Wednesday, December 16, 2009

How to deal with negative social media sentiment

At the Integrated Marketing Summit last week in downtown St. Louis, I attended a session called "Twitter Basics and Beyond Workshop" in which Mark Aaron Murnahan spoke about how to use Twitter to monitor brand mentions and engage followers. He did a pretty good job and took questions at the end.

One of my favorite moments of any marketing conference occurred at this point. An attendee raised her hand and asked: "What should we do if we're seeing a lot of negative comments about our product?"

Mark paused. He recommended that she take a customer service approach and reach out to each individual to see how she can help to improve their experience. Great response, except that...well...

"We can't," she responded. "We don't really have any control over the product. We can't make it...better," she said reluctantly. Everyone in the room had a puzzled face and turned to pay more attention to where this was going.

Mark asked her to tell us more about the product.

"Well..." she hesitated, "It's the St. Louis Rams."

While the room of attendees muffled their giggles, I got a sinking feeling in my stomach. Having attended quite a few home games this year, I know just how bad the "product" really is. She later called the team the "on field product" -- an important distinction actually, given that the brand consists of much more than just the current team's stats, which will be something to keep in mind later in this post.

So, Mark seemed a little stumped. I'm going to be honest. It could've been that he felt a little bit out of place being from the Kansas City area and now needing to address someone about St. Louis sports, but he's much more savvy than that. I think he was preparing his response when I jumped in with a thought. Raising my hand, I offered her a little bit of advice, and I'll elaborate on that point here.

She is right. There is nothing that she can do to make the on-field product better. When we take on roles in social media or marketing, we choose the product we're willing to promote day in and day out on the day we accept the job offer. Sometimes that product changes - getting a lot worse (St. Louis Rams) or a lot better (like MonsterCommerce, the online shopping cart software and its related services did from 2004 - 2007 while I worked there.) We take that risk.

Now, as marketers or public relations professionals (note: I believe social media marketing is turning a lot of "marketers" into PR folks by nature of the beast, but that's another post for another day), we are now responsible for monitoring brand mentions across all social media sites. And we now sleep even less than we did before because complaints, spur of the moment business opportunities, demands and customer needs can come flying across Twitter at any moment of the day. If your organization hasn't split social media roles into "customer service" and "marketing", then you have to be both reactive and proactive, taking care of customers on every whim as well as putting out great content, promotions and personality that compels and engages - building brand loyalty and affinity over time (not to mention leading to sales/leads).

This is our challenge. Working in social media for the Rams simply compounds the difficulty.

Often, reacting to negative sentiment such as what you see in this screen capture of a few tweets after the December 13th loss can risk adding fuel to the fire.

Instead, my primary recommendation is to find and focus on the positive influencers across Twitter for your brand. If your brand or product is popular enough to have a lot of people tweeting about how terrible it is, there have got to be some who like it. In the case of the St. Louis Rams, you have a sports team with an esteemed history of super bowl wins, all-star players like Kurt Warner, and a city that is not made up solely of fair-weather fans. St. Louis sports fans are pretty notorious for their loyalty to their teams. So, it didn't take me long to find someone on Twitter who not only created a St. Louis Rams "UNOFFICIAL" account on Twitter, decked out with a pretty solid-looking background. On top of that, this Twitter user seeks out any sports article with a positive spin about the Rams and polls his followers on their favorite players on the team.

He/she also has almost 3,000 followers, and the account owner engages with their followers regularly with @ mentions! That's a pretty significant and decently engaged voice in social media. Unfortunately, this person has not tweeted anything since November 29th, and yet the Rams have lost something like two games since then. Dear Rams Social Media Manager: It's time to get this person tweeting again by reaching out to them, find others just like this one (Another fan here is tweeting daily and has almost 5,000 followers), and get the positive conversations going. It doesn't mean you're going to keep people from tweeting "Rams suck" after each loss, but I firmly believe that in light of your lack of ability to change the product, empowering your fans to remain active is the only thing you can do. You can continue to tweet positive messages from the official Rams account, but we all know that third party endorsements are more effective.

I also recommend finding other "products" affiliated with the on-field product (the team) that will drive attendance, participation and positive brand sentiment (assuming those are some of the KPIs by which your job performance is measured). Examples would include talking about the awesome suites available at the Edward Jones dome, videos and content about the experience of attending the games - from the nice facility to the food and drink available to the kids entertainment and nearby restaurants. Essentially, you are event marketing - selling the experience (aside from the disappointment that inevitably comes at the end of the games). Also, find places online where people are talking about the charity involvement, past player awards, commemoratives, memorials, special pre-game events - anything at all that the organization is, in fact, investing their time and money in. Give these items a little boost with social media as well.


  1. Wow Erin, I love your energy level! I feel hope for the Rams just by virtue of your revelation that the faithful are lurking out there, and there is good (off-field) news to share with them.

    Here's what I'm wondering: from a customer service standpoint (great distinction) how far can the Rams people go in "listening to" and acknowledging fans' pain and distress, without feeling like they are agreeing with the highly negative fans' tweets?

  2. I think it's critical to distinguish marketing/promotion from "customer service" when it comes to social media. One reason I say that is that I don't often deal with the customer service (reactive) side of SMM very often in what I do. I am a marketer at heart, and so I enjoy putting together campaigns & programs designed to grow brand awareness, traffic & conversions. Given that, my understanding is that, depending on the size of a brand/product, there are often going to be people who are talking about you in SMM (Twitter, Facebook, etc.) and so you really must be aware and have a strategy for how often and how to engage with the negative comments (Or your policy needs to indicate that you prefer not to). My recommendation in the post was largely to ignore the negative posts on Twitter when it comes to the Rams. This is because there really is nothing you can say....what? "Better luck next week?.." The situation just is. We are losing. Badly. Often. How do you engage with users who are stating the fact that the team is just not good right now and hasn't been for quite a while? Like my comment, "adding fuel to the fire," I don't see a positive return on time spent engaging with these folks. That's my $0.02 for this case study at least. In other areas such as CPG or services, I think that when there is a product management team focuses on the user experience, a team that can fix defects/bugs and improve the product, it is the requirement of the social media team to respond to negative comments with an apology and an expected date that the product will improve.

  3. I think I was first stunned by the Rams thing ... I thought they were a hockey team. :-D

    OK, I am just a little out of the whole football thing. I think you raised a hugely valid and commendable point. I thank you for saving my coffee-drown butt when that question came up. I was still trying to recall where the Rams were located. I actually had to ask her at lunch when the Rams came to St. Louis.

    My retrospective look at this is much as you said when you saved me. I needed more water for that question anyway, and I really appreciated the pause! I think that concentrating on their core audience is a crucial piece, and also making an effort for those people (and I am sure St. Louis has them) who thought The Rams was either a hockey team or some kind of construction tool. After all, that team surely has an impact on the community that goes far beyond their reach or recognition.

    As I wrote in a blog post only today, even the most boring and unnoticed industries and entities can be made more exciting.

    I hope that you do not mind my posting a link to illustrate my point, but even a copier company can be more exciting, given the right approach.


    Thank you again, Erin, for saving my over-caffeinated and under-rested thoughts.

  4. I think a struggling NFL team should really lean on their players' personalities and communicate to their fan base that these are real people in their community.

    Steven Jackson (@sj39) has done a really good job of communicating the effort that he is putting into making the Rams better. He is developing his own brand with his online presence that he funds. A good strategy for the Rams social media team would be to loosely connect and promote those separate player brands and encourage their brand building.

    As a Rams fan, it is a lot harder for me to say negative things about the Rams when I can identify with the actual personalities that collectively make up that team.

    Their media team has started doing this on the big screen during games with player and cheerleader profiles. That is definitely a big leap in the right direction from where they were engagement-wise from 1995-2008.

  5. What a great blog post Erin! I agree with you 100%. Even though they cannot "make the product better" they have so many opportunities in which they can reach out to their customers and promote all of the great charity work they are doing in the community, and promoting ticket opportunites for next year. Regardless of whether or not you can make the product better, you still have to engage with your customers. If you bury your head in the sand, you are just making it worse! Again ... great post Erin! Keep up the great work!

  6. Sports fans are a weird bunch. Momentum plays such an important role in the way fans think -- one bad call can string together a few bad losses (which sometimes turn into losing seasons), and one big play can string together a few good wins. Unfortunately, when things go bad, it's almost impossible to believe how a team is going to "right the ship."

    As for the Rams, specifically, I would point out that they are going to possibly have the #1 draft pick in next year's draft, and also create some kind of message that things can indeed turn around quickly (see last year's Atlanta Falcons and Miami Dolphins as examples). You CAN make things better, just not this season. (The problem with this message might be that they have drafted poorly the last few years, although this is a new staff, so there is reason for hope.)

    All it takes is for a couple special players (Warner, Marshall Faulk), and you have fans smiling again. They key is to somehow capture the momentum when it comes, and sustain success.

  7. Erin,

    Nice commentary and love the "Essentially, you are event marketing - selling the experience" comment and can relate to it.

    In San Francisco the game experience itself, with the kids, is the whole point of the day not whether the team is winning/losing so that is a huge experience marketing opportunity in itself.

    Happy New Year from us @cazoomi


Thank you for commenting on my blog post! I really appreciate the conversation. -Erin

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