Please Don’t Feed the Trolls

by | May 27, 2011 | Best Practices, Blog, Blog Archive | 0 comments

Internet and social media trolls are a lot like this Weta Workshops cave troll -- always poised to club the unsuspecting. Photo copyright 2004, Deb McAlister; photographed at Te Papa Tongarewa, Wellington New Zealand.

There are two kinds of trolls on the Internet — and that’s if you discount the ones in the role-playing and Sci-Fi sites.  As a marketer, you’ll want to avoid feeding both breeds. 

The first species that threatens online marketers is the copyright troll.  These are law firms who license the right to sue from copyright owners, and file thousands of copyright infringement lawsuits against bloggers, social media users, and commentors on all kinds of Internet sites who link to or reuse their content without advance written permission.  Organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation claim that the worst offenders make it easy for people to share their content online, by adding buttons for sharing it, and then go after unwary users entrapped by the practice.

The primary difference between a copyright troll and  a copyright holder who is enforcing a legitimate claim is that copyright trolls don’t create much of anything except legal fees.  How do you avoid feeding these trolls and winding up on the receiving end of a lawsuit?  Follow the basic rules outlined here.   

A word to the wise:  being the subject of an article or photograph doesn’t make it ok to copy and distribute the article, post it on your website, or reuse it in any way.  This is true of any content subject to copyright, including but not limited to product reviews, analyst reports, and excerpts from  newspapers, books, websites, blogs or magazines.

The second species of troll to avoid in social and digital media is the grumpy consumer who has nothing better to do with his or her time than spend hours ranting and raving about real or imagined flaws in products, services, online content, and the world in general. 

Some of them masquerade as customers when they’re not, and some masquerade as apparently helpful “concerned consumers” who “just want to get it straightened out.”  What they all have in common is that what they really want is attention — and, like a spoiled child, any attention will do.  A troll involved in a war of words where they fling insults around is just as happy as in a civil discussion.

In fact, the insulting language used by trolls is one of the ways to spot them.  Another is the fact that even if they start posing as someone interested in the topic, they’ll often begin introducing controversial or negative topics and trying to get other users to join in. 

Handling unhappy customers is a great opportunity for any company to use social media as a way to create loyal fans who will become evangelists for the product.  If a person sharing their experience in a somewhat rational manner, you can pretty well conclude that you have a disappointed customer on your hands. This gives you the opportunity to step up, resolve the problem, and turn them into a fan.

The difference between a troll and a disappointed customer is that nothing you do will make a troll happy, while your attention and problem resolution skills will almost always satisfy a disappointed customer. 

When you find a negative comment about your company or brand, the best approach is to acknowledge and apologize for the negative experience — then offer to take the conversation offline for resolution. 

A troll may or may not respond to a legitimate offer to discuss the issue via telephone or email.  An unhappy customer will almost always accept such an invitation.  

Trolls feed on attention, so when you encounter one, ignore it if possible.  When one online community ignores them, trolls usually move on to another one where they can stir up a digital shouting match.  

Another way to discourage trolls is to keep your distance.  Everything is personal to a troll, so be impersonal and aloof if you must interact with one.  Minimize private responses and personalization, and maximize public responses.

Above all, remain calm and civil.  Trolls love it when others lose their cool.   Don’t attack.  Don’t get defensive.  Both validate the troll’s need for attention and control.  

Dealing with trolls is a fact of life for social and digital media marketing, and the best practices built around doing so are worthy of a book.  No blog post can provide detailed information on how to deal with them, but here’s a final tip.  Consistency is vital when dealing with the perpetually unhappy.  Set a policy, and stick with it, no matter what. 

Most of all, stay alert so the troll can’t club you from behind!

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For more on digital and social media issues for corporations, check the resources from a recent webinar titled Marketing & Compliance in a Regulated Environment:  Basic Rules of the Road for Digital and Social Media.  View the webinar video here.  Download the presentation here.  Get the answers to audience questions the panelists didn’t have time to address during the session here.