A recent article highlighting a spat between Twitter titan Oprah Winfrey and a less-than-flattering follower tweet led me to think about one of the core tenets of engaging with fans/friends/customers on social media. Namely, don’t get into an online spat with them because, no matter how right you might be, it’s a fight you cannot win.

An example straight from the financial services industry comes from 2011’s debit card use fee from Bank of America. The Twitter universe responded loudly and negatively.

For all the many positives social media offers both consumers and businesses in the sharing of ideas, opinions and honest feedback, it also offers an ugly Pandora’s box of possible nasty exchanges. People are pretty much free to say whatever they want, whenever they want, about your brand, whether it’s true or not.

The question becomes when it’s time to respond and, if so, in what way.

The basic rules of engaging with a consumer in online forum include:

  1. Stay on top of who’s saying what about your brand online by setting up keyword Google alerts (e.g., “ABC Bank”). It’s a free service and you can have alerts delivered to your inbox daily or weekly.
  2. If it gets ugly, take the conversation offline. You never want to get into a public online spitting contest with a disgruntled consumer. Simply post something along the lines of “We understand your concerns and ask that you contact us at (555) 555-5555 at your earliest convenience so we may discuss the matter in more detail.” This takes the spat offline and shows other readers that you care enough to respond.
  3. Respond to negative comments quickly. Time is of the essence, especially online. Consumers expect rapid response to their concerns posted online. A week’s delay from your organization makes it look like you don’t care about your online brand integrity or your customers.
  4. Don’t follow obviously scripted response for every exchange. This becomes transparent pretty quickly to your followers and shows a somewhat callous and disinterested online attitude from your organization towards its consumers. Talking points aren’t necessarily a bad idea; just tweak them to match the specific needs of different exchanges.
  5. Try not to take it personally. Remember, people are far more likely to complain about your organization and its people in an online (and less accountable) forum than they are in person. The negativity of their words can also increase online. View negative online feedback as the constructive criticism your organization needs to face challenges and grow.

Social media sites like Twitter and Facebook make it much easier for marketers to reach their consumers and vice versa. The arena is also open to negative posts from customers, whether fair or not. Knowing the ground rules about when and how to respond goes a long way towards establishing your online brand identity and integrity.