ImageAs the new practices of social branding and content marketing start to enter the mainstream, a lot of space is given to the search for the elusive ‘influencer‘ and the even more elusive ‘brand ambassador‘. In online marketing literature, these valued personae are presented as instruments for delivering larger audiences to the client. Influencers and ambassadors, it is said, are gateways to communities of peers as their endorsements and reiterations of brand content will be listened to and trusted while those broadcast direct from the brand will not. Quality time spent listening to, flattering and seducing these two audience segments is the 21st century twist on the old ‘push’ model, only now it is called ‘influence marketing’ instead.

As an inveterate contrarian, I would like to propose a different and counter-intuitive model for influence marketing: The active pursuit of engagement with those who hate you

Haters rule!

Let’s begin with the premise that critics and haters build networks around corporate reputation and product issues that are a lot larger and more influential than those of company fans and ambassadors. Why is this so? Let’s stop to consider our own habits as consumers and extrapolate. Would you take the time to seek out a brand community online to signal basic satisfaction with a product or service? I didn’t think so. However, if your product broke just days after purchase or you wasted hours with a company’s customer service department, might you be activated, as a consumer, to seek out an audience to complain to? I think many of us already have already taken this step.

In fact, social media monitoring for almost any major brand will reveal vast constellations of gripers, haters and critics simply seeking a better customer experience.  While some people seek to vent on the brand’s own social accounts, many take their case directly to Twitter or make use of networks dedicated entirely to channeling consumer dissatisfaction (for live examples of such, take a look at: gripevine.com, and pissedconsumer.com). Taken as a whole, criticism is by far the largest value-based brand conversation out there by volume.

Haters and critics are the strongest influencers out there not only by volume but by the sheer emotional force of their messages and the fact that peers can easily relate to their angst. Who among us, after all, has not spent countless hours dealing with a phone service line or had their frustrations multiplied when the only response to our cries for help was another phone directory or autoresponse email? Emotional charge and strong identification with content are the basic ingredients for online ‘stickiness’, a term coined by Malcom Gladwell to explain the rise of social trends that can also be used to explain why some online content goes viral while most of it does not. This helps us understand why some minor customer service screwups get amplified online into full blown reputation crises these days.

Another interesting thing about haters… They may actually be a brand’s most interested followers (and fans waiting to be converted). A recent study published by MIT’s Sloan School of Management sifted through thousands of online consumer reviews and found, among other things, that a brand’s strongest critics were often acting as “self-appointed brand managers”, pointing out shortcomings and areas for improvement. In other words, these critics are actually following a brand loyally and committed to helping it improve. With some attention and care from the company’s community managers, they could doubtless become productive ‘ambassadors’ as well.

Haters are the key to greater engagement

Now, beyond the fact that haters and critics are a large and influential audience group, there are compelling strategic arguments for spending more time reaching out to them than to fans and existing ambassadors.

From a statistical perspective, engagement with critics can generate greater reach. When social media engagement is analyzed, emotional connection to content is identified as a key driver of more or less liking, commenting and sharing. Content that generates engagement on social networks, such as Facebook, travels further and ends up generating greater reach. If a brand chooses to participate in conversations with clients that are frustrated or angry with their service, their interactions will activate peer communities that share these strong feelings. These brand messages will be followed a lot more closely than the promoted positive messages pushed to ambassadors and fan followings.

On an affective level, the way in which a brand deals with criticism and dissatisfaction can, in itself, impact perception much more deeply than a positive promoted message. This has a lot to do with authenticity, a powerful driver of online influence. When a company’s online representatives act humbly and display compassion and care for their clientele, we witness a truly bilateral exchange and feel closer to the brand. Beyond the direct consumer, converted from frustration to satisfaction, the audience watching is transformed as well. Again, if the conversation were simply positive or promotional, the psychological effect would not be the same.

Hater preparedness training

Of course, messaging to fans is much easier than dealing with haters. This explains why so much online marketing is currently fan-based. Stepping into the fray with angered clients and stakeholders takes a lot of sensitivity training, a good deal of diplomacy and some solid protocols for dealing with escalating tensions and abusive behavior. But sooner or later, all companies with an online presence must prepare themselves for this in any case. With codes of conduct clearly in place on a company’s social networks and a Moderation Protocol created and taken in by all staff on the front lines of online engagement, heated exchanges can be managed and turned into productive ones.

In the end, the extra effort spent engaging with haters and solving their issues is what separates the stars of corporate online communications from the dabblers. Recent case studies of social media ‘wins’ by corporate communicators almost always involve a rapid and very human response to a customer challenge.