Managing Negative Comments in Online Communities

Once you build an online community and people start joining and using it, it’s inevitable that people will leave negative comments. Whether it’s because of a genuine dissatisfaction with a product or service, or the desire to cause trouble, negative comments are something you’ll have to deal with on a regular basis. The question is, what’s the best way to handle them?

Are Negative Comments Bad?

We’ve explored how to build an online community and the benefits of online communities but there is a downside and that’s where people post negative or derogatory comments online.

The first step in handling negative comments is to have the right attitude about them. Negative comments, in themselves, are not necessarily bad. Not everyone is going to love every product you sell, and there are going to be times when a customer has a bad experience. It’s inevitable, and only becomes more so as your company grows.


What’s important about negative comments is how you handle them.


When negativity does rear its head, it’s actually an opportunity for your organisation to demonstrate that it’s really listening, and that it does care about what customers think. It’s an opportunity to show that you’re willing to listen to customer concerns, solve problems and make improvements if they’re needed.

It’s also a fact that if one person in your community voices a concern, then other customers are most likely having the same issue. So it’s always important to listen to customers and show them you value the feedback they’re offering. Negative comments aren’t bad—you just have to handle them in the right way.


Handling Negative Comments

When setting up an online community, it’s best to expect from the start that negativity is going to pop up from time to time, and plan accordingly.

A good way to begin is to create community guidelines that set clear expectations for behaviour. This ensures that everyone knows what the community’s standards are from the start. Make sure you’re prepared to enact any guidelines you put in place, even if it means removing people from the community for repeat infractions.

Your goal is to make the community a place where all members can post any enjoy themselves, so it’s important that you act quickly when something happens to interfere with this goal.


Comment moderation

Moderating comments is useful because it allows you to selectively filter out comments that are negative or not constructive. For instance, community disagreements can sometimes get ugly, and it’s rarely a good idea to allow name-calling and similar behaviour to go on too long. For smaller communities, it can work to moderate comments so that they don’t appear until they’ve been approved. This can be a lot of work, however, and the time lapse between commenting and approval can make it harder for community members to interact with one another.

A more useful method—especially as the community grows larger—is to selectively filter comments by blacklisting certain words. For instance, words that are considered slurs or hate speech, and any other kinds of bad language. Under this kind of system, comments containing those words are filtered, and all other comments are posted immediately.


Responding to negative comments

The most important rule in responding to negative comments is that they must be responded to. Negative comments shouldn’t be ignored, or worse, deleted, because it just creates a sense of resentment in the commenter, and makes community users feel that their opinions aren’t valued. And one of the most important benefits of building an online community is to get customer feedback straight from the source—so you’re doing your business a disservice by ignoring negative comments.

Apart from that, it’s all about the way you respond, and here there’s just one rule to follow: be calm and polite, always. If you’re managing your own online community as a business owner this can be hard to do in the face of negative comments. It can feel like a personal attack, and it’s very hard not to take negative comments personally. But even so, it’s still important to stay calm and be unfailingly polite.

Any reply to a negative comment about your products or services should contain the following attributes:

  • A thank you. For instance, “thanks for your comment” or “thanks for getting in touch”.
  • An apology. Such as “Sorry you’re having trouble with our product” or “Sorry to hear your experience wasn’t satisfactory”.
  • An encouragement to send a private message. Your aim in any negative interaction is to take it private in case things get out of hand, so it’s best to ask the commenter to send you a private message so you can discuss the matter fully.

In private, the customer can then be handled in the usual way, using whatever strategies you have for dealing with dissatisfied customers. For instance, a typical strategy is similar to the above: a thank you, an apology, and an expressed desire to solve the problem. Explain why the mistake occurred, and what you can do to fix it.

Don’t, under any circumstances, do what United Airlines did in April 2017, and publicly ignore a customer’s legitimate concerns. In what might be one of the years’ biggest PR disasters, the company’s CEO, Oscar Munoz, dismissed the concerns of a 69-year-old passenger who had been forcibly removed from an overbooked flight after refusing to give up his seat—because, as a doctor, he had patients who would need his services the next morning.


Don’t delete negative comments

Don’t ever delete negative comments, no matter how tempting it might be. Deleting negative messages simply makes it seem as though you have something to hide. Letting those negative comments stand—and replying to them with a sincere offer of further discussion—shows that you’re honestly trying to make things better.

The only time it’s okay to delete comments is when they use some form of hate speech (or other bad language, if your guidelines forbid it), or has personally attacked another community member.

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