As a media consultant/whore whose job it is to help companies make money from Web 2.0 technologies, I find most of my new clients divide into two groups:
In Group 1 are companies with 20th century Web 1.0 sites characterized by an utter lack of user engagement. The owners of these sites are desperate to pump some newfangled Web 2.0 life into their online properties in the form of “community message boards.”
In Group 2 are the companies with 21st century sites who have succeeded in implementing Web 2.0 message boards—and now wish they hadn’t. Kraft, Delta Airlines, and even the Environmental Protection Agency are amongst the organizations that have recently felt the wrath of “the crowd” (note that sadly none of these are currently on my client list. Connection?).
If you open up a conversation on your site, you can’t dictate what those people get to talk about. Inevitably, some of those people are going to say things you don’t like about you and your goods and services. Some of them may say things so mean that they make your chief executive want to cry.
Here is my advice on how to how to “manage” (it’s not Internetly correct to say “control”) the situation when confronted by malicious message board postings, distilled into five easy steps:
Step 1: Don’t freak out!
The Internet is, by nature, open and easy to access. That’s why we love it. But that also means your Web site’s message boards are open for people to post what they think, and sometimes their thinking will be critical of your company. This stuff comes with the Web 2.0 territory, and it doesn’t mean that there aren’t still huge positives to engaging with your customers. Prepare your execs before you add social networking to your site that this is bound to happen so they don’t feel blindsided. And don’t, for example, as at least one company did, shut down your site and remove all vestiges of social networking from it.
Step 2: Don’t feed the trolls
Negative ninnies (aka message board trolls) thrive on getting a reaction from the company—and executives—they are picking on. The worst thing you can do is respond to their messages on your boards. They don’t care if you’re right or wrong; it’s the tit for tat that motivates them. Sending folk backchannel e-mails asking them to step it down is also a bad idea. The true troll will always reprint your message on the boards. Conversely, ignoring them often is the simplest and most expeditious way to make them go away.
Step 3: When in doubt, kick them out
There is no free speech when you are paying for the message boards. If someone is really getting on your company’s goat (baaaah!) feel free to delete the offending messages. If that doesn’t work, go ahead and delete that person’s account. Of course, it’s important that you are on solid legal ground before you do this, which takes us to Step 4.
Step 5: Keep ‘em peeled
Oftentimes a user that has had his/her account deleted by a company will re-register under a different handle to continue the battle (a-ha!). Keep deleting them until they get bored and go away. Of course, spotting the message requires having people on your staff reading the messages.
This last step is closely related to the biggest rule of all for companies looking to build out social networks—be engaged. The message boards on your site are not a verboten zone where only other people post. Everyone at your company needs to be an active part of that community. Not doing so is the fastest way to guarantee that the site users will gang up on you.
Stephen Saunders is an independent media consultant and the founder of Internet Evolution (internetevolution.com)