Learning to live with a bit of negativity

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When I speak to groups of marketers about social media these days, I can almost guarantee that one of the first three questions I'll be asked is about negativity. Marketers are fixated on this issue. They fear that publicly engaging with their constituents is an invitation to critics to foment rebellion.

My response, in a nutshell, is this: If you make lousy products and your customers hate you, stay away from social media. While you're at it, you might also ask what you're doing working for a company like that. However, assuming you're like 99% of successful businesses, you have little to fear. Here are seven reasons why negativity concerns are overblown:

1) Every company has a few disgruntled customers. People know that. They'll give you a mulligan for the occasional complainer.

2) Critics now have the means to air their gripes to a global audience. They will do that whether you like it or not. Do you really not want to be involved in that discussion?

3) Silence is the worst response to criticism. It simply becomes another negative. Ask anyone who specializes in crisis communications.

4) Most negative customers simply want to be heard. If you engage with them constructively, you almost always turn them around. Often they become your most vocal fans.

5) A few angry customers can't do much damage. In fact, they're usually shouted down by supporters. Negativity is only a problem when a large number of voices are involved; and the earlier you head off that mob, the quicker you put down the revolt.

6) Negative feedback is more useful than positive feedback. If you encounter criticism, acknowledge and learn from it. You'll get a PR bounce as a bonus.

7) The number of companies that have been damaged by online criticism in the last five years can be counted on the fingers of both hands. It's just not a big issue.

Here's a pair of contrasting examples.

Dell has been the victim of three major blog swarms in the last two years. It has learned that constructive engagement is the most effective way to respond. Businessweek recently published an article praising Dell for its new, progressive approach to customer relations. Its Direct2Dell blog has been cited as a model for corporations to follow.

In contrast, Sony Corp. remained mute two years ago while critics roasted it over an invasive digital rights management technology. By the time Sony acknowledged the problem, its grudging response was seen as arrogant and half- hearted. This only compounded its negative image.

Which example would you rather follow?

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