how bad it will be.

By the nature of community alone, a topic or blog post will surface that bitterly divides people on which side is in the right. Some people will only add more fuel to the fire, while others will try futilely to put out the flames.

If you want to remain a part of the social media community, you have to learn to weather the good times and the bad. Here are a few tips for handling controversy gracefully.

1) Don’t panic.

Douglas Adams wasn’t lying with that piece of advice. The upside of controversy is that it will get a lot of people talking, and they’ll all be talking about you. You’ll find the mantra “There’s no such thing as bad press” to be surprisingly true in this case.

People who would have otherwise never heard of you or your site will be showing up to see what the big deal is, which means you’ve just exponentially expanded your audience.

However, that’s not to say there aren’t downsides. If you don’t handle a controversy with professionalism and grace, online social media will eat you alive. While you’ll gain some respect if you handle yourself well, if you botch it too badly, the bad word will spread faster than wildfire in a forest that hasn’t seen rain in 20 years.

2) Don’t respond immediately.

It’s not a difficult scenario to imagine: you’ve made a blog post about something, and you knew when you made it that some people wouldn’t agree with what you have to say. What you didn’t expect was how viciously they would disagree. Not only are they attacking your argument, but they’re attacking you and your business.

You think what they’re saying is wrong, or you know how to disprove it, so you should jump on immediately and do so, right?

Well, probably not. The technology on the Internet makes it extremely easy to post responses in the heat of the moment, which can result in you saying something that you’ll regret later.

As much as it may pain you to do so, wait until you’ve cooled off and had a chance to get the feel of the other side’s point before you make an attempt to post. This lets you see what the other people are saying and consider it logically, not emotionally.

3) Attack the argument, not the person.

Argumentum ad hominem means “argument against the man,” and unfortunately it shows up in these situations more than it should. If somebody makes a comment you disagree with and you say something like, “Well, if you believe that, then you’re an idiot,” you’re attacking them personally, not what they’re saying.

That’s the quickest way to not only anger people, but drive the controversial discussion off-topic. Plus, you’ll come across as petty and inept at defending your own statements.

If you disagree with something somebody said, keep your comments restricted to just attacking what they said. For example: “You said X. I disagree with X because of Y and Z.” By not attacking them, you’ll gain a little more respect in how you’re handling the controversy.

4) Keep your responses simple and professional.

That’s not to say keep them so devoid of emotion that they read like corporate blather. People really hate corporate blather, and they’ll hate it even more if they’re looking for a straight answer in a controversy. But neither should you drive a point into the ground. Find the arguments to which you want to respond, quote exactly what that person said, and nicely point out what is right and what is incorrect.

When you’re pointing out something that’s incorrect, make sure that you’re only fixing facts, not opinions. For example, say somebody paraphrased something you put in your blog post, and paraphrased it wrongly. Quote their paraphrase and say why they’ve misunderstood you. Back it up with the exact quote from your original post, along with clarification of what you meant. Consider an apology if the original wording was unclear.

Remember: everything you say online, be it in a blog post or forum comment, will reflect on you and your business. Keeping your responses professional and to-the-point will let people know that even in the most controversial storm, you know better than to resort to emotional and petty attacks.

If you want to read a good article on dealing with social media controversy, check out this article at Search Engine Guide: http://www.searchengineguide.com/jennifer-laycock/hide-and-speak-6.php (Recovering from a Social Media Disaster)

Controversy is just part of the nature of the social media community. And when a controversial storm hits, it can feel like an unstoppable force is swarming over you, and you’re just fighting to keep your head above water.

But as long as you don’t panic and keep your responses professional without trying to spin people, you’ll still be able to hold your head high once the storm subsides. And you may find yourself with a new league of loyal customers and readers once all is said and done.

Author:  Jessica Cox and Michelle Pierce are graduates of the University of Oklahoma’s College of Journalism with a background in Internet marketing and writing for the Web. They currently provide PR services at Xeal Precision Marketing. Sign up to get crucial Internet marketing tips at Xeal’s free Thursday webinar at http://www.xeal.com/webinar.htm.

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