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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


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.

jeffthesensei 5pts

 @rnadworny Hi Rich, Thanks. Discussion was a group effort, i just try and do my small part.


Agreed, its like the argument a 1-800 complaint number has created more complaints. Well, actually, its just focused the complaining into a channel so its easier to manage both internally and manage the customer perception that complaints are being heard.


We need to better guide and influence customer behavior and you;re right, social media can be a powerful channel for doing so.


Thanks for the comments!

jeffthesensei 5pts

 @ZacharyChastain Great example and you've hit on the key. A healthy community based on honesty and open communication. The new paradigm is customer2customer. Its a more natural environment where the customer "feels" enabled. The issue for many companies is they are clueless about how to get to that point or they deal with the Great Unwashed Masses (GUM) who are not customers nor are they part of the community you have built, but could be some day.


These are more likely places where bullies rise in influence. Its also an area where customers are less likely to say anything to counter negative comments.


Your points are very well made. Brands need to find the advocates and build "customer colonies" around them. Its like the colonial times my friend. Expand and conquer :)

jeffthesensei 5pts

 @ZacharyChastain Hi Zachary, Good comments. To be clear, i am not advocating a retreat from social media, rather a more strategic, and risk managed approach without the naivety that "everyone is good and wants to hug me". That is contrary to human nature. You'll get the hugs as long as people are happy and making them happy is a slippery slope many times, particularly when people start feeling entitled to more than a customer should fairly have.


You have to be on social media, i agree, but i think its hampering as much as its helping in many instances. Yes, the conversations are happening regardless, but they have always happened but before the conservations were only around water coolers, line-ups at grocery stores and kitchen tables. Now add mobile and social to that.


Thanks for the thoughts!

jeffthesensei 5pts

 @MarkOrlan Hi Mark, it seems many people share your position on that statement :)


I think its safe to say when it comes to brands, people are much less hesitant to "take a run" at a brand and be nasty than they would be against another person. Brands don't feel bad and nobody is going to say anything unless your claims or bullying is outrageous.


Agreed that social media attracts bullies because its a tool that enables them as much as it enables good customers.


Thanks for the thoughts!


jeffthesensei 5pts

 @tedcoine Hi Ted, Apologies for the late replay and thanks for your thoughts.


Yes, well i made a "sweeping generalization" on man kind as a whole, i believe there is merit to it. Too many people don't say anything or worse join in on negativity because its easy to do and feels good at that moment. Whether its following the herd, trolling or legitimate beefs, i think people actually like being negative. Gossip is one of the simplest form of bad behavior, but is a great example.


The issue i have when it comes to social media is the bad apples gravitate towards the medium because companies are vulnerable on it. Its being used to leverage companies and perpetuate bad behavior. Now the big risk is that Great Unwashed Masses (GUM for short) see this and think, "hey, i can do that too". Therein lies the risk to me.


Regarding anonymity, i agree. Remove anonymity and you improve accountability. Its simple.


On the naked emperors... absolutely. More examples are in the works i am sure. What will be interesting is whether company leaders see the social media as the whole picture or just a piece of the puzzle on the social customer. To me the complexity is how the social customer is impacting not just social media, but mobile, retail, product development, distribution, online, etc... I don't think many people see that social media is just the obvious tip of the iceberg until the alarms go off and its too late to turn the cruise ship.


Food for thought and thanks for the insights.

samfiorella moderator 5pts

 @tedcoine Amen brother. I say let the #McDStories fanatics loose! Survival of the fittest and all. 


I think corporations needed the wake up call. You can no longer hide behind clever marketing and PR spin to sustain a brand. You have to work for it.

jeffthesensei 5pts

 @chieflemonhead The smart man learns from his own mistakes while the wise man learns from he mistakes of others. I get that, and I'm not saying don't use social media, I'm saying that perhaps it isn't being used effectively. It wasn't designed for the group hug that almost everyone uses it for.


When used to enable, empower, and focus customer experience, it can be a powerful tactic in an marketing program. 


As for the nature of people, i think you and i will always politely disagree on that topic :) I believe people are held in check and are easily influenced by situations or more powerful people. The most difficult part is their experience with us can be affected by influencing forces completely unrelated to us as brands, such as the 2008 recession. Take a grocery store as an example, they didn't take away a family's ability to put food on their table but the store is expected to drop prices to accommodate their financial hardship... or face outrage and poor customer behavior at the cash register and online.


I dunno, i don't have the same faith in humanity that most social media believers do :)


But I'm always willing to have these chats my friend!

jeffthesensei 5pts

 @jasonkonopinski Brilliant observation. Entitlement is one of the big factors that social media has opened up. Entitlement really is about getting something for nothing. It was skewed the real meaning of value in the customers favour especially in B2B markets. I think entitlement is the step to becoming a bad customer, not necessarily a hater.


Thanks for the insight.

jeffthesensei 5pts

 @samfiorella Sam, there is a reason you and i are partners, we are a YinYang - complimentary opposites. But in this case you are misguided :)


If only 4% customer base in using social media, then 1% is a large portion of that population. While its true that every company must endeavor to create the best customer experience possible, social media requires that companies always put there best, most accomodating foot forward, particularly because of the over-hyped importance of social media's impact on the brand. Abuse of liberal customer service policies is no longer limited to the "born bad" customers. Regular folk are educating each other via social media and web to take advantage of brands


Risk and reward are a YinYang as well, but the difference here is risk based on uncertainty. If you can reduce uncertainty, you can reduce blind risk. The big issue i have is customers, and people in general, are easily influenced by many forces we are completely unaware of - that's uncertainty. Just take a look back at Nestle/KitKat with a supplier who they bought palm oil from was deforesting Orangutan habitat in Malaysia. Nestle never saw it coming... and how could they really? But the impact to Nestle was huge, and while they recovered, their Facebook presence was overwhelmed by trolls and customers attacking them.


Yes embrace it, but embrace it without the liberal naivety that everyone is inherently good. Build policies instead around "everyone is bad". Yes, reward and enable good customers, but be ready for the mob because they will come.


Lastly, i will not argue that social media hasn't given new methods to improve the customer experience, in particular lead nurturing and customer community, but it must be done right and integrated with the overall experience in order to succeed. How many companies actually can say they are truly doing that?


Appreciate the thoughts my friend :)

jeffthesensei 5pts

 @KenMueller Hi Ken, Yes, I agree more case studies are required on both sides of the line. We can learn as much (possibly more) from failures as we can from successes. Its also interesting to note that certain situations, for example return policies can turn good customers hostile or bad.


In the end it all boils down to how we manage the experience. It will be interesting to see how mobile impacts customer behavior and the brand...


Thanks for the comment!

jeffthesensei 5pts

 @mindykoch Hi Mindy, Absolutely. They have it as a tool for a variety of purposes in relation to the companies they deal with; support, advocate, communicate or hinder.


It really is a double edged sword and for many, its damned if you do or damned if you don't. Either way, the risk needs to be managed better and we need to learn how to guide customers better instead of making it a free-for-all.


Thanks for the comments and thoughts!

chieflemonhead 5pts

 @jeffthesensei When it comes to issues like the recession, or the impending "financial cliff", I think everyone: consumers, brands and governments need to put on their "big boy pants" and come together on a solution that will truly benefit everyone. When we see - in research after research - how the cost of living has gone up by leaps and bounds while salaries have essentially remained stagnant, it's much larger than a single group blaming another. But that's another conversation altogether.


As for social media, I just don't think that the failure of a few needs to dissuade the others from trying. There is a winning formula. It may be different for each, but there is real benefit and power to it. For brands, and for consumers.


And I, too, enjoy these chats with my friends. :-)

samfiorella moderator 5pts

 @jeffthesensei  If only 4% of your customer base were engaged in social networking as you suggest, you may be right. However, very few businesses - including B2B orgs - can claim this. And if they are, they're not understanding that B2B decisions makers are the most active online participants in using Web for research and networking - both personally and professionally according to the quarterly surveying being done by globalwebindex. Take lessons from those customers who abuse the medium, understand how to manage them through communications but avoiding the medium or focusing on those few bad experiences would be naive.


Sounds like you need a hug. <<< HUG >>>



jeffthesensei 5pts

 @samfiorella Touche' my friend :)


Web i agree is being used to a huge degree, but B2B runs on peer networking and most of that real influence is done via events, phone and meetings. B2B is unique in that your opinion represents the company and you can be held accountable for it - not exactly a good fit for social media channels where an errant comment can get you fired or sued.


Now it is changing slowly as you suggest, but i think mobile may be the big strategic play for B2B.