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• Who says you have to listen to the “conversation”?

Cute joke, or vile slander against motherhood?

Cute joke, or vile slander against motherhood?

As part of their “ongoing series assessing the future of the Internet,” Information Week‘s John Soat looks at the risk of brands being attacked online in “Reputations at Risk” (Information Week, June 1, 2009).

As an example, he opens with the unexpected ramifications of a handmade sign posted at the exit of a Home Depot store in Las Cruces, N.M. Seemingly innocuous, and potentially helpful, the sign encouraged disgruntled customers to voice their complaints before leaving.

If you are leaving because we were out of stock, you couldn’t locate a product, an associate wasn’t available, the check-out line was too long, or for any other reason please go to the service desk, pick up the phone and dial Ext. 299 for the Manager-on-duty and we will improve your experience.

But as inoffensive as it may have been in real life, when the same sign was photographed and sent to the Consumerist, a blog site run by Consumer Reports, it generated a storm of invective. “Though many of the respondents are sympathetic to the sign writer’s obvious sincerity,” Soat says, “more typical are comments like this, from someone identified as PamelaKenndy: ‘Hey Home Depot. Do you really think that a pissed off customer is going to bother begging you for you to do your job?'”

But PamelaKenndy and her awkward syntax aside, how did the actual customers of that particular store responded? Instead of stomping out in frustration, did some take the time to register their complaints, thereby helping the company identify its problem areas? Did they look upon the sign as evidence that a real human being was reaching out to them through the corporate facade? Did a happy customer possibly see it and take a moment to leave a word of encouragement?

We don’t know. All we know is the response of some 27,000 posts on the forum of a Web site whose motto is “Shoppers bite back.”

This, of course, is one of the problems of analysing the effects of bad online publicity: not only does the ease of posting make negative comments more likely, in many cases, the people complaining have no involvementwith the actual situation.

Soat continues his article with a look at Eastern Mountain Sports, which created a forum for customers in which it “encourages customer product reviews on it [sic] Web site.” According to CIO Jeffrey Neville, the decision not to remove bad product reviews was “vital” and “adds to the review credibility.” Undoubtedly this is true. At least to a point. But I have to question how sound Soats’ conclusion is: “Companies that host a forum are acknowledging the conversation will happen with or without them. Hosting it lets companies know about it and show they’re listening.”

In some cases, perhaps. But in other cases it simply allows those who wish to complain for the sake of feeling important an opportunity to do so with the official sanction of the company about which they’re complaining. As Soats himself points out, “Just don’t kid yourself that it means you control it.” But I would also add, “Don’t kid yourself that it means anything significant, either.”

One aspect of online consumer protests that does not receive adequate attention is the degree to which posters can influence each other. When Motrin posted its online ad about mothers getting sore backs carrying stylish baby slings, the response was a large hue and cry accusing them of mocking mothers. We have to wonder, however, how the same commercial would have played out had it appeared only on TV. Once one poster interprets something in a negative way, the result can be similar to the proverbial snowball down a mountainside. The negative comment is visible to every other poster following. And let’s face it, picking out the offence in media messages is far more “empowering” (and fun) than going along with a light joke. It might be wise of Motrin to put a moratorium on web-based ad campaigns. Sure, keep a web presence by all means. And link TV and print campaigns to the web. But no more posting special ads for a relatively miniscule, remarkably vocal, and often chronically hostile audience.

The public is always talking about you, and truth be told, most of it isn’t particularly complimentary. The main difference is that through the Internet you get to hear more of what they’re saying. But just because you can hear it, doesn’t mean it’s suddenly become more important.

It doesn’t take the Internet to spread damaging publicity. Back in the late seventies, long before the Internet was a gleam in Al Gore’s eye, the rumour that McDonald’s used worms in their hamburgers spread through the grapevine like legislative demands through a room full of environmentalists. Probably more people heard about the wormburgers than ever heard about the Motrin fiasco. McDonald’s weathered it, however, partly by refusing to “enter the conversation,” therby disassociating itself from the rumour.

So, should Motrin have ignored the outcry? Certainly not — they caused it in the first place, and in large part by using a medium steeped in social chit-chat as a means of delivering a major commercial message. And should Home Depot remove the handlettered sign? Again, no. Not without evaluating the effect it’s had on the customers who are actually going to the store.

In the end, there’s a lot to be said for affecting a certain degree of hearing loss, metaphorically speaking. Just because people are talking about you doesn’t mean you always have to listen.

As they say, “Those who eavesdrop deserve what they hear.”

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