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.