An executive of an organization looked me dead in the eye recently and said, “I am not comfortable with what people are saying about my product on the Internet. How do I stop them?”

Without FearThe readers in tune with the world of social media probably just got a chuckle, but it’s no laughing matter. It isn’t a laughing matter because the vast majority of marketing and communications decision-makers would say the same thing and be dead serious. For those people, here’s your answer: You can’t.

Conversations about, or those which simply include, your brand take place regularly. A decade or more ago, they took place around the water cooler. “Did you see that Bud Lite frog commercial?” “That McRib thing is just awful. Don’t even try it.” “Can you believe this Saturn car thing? No haggling for a price? I can’t wait to see that.” “Please, someone tell Cindy Crawford she’s tone deaf.”

Today, those same conversations are taking place online. The only difference is the four people gathered around the water cooler are now hundreds, thousands or even millions of people gathered around social networking communities, message boards, forums and blogs. They are talking whether you want them to or not. (Freedom of speech is a bitch, huh?) So you can’t stop them.

But here’s what you can do: Participate.

I responded to the nervous executive by saying this:

“You can’t stop people from talking about your product or brand. What you can do is make sure you are also participating in the conversation. When people talk poorly about you, reach out to them and ask why. Then ask if there’s anything you can do to make up for their dissatisfaction. You can also inject positive conversation about your product and brand, so long as you do it appropriately and meaningfully and don’t just snap into ‘sales mode’ and force marketing messages at them. By offsetting any negative with healthy doses of positive, but also reaching out to correct the negative, you’ll soon think differently about what people are saying about you.”

So this particular executive’s company has decided a blog is right for them. But she is still very nervous about participating in the conversation and especially wary of allowing the conversations to take place on her own website. For the nervous executive facing a decision to blog, here are some reasons for calm:

1. Moderating Comments Is Acceptable

So long as you are weeding out the profane, offensive and deliberate flame entries and not filtering out everything that might be negative, the community understands. No one wants to browse through the comments and see obscenity and unreasonable attacks on anyone or any brand. It’s okay to set up checks and balances. However, you almost have to commit yourself at the onset to allow negative comments through. Not doing so will backfire quickly. Encouraging them so that you can directly address problems with individual customers will set you apart just as fast, but in a very good way.

2. Comments Aren’t Above The Fold

In order for your blog’s readers to see the negative comments you’re so nervous about, they have to click through to the post and then scroll down to the list of comments. The simple math of a short attention span society and the time and effort it takes to read an entire post, then all the comments, proves the number of eyeballs that see these entries is considerably less than those who visit your site or even read the post itself. This doesn’t mean, however, that you can ignore the conversations occurring in your comments. So long as you address negative ones by participating there, too, you’ll minimize the effect of the naysayers and likely turn them to brand fans with your responsiveness.

3. Blogs Are Not Forums

Unless you create a blog with this specific capability in mind, visitors cannot author posts. They can only offer reaction to ones written by the authors you choose. A forum, where users can start discussion topics, is an entirely different animal. Blogs allow your audience to be primarily reactive to you, not proactive against you. Forums (also called message boards) require a higher degree of monitoring, moderation and, yes, bravery from your brand. But please don’t confuse a blog for a forum.

4. You Are Letting Go Of Control, But You Aren’t

The bottom line is the website belongs to you. If you feel a commenter is a particular nuisance or detriment to the community you are trying to build online, you don’t have to allow their comments through. However, there are steps to take to use the fact you’ve let go of control to your advantage. Politely and privately ask the individual to clean up their act or lose their commenting privileges. If that doesn’t work, extend that polite and professional instruction publicly so your community sees you are trying to address the problem. If the problem persists, stop allowing their comments. If the community knows what you’re up to, they’ll protest if you’re being unreasonable. If they don’t, and chances are they’ll encourage you, you’ve technically earned their endorsement to take action. It’s simple consensus building. Let the community have (or at least think they have) control over community decisions.

No amount of discussion or research is going to make that executive feel better about her organization blogging. What will is actually doing it. Her head and heart are in the right place. The organization is one that should benefit from blogging as a communications strategy. The opportunity is right. But she’s fearful of facing the negative.

Someone a lot smarter than me once said, “Nothing worth doing is ever easy.” But it always seems that way in hindsight. 

Other Posts You’ll Find Interesting:

  1. Five Steps To Managing Reputation Management
  2. Should I Launch A Business Blog
  3. Are Your Biggest Fans Able To Defend You?
  4. Contagious Negativity And The Dangers Of Social Media
  5. Boo Hiss (Tech PR War Stories Podcast)

IMAGE:Without Fear” by Sam UL on Flickr.

[tags]blog, blogging, negativity, negative, negative comments, fear, social media[/tags]

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About Jason Falls

Jason Falls

Jason Falls is the founder and chief instigator for Social Media Explorer's blog. He is a leading thinker, speaker and strategist in the world of digital marketing and is co-author of two books, No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide To Social Media Marketing and The Rebel's Guide To Email Marketing. By day, he leads digital strategy for CafePress, one of the world's largest online retailers. His opinions are his, not necessarily theirs. Follow him on Twitter (@JasonFalls).

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Comments Policy

Comments on Social Media Explorer are open to anyone. However, I will remove any comment that is disrespectful and not in the spirit of intelligent discourse. You are welcome to leave links to content relevant to the conversation, but I reserve the right to remove it if I don't see the relevancy. Be nice, have fun. Fair?

  • http://pirie.typepad.com Carman Pirie

    Re: Point #4

    Instead of saying “You Are Letting Go Of Control, But You Aren’t”, I’d say that “You’re letting go of the illusion of control, you never had it anyway.”

    You say as much in your intro… corporate blogging initiatives (and other social media introductions into corporate environments) simply serve to make visible that which has been there all along anyway. They couldn’t control the water cooler chatter, and they can’t control the online conversations either.

    Social media does serve to amplify the water cooler considerably however, and I think corporations simply need to decide if they’re going to let the ampified water cooler stand as the ‘public record’ or are they going to jump in, participate, and help shape that public record.

    Just my 2 cents worth Jason… then again, I haven’t had the full benefit of morning coffee as yet, so, I may be making no sense whatsoever…

  • http://www.leapfroginteractive.com KatFrench

    Great stuff as usual Jason. I’ve been reading Debbie Weil’s “The Corporate Blogging Book” and she makes most of the same points. The book is really aimed more at the skeptical CEO or CMO than those already sold on corporate blogging.

    I’d highly recommend it to any businessperson who needs help getting more comfortable and familiar with the subject before diving in.

  • Pingback: Overcoming The Corporate Fear Of Blogging « Static Eclectricity

  • http://carterfsmith.blogspot.com Carter Smith

    I think you get it! That’s a major accomplishment in this industry, and I am not trying to be sarcastic, I assure you.

    Doc Searls’ recent post suggests if PR wishes to remain relevant in an environment where networked markets get smarter faster than those that would spin them, the profession needs to define and satisfy a market for something other than spin. I think that means take the time to reshape the model based on what we, the people, take our time to tell you, big business, what we want.

    I’m thinking fighting fire with fire is the best way. Can you imagine the message that big business would get (or have the opportunity to “get”) if thousands of their would-be customers sent them a message in a language they purport to understand? Is there a chance that their procedures would change if a group of folks started using their tactics to convey a very important, business dependent message? I’m thinking that’s what it would take.

    http://carterfsmith.blogspot.com/2008/01/space-invasion-in-reverse.html

  • http://www.socialmediaexplorer.com Jason Falls

    Carman — You’re dead on with it, coffee or not. Brands truly haven’t ever had control of these conversations. My hope is that CEOs and the nervous types will participate in them instead of running from them or thinking they can harness them.

    Kat — One of my first recommendations to clients thinking about blogging. I think I’m responsible for enough book sales of that to ask Debbie for a finder’s fee.

    Carter — Well said and thanks for thinking I’m an it-getting. I think social media, if the tools are used appropriately, it plugs businesses into what the consumer is truly saying. The electronic medium allows corporations to, for the first time really, listen to the conversation about their brands. The smart ones are also participating in that conversation which gives them not control, but at least a voice. Thanks for chiming in. I love Doc Searls, by the way.

  • http://my-creativeteam.com/blog Harry Hoover

    Congratulations, Jason, for not laughing in his face.

    No one has ever had control over the comments anyone makes about a product or service, whether in the analog world or the digital one. I don’t understand why people don’t get this.

    It’s always been a dialogue, but in the old analog world, marketers liked to maintain the illusion that they were dictating things.

  • http://www.socialmediaexplorer.com Jason Falls

    Yeah, Harry. It’s different for marketers who once never heard the comments people made. Now they can Google Alert all the comments made in the online space and their head explodes. This would have been the same in the analog world had every brand had someone report back to them all the things said about them. It’s just an adjustment for the marketplace that we’ll all ride through.

  • http://www.flatbrimhats.org/ Flat brim hat

    The Internet is like alcohol in some sense. It accentuates what you would do anyway. If you want to be a loner, you can be more alone. If you want to connect, it makes it easier to connect.

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