Dealing With Online Haters (Jim Karrh On Marketing)

As a consumer of news, ideas and products, do you ever pay attention to the “reader comments” attached to online stories or reviews? As a business leader, do you wonder whether those comments have an effect on consumer perceptions?

When reading news stories, I tend to scan the reader comments. If I am researching products, or evaluating hotels and restaurants in my travels, I often seek out customer comments for patterns.

It doesn’t take long to run across negative and really rude comments.

Blog posts, stories and online reviews can be very important to retailers, restaurant owners, hoteliers and product marketers of all types. You might think that the comments full of vitriol would be dismissed by other, more level-headed site visitors. (I figured that, because the most hateful comments also appear more often full of grammatical and spelling errors, the writers are simply exposing themselves as knuckleheads.) Yet new research suggests that even those hostile comments can skew impressions among the rest of us.

A study by a team from the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Nanoscale Science & Engineering Center found that reader comments on a news site can significantly distort what other readers believe was reported in the first place.

The experiment, recently published in The Journal of Computer-Mediated Communi-cation, used a nationally representative sample of 1,183 people. The participants were asked to carefully read a news post on a (fictitious) blog about a new high-tech product called nanosilver. The technology was described as having potential benefits such as antibacterial power but also risks such as potential water contamination. The news post was crafted to be neutral, with equal amounts of information about risks and benefits.

The participants read the news post, then read comments that supposedly came from other readers and then finally answered some questions about the content of the original article. Half of the participants read comments that were civil in tone while the other half read comments that used rude language; in other respects (such as the length and risk-versus-benefit leaning of the comments) the two conditions were the same. The experiment was designed to see if there is a “nasty effect.”

As it turned out, nastiness by itself skewed perceptions; the presence of a personal, ad hominem attack within a reader comment led participants to think the risks of the technology were greater. As the authors put it, “This study’s findings suggest perceptions toward science are shaped in the online setting not only by top-down information but by others’ civil or uncivil viewpoints as well.”

Yes, online trash talk leaves a mark. So what should you do about that in your own product marketing, website or blog?

Negative comments can represent an opportunity to learn, to respond, and to demonstrate openness to your larger online community of customers. For example, Lands’ End has long received high marks for the way it reflects customer reviews — even the less-than-glowing ones — adjacent to product descriptions on its website. If there is a problem, a Lands’ End rep is usually quick to acknowledge it online and share the way it was handled.

You might be able to change the opinion of a customer who slapped you with a negative comment. More importantly, negative comments focused on the product or service offer street-level feedback that might improve the business.

Truly hostile comments have no business value and serve only to repel many site visitors. They can be deleted immediately and ignored entirely. This recent research suggests they can indeed skew perceptions of you and your product.

Make clear the line between negative, substantive comments and downright hostile ones. Comments with profanity, threats, personal attacks or other language intended to offend get deep-sixed.

So … any comments about comments?

Jim Karrh, Ph.D., of Little Rock is a marketing consultant, researcher, speaker and author. See JimKarrh.com or email him at Jim@JimKarrh.com.