Social media has become a new way to find new customers, provide support, market products, share news and even develop customer relationships. Because of the free-form nature of services like Twitter and Facebook, large companies can enjoy the benefits of frequent personal interaction. Dell can "like" a comment from a happy laptop owner on Facebook, Bristol-Myers can share corporate news directly with their 67,000 followers on Twitter.
As with any emerging technology (and yes, social media is still emerging) there's a possibility for abuse. Customers can also complain about a new laptop or a new pharmaceutical. In some cases, a simple complaint can escalate into a vicious attack. At the farthest end of this spectrum are comment trolls, those who only want to harm a company through repeated social commentary.
Fortunately, a few social media experts have advice on how to handle these trolls. They have dealt with the issue many times and know what works and what doesn't.
1. Don't use automated responses for legitimate complaints
One of the worst things any large company can do in dealing with social media complaints and comment trolls is to send an automated response. In some cases, the grievances and complaints are legitimate, but automated tweets and Facebook messages just compound the problem.
Amir Zonozi, chief of strategy at the social analytics company Zoomph, says that as a company grows, it's critical to put more and more effort into real customer interaction, but it's also tempting to compromise and automate this process. United Airlines learned this the hard way last November when a passenger complaint about being sexually harassed and received a terse, automated response. K-Mart also uses automated responses when customers complained about Black Friday policies.
2. Take your time in developing a response to real issues
There's a tendency to deal with negative comments on social media swiftly. After all, the longer a comment sits without a response, the more damage it can cause. Social media expert Matthew Dooley says that it's better to analyze the situation first. Those running social media for a large company like FedEx or Best Buy are still humans. They can react in anger or emotion. And, he says "fixing the problem" is human nature.
"It's unreasonably satisfying to outwit someone who's hurling insults at you," he says. A better response? Ask questions, react in kindness and address the person directly in a personal way. It's a good practice to acknowledge where the commenter is making a valid point or even apologize as necessary. Analyzing and responding slowly makes sense, although Dooley says this is not the same thing as taking too long to respond and angering the commenter even more.
3. Always ignore trolls until they move on
All of the experts agreed that a real "comment troll" is someone who doesn't have a legitimate complaint. This is the typical angry Internet user who just wants to create mayhem and destruction. Rob Enderle, the founder of Enderle Group and an expert on consumer technology, says it's always best to ignore trolls. Eventually the troll gets bored and moves on to another target. By engaging, you're creating a ticking time-bomb.
"Generally it's best to ignore a troll and identify them to the admin staff of the site who can better deal with them," says Enderle. "As a fall back, never challenge them. Be cordial, friendly and don't get angry. If you don't engage, they'll typically go looking for someone else."
Of course, there are examples of large companies taking on a negative commenter in public. Zonozi mentioned one recent example where Charmin posted a response to comedian Rob Delaney about his daughter offering a bear a roll of toilet paper. This sort of playful banter, says Zonozi, can open the door to new customers and reach a wider audience.
4. Delete troll comments on sponsored posts
This is a more controversial approach, especially in the age of Internet freedom and usage rights. Everyone has a voice and anyone can comment. However, there's a different standard when it comes to "promoted content" and paid ads. When a large company like Best Buy pays for an ad to run on Facebook, and then trolls start leaving negative comments, it's a valid strategy to delete these comments as part of the paid ad, says Patrick Hope, the social media expert at Xcitex, a video capture and analysis company.
"You should work actively to remove [negative comments]," says Hope. "You're spending a substantial amount to push your content and deliver an on-point message. You're already pushing your content on people who didn't ask for it and many people who would never be customers will troll the comments as ad-revenge. Removing these will never hurt your core customer base. Allowing these to stay will hurt the campaign."
5. Ignore complaints that cannot be fixed most of the time
One final word of advice about comment trolls: Remember that some problems cannot be fixed. There are different levels of negative comments, from legitimate complaints to cruel attacks meant only to harm. As social media expert Jen Jamar explained, some trolls are just looking to create destruction, and the core issue is that the person is angry and abusive. No company can address that problem. In other cases, a troll has an issue with the product you sell and that won't ever change. A company that makes a bacon product will never be able to make a comment troll who is against all meat products happy.
"If you're seeing one or two negative comments about issues you cannot fix, it's best to ignore," says Jamar. "If you're seeing what appears to be a campaign against your company, then you'll need to address their issue, typically with a simple statement that acknowledges and reiterates your primary audience for your product and your commitments to them."