“I’m looking at your, uh, website. And I saw your ad… It looks like you’re really in a highly imaginary, fantasy based business model. I’d caution you to not take yourselves too seriously on this. It’s the sort of thing, that, if you knew a little more about business, you’d think it was probably doomed. Um… good luck. Try another field. Bye for now.”
What you just read was one of the more entertaining encounters we’ve had with an anonymous critic here at Bench. Transcribed from an actual voicemail, it wasn’t the only brush with opposition we’ve experienced during three years of operation.
In most cases when critics -- also known as 'haters' or 'trolls', depending on the severity of their affront -- publicly share less-than favorable thoughts about your company, it's easy to diffuse the situation and move on. But in the digital age, where businesses are forever open to immediate critique, and profits are linked to the quality of online reviews, haters left unchecked pose a significant threat.
For budding entrepreneurs, the influence of haters is also particularly acute; over time, the need to bear and deflect public criticism can engender self-doubt and derail attempts to launch innovative ideas.
Without an official playbook on handling haters, each time you or your brand is subject to public opposition, you’d be forgiven for wondering: Why does this person hate what I stand for, and what's the best way to deal with this?
Into the Darkness: Inside the Mind of a Troll
It’s a widely held belief that internet trolls are horrible people. But a 2014 study into the psychology of trolling, Trolls Just Want to Have Fun, confirmed it. The paper labelled trolls as “prototypical everyday sadists” who were found to be more Machiavellian, psychopathic, and narcissistic than the general population.
In an attempt to understand the motivation of individual trolls, the study surveyed participants on why they enjoyed trolling. Responses ranged from the poetic (“The more beautiful and pure a thing is, the more satisfying it is to corrupt”) to the banal (“For the lulz”). In addition, trolls were found to relish the attention they received from the act of trolling others, which further complicates the issue of dealing with their outbursts; engaging directly with haters in an attempt to curb their behavior may only serve to fulfill their desire to be acknowledged.
In an online-obsessed world where validation is derived in part from likes, comments, and shares, the internet is an ideal platform for those with troll-like tendencies. As long as the internet exists, monitoring and addressing occasional outbursts from those who oppose you isn’t merely optional. It’s mandatory.
Thankfully, when it comes to handling haters, you have options.
Understanding the Difference Between Feedback and Vitriol
Not everyone who criticizes your business is a hater. Bill Gates’ is credited with popularizing the notion that your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning. But when you’re unexpectedly subjected to severe criticism, it can be hard to determine if the information is useful or just plain nasty.
Before you jump to conclusions and let a negative comment ruin your day, train yourself to take a step back and assess the situation objectively. Are you really dealing with a hater, or is this merely a disgruntled customer telling you why they’re upset?
Learning to identify the difference between poorly delivered feedback and actual trolling could save you from plenty of angst, and provide invaluable insights into where your business can improve. It will also give you a clear understanding on how to formulate a tactful reply.
Allow for Fair Critique
Most platforms allow you to block, delete, and ban trolls and their comments at the click of a button. It’s an effortless option for dealing with trolls who are making baseless, aggressive, and defamatory claims against you or your business. But think twice before you delete unfavorable comments from users who are sharing a legitimate complaint.
Entrepreneur Adam Callinan says that censoring all forms of negative feedback in an attempt to display only positive feedback about your business is misleading; he argues that companies can benefit from publicly acknowledging and responding to feedback from disgruntled users.
Callinan shared the method he uses to tactfully engage with haters with Entrepreneur Magazine. “There’s nothing better than showing the world… that you’ll stand up for your company and defend your brand.” He advises to do so non-emotionally, as any inkling of actual offence taken will only feed trollish sadism.
Callinan also found that openly responding to feedback was a great way of reinforcing his company’s brand values: each critical comment was an outlet to exercise BottleKeeper’s signature snark. “When this is done effectively, other onlookers get involved in the defense of your position—which often creates a sense of community, and even (attracts) new customers that may not have been previously interested in your product,” he explains.
Attain Catharsis: Convert Trolling into Promotion
The Alamo Drafthouse Cinema has a policy: if you use your phone to text while you’re inside, they kick you out. In 2011, one patron found this out the hard way, and left an angry voicemail expressing her feelings. Noting the over-the-top hilarity, the company posted the voicemail as a video on YouTube. To date the clip has received over four million views, and more recently the video topped the front page of Reddit. It’s the gift that keeps on giving free global promotion to a cinema chain based in Texas.
Warning, the following video contains offensive language.
Exo Protein, a company that makes protein bars out of cricket flour, leveraged unfair criticism in a similar fashion. Although environmentalist motivations inspired Exo’s core product (crickets contain more edible protein by pound than other animal sources, and produce a hundred times less greenhouse gases than cows), the unorthodox nature of their idea inspired positive press coverage, happy customer feedback, and a flurry of hate mail. Comments from those who opposed the company’s offering included declarations of disgust, to conspiracy theories that posited Exo as peddlers of the “U.N. Global Tyranny Agenda.”
Exo responded by compiling some of the outlandish critiques on their blog, concluding with “If you want to try some “hipster crap” that’s on “a whole new level,” click here,” a tongue-in-cheek call to action encouraging users to try their product. And the result? Thousands of shares on social media, positive feedback, and free, widespread promotion.
In both cases, each company regained control of the narrative and used trolling to their advantage. It may not always be appropriate, or even legal to take the same approach when dealing with those who troll your business. But if it’s a viable option, why not give it a try? It’s clearly cathartic. And it may lead to a relatively inexpensive, successful marketing campaign.
Always Defend Your Reputation
The make-or-break significance of a first impression is well documented. But when online reviews are accessible by individuals with little respect for editorial integrity, a business’s reputation is at greater risk of unjust appraisal than it would have been during the pre-internet era.
Bob Wells, a restaurateur scathed by Yelp, has a fair point about the inherent bias against small business owners: “People aren't going to look up a review for the big chains, they're going to look up reviews for smaller places they haven't heard of.”
If your personal or business reputation is the target of misinformation, you’ll have no choice but to engage. Make sure you set the record straight on a public platform. If you’re dealing with a customer complaint, HelpScout’s blog is a great resource, packed with customer support guides on tactfully dealing with challenging clients and customer complaints. If you’re up against pure vitriol, this list of questions developed by psychologist Melanie Greenberg can help you discern the intent of a troll, and formulate a strategic response.
Focus on Creating, Not Hating
Online forum moderator Alex Chrum told Mashable that her job was “honestly the most emotionally exhausting thing” she had ever done. Over time, moderating hateful comments from anonymous, online trolls affected her mental well being and outlook on life.
Albeit a lesson learned the hard way, Chrum went on to share that she ultimately found meaning in her employment, saying “it has improved me as a person because I’ve learned not to take negative things so personally.”
While it’s evident that receiving severe negative feedback rarely feels good, very little is known about the long-term psychological impact of dealing with the criticism of trolls. What is clear, though, is that no matter how you handle your haters, as an entrepreneur you must never allow their influence to inhibit your ability to pursue the vision you’d like to create in the world.
Amidst everyone else’s opinions, pay attention to the one that put all of your blood, sweat, and tears into motion in the first place—your own.