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Social Media is Creating Bad Customers

Do you remember the disaster called #McDStories? The now famous story of how McDonalds was hijacked on Twitter by people tweeting negative stories on their hashtag. Poor planning combined with outright naivety about the their own brand perception quickly attracted a growing, “angry” mob of real customers and trolls who completely derailed the whole McDStories campaign.

Now, I’m not a big believer in social media on the best of days and this type of story adds more weight to my argument – Social Media is Creating Bad Customers. Why? It’s simple… because people deep down are bullies or at the very least indifferent to bullying. Add to this how easily the social media public is influenced by a mob mentality and you get recipes for McDStory after McDStory.

Social Media provides the average person with 4 factors empowering bad behavior, particularly against companies.

  1. No Guilt. There is no remorse about bullying a brand. It’s much easier to do because no one gets “hurt”.
  2. The Mob. Lots of other people are doing it. Whether they are the instigator with a real story or a troll making them up, its easy to find others who will join you.
  3. Relative Anonymity. Anonymity strips many people of fear. “No one will know if I say this” is the common feeling and easily overwhelms any feelings of restraint a person might normally have.
  4. No Accountability. Probably the most significant factor is the sheer lack of accountability in anything said in social media. Without accountability as a “natural check” on actions, you get an environment devoid of any punishment.

Proceed with Caution

My first two questions to companies that ask me about social media are:

  • What are the risks?
  • What is the compelling reason for you to use social media? (And please don’t say because my competitors are…)

For me, it always boils back to risk. The more risk you have the less likely you are to succeed. Most organizations are ill prepared for customers they already have let alone a new group of social media empowered customers. Social media creates risk even in a docile customer base because it can change the natural state of behavior in a single person or group of people. A social media environment provides fertile ground for unrest and poor behavior.

More McDStories are waiting to happen. Are you one of them?
How will you manage the bad customer social media is creating?

Jeff Wilson– Sensei



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This is a guest post written for Sensei Marketing. If you're interested in writing for the Sensei Blog, please visit the contact page for more information.

Join the Conversation

rnadworny 5pts

Jeff, great discussion you started here.


I don't know if people are bullies. But I would say that it's human nature to complain and social media has provided people with the best complaining platform ever invented.  Rather than trying to, hopelessly, eradicate that behavior, I think the best thing a brand can do is to build in a complaining strategy component to its social media activities, or, in some cases, base the whole strategy on helping complainers.


Of course you have to back that up with real action, which should be the whole point of social media anyway.

ZacharyChastain 5pts

I do occasionally see bullies in the communities I manage. They are certainly not the norm though. However, on the rare occasion when they do rear their ugly heads, a beautiful thing happens. The brand advocates we've cultivated, or even just a casual fan who sees the post, stands up for us and defends the brand.  Most often though, I don't see bullies. Most of the negative stuff (which still is very rare) is from users who have a genuine problem with the product that they can't get fixed, and they want help, or they want to rant about it. Once you fix that problem, you change that negative perception into a positive experience with a quick and easy solution to their problem. I think that's much better than just pretending those people don't exist. :) If you have a bully problem, you can address that with brand advocates. Most brands do have advocates, they just haven't found them yet, and don't know how to properly engage them to become a part of those conversations. 

ZacharyChastain 5pts

I have to disagree. If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?If there is negative sentiment for your brand, that doesn't disappear just because you're not there to read it. Just because you don't have a social media presence doesn't mean those people don't still have a platform to negatively discuss your brand. THEY are still on social media, and if you're not, you lose the opportunity to address those sentiments. Those conversations still happen, they just happen without YOU.Instead of closing yourself off to those sentiments, address them with facts when someone makes a bs claim. Address the real problems with real solutions. Don't hide from the sentiments of your customers, influence them.

MarkOrlan 5pts

Jeff, while I agree with your 4 factors empowering bad behaviour, I disagree with your statement that people deep down are bullies.  Bullying comes from insecurities that people have about themselves. It provides a mechanism for making them feel superior. 

Social Media gives that segment of the customer base a vehicle to express themselves in a safe environment. It's perfect for bullies.  So we're seeing a ton of them, with their disproportionately loud 'voices', using Social as a vehicle to amplify their twisted cause.

With this in mind, as you suggest, brands need to proceed with caution, because the bullies are out there just waiting for the opportunity to jump on one of their marketing messages.


tedcoine 5pts



I love this post because it is thought- (and conversation-) provoking, though not because I agree with your overall gist. A couple of points:


* Your general take is that people are bullies or indifferent to bullying. That's a worldview, nothing less. Mine is somewhat more optimistic. I think most people are good, and few of us tolerate bullies. Having said that, our culture has quite a lot of negative influences at present, from the socially-degrading reality TV genre to "news" channels built on propagating hate and fear as a business model, to almost every channel's cartoonishly-inappropriate talking over each other to get points across, or really to drown out what the other side is saying. Despite all that, I think people are generally good and reject the bad. (Pollyanna? Quite possibly).


* Your point #3? I don't think that social sites should allow anonymity. I think that would help civilize conversations plenty.


* Finally, let me quote the esteemed Sam Fiorella: "If anything, social media has increased the importance of building positive customer experiences online and off." If a brand sucks and its leadership is too insulated to know it, a wake up call like McDStories is just what the doctor ordered. I'm lovin' it! Too many of our leaders are emperors parading about naked, because their inner circle sifts the truth from getting up the corporate pyramid to them. One day soon, this just won't be possible, because social media has only begun to catch on and change everything about how business is done. Your McDStories example? That's a harbinger of things to come, that's all.

chieflemonhead 5pts

It is my humble opinion that social media actually makes people (let's not call them consumers yet) better. The fact is, as inherent as the tribe mentality and the survival of the fittest mentality are, it is also inherent for human beings to protect and stand up for each other. Take note, for example of the power social media has had in the past few years to alter the realities in countries like Egypt, and in natural disaster situations as far back as Haiti.


If a brand has the ability to fundamentally change the paradigm under which it operates, internally, and truly bring out its own humanity, the "tribe" is less likely to bully them without guilt. There are certainly bullies in social media - whether they bully brands or people - but this is a minority. It is truly unfortunate that we focus on the loud minority rather than on the helpful one.


As for McDonald's - I quite enjoy watching their social media adventures. Not because I dislike them (in fact, they are one of my guilty pleasures), but rather because as a brand and as marketers I admire them. McDonald's is not afraid to take these risks and try things. They build a program, try something new, and see where it leads. Sometimes it's good, sometimes - not so much. But they are able to take the lessons and keep going without cowering away.


I've mentioned it before, and I will say it again: just because some companies fail, it doesn't mean we shouldn't try. And, just because there are some (not the majority) of people out there who are bullies or trolls, it doesn't mean the rest of the community should be deterred from a conversation with their favourite brands.


In the end, social is still just a tool. We are the ones who use it. Whether on, or offline, our characters come to life. Sure, social can amplify our impact, but a bully will find a way to bully his/her way into some form of media because it's in their nature. Don't put the full blame on social media.


To flip a common expression: don't hate the game, hate the player.

jasonkonopinski 5pts

This is a subject that I've written on a few times in the past, but it's been quite a while. I'm less interested in the haters and more about the nascent entitlement that often comes tagging along with social media participation, both willfully and subconsciously. 

samfiorella moderator 5pts

The 4 factors empowering bad behavior you list are very true; however, your focus on them is misplaced. Instead of focusing on the 1% that take advantage of relative anonymity, etc. concentrate on building the greatest customer experience you can. The impact of that will produce more positive content and social proof than the 1% who will abuse the medium. 


I also believe a business focuses on the wrong thing when they argue: "The more risk you have the less likely you are to succeed."  If we were to accept this sentiment as fact the opposite is then also true: the more risk you have, the greater your reward. A successful business cannot lay in fear of risk but embrace the rewards it can achieve.  Brand negativity by those few you speak about will occur even if your business never logs into a social network. In fact, there's a greater risk since that negativity will be the only content feeding social proof around your brand.


Social Media does embolden haters but it also provides a new soapbox for great experiences. If anything, social media has increased the importance of building positive customer experiences online and off.

KenMueller 5pts

I've written on this before: social media makes businesses better, and can also make customers worse. At times I want to train customers to be better people. We hear the stories of how one person can bring a brand to its knees, and so we go and do the same thing. This is why we need more case studies from the other side, showing how many businesses are using social media well, and how they are responding to those "bully" customers.

mindykoch 5pts

The power of social media is that customers have all the ability they need to say whatever they want whether or not companies are involved in social media.


By avoiding doing social media, companies aren't avoiding risk. They are avoiding reward. The risk is there whether they get involved or not. Their customers are social media empowered already.

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