Yours truly, angry mob: the real value of a Facebook fan backlash

Cathie McGinnCathie McGinn on the anatomy of a controversy and why brands need to keep social media backlashes in perspective.

Over the last few weeks, we’ve reported on a series of social media furores. Coles, Seven Network, Channel Nine, Target….It seems to be the case that the bigger the brand, the bigger the backlash.

This, combined with the ASB’s ruling that Facebook constitutes an advertising platform and as such, brands are responsible for all content on the page, regardless of author, means that we’re starting to see brands running scared of social media.

UK clothing retailer NewLook has restricted user comments on its Facebook page to business hours only. Kit Kat Australia has retreated from its use of Instagram after its first ever post was widely criticised (more on this later).

I know anecdotally that many community managers and social media practitioners are reporting more pressure from stressed out clients, and concern around what the AANA and ASB consider “reasonable” response times to dubious content left by fans on their pages.

There is a common theme linking most of the Facebook user-generated comment backlashes: the tardiness of the brand in responding. Several of the comments were left to run unchecked over the weekend, with no official response until Monday morning, something which has happened often enough now to make me wonder why having someone duck in and check Facebook over the weekend is not yet standard practice for any brand with a page on the site. Most users, after all, consider Facebook a leisure activity, albeit one that takes up more and more time.

Vodafone Aus

But there’s another common theme. Facebook’s habit of continuously making changes to its interface and functionality with a view to increasing engagement levels and interactivity, ultimately to help brands reach bigger audiences on the platform has directly caused this rash of comment popularity.

It’s simple: posts on a brand’s page were previously only seen by fans of that page. Now they’re visible by the friends of the comment author as well.

It’s easy to see that your friends are more likely to “like” things you say and do – that is, after all, part of the basis of your friendship. And those comments can be seen, and liked, by your friends’ friends in turn; there’s a great deal more affinity in attitudes and greater peer endorsement this way than a post visible only to people who like the same bank, cereal brand or television show would have. Of course not every comment snowballs in this fashion, but certainly if the criticism is emotionally resonant or humorous the response can be extraordinary.

And this is speculation, but if people have been trying out Facebook’s new “promoted post” feature on their comments, that could also account for the increased reach.

The numbers seem dazzlingly large- certainly enough to terrify any brand manager or marketer. Thirty, forty, fifty thousand, one hundred thousand people all united in their single-minded stance on Brand X.

But what’s the real value of this angry mob? 

Two years ago, FMCG giant Nestlé fell foul of social media with its surly response to criticism of its use of palm oil from unsound sources. Thousands of people protested, and the brand’s response was initially so dreadful that the issue was catapulted into the mainstream press. The result? Nestlé’s share price actually plummeted. A little social media storm in a teacup – as the brand initially regarded it – had serious real world impact.

Nestlé learned a great deal from that error, and the net outcome was that consumer pressure changed its procurement practices.
And it’s that ability for consumers to make a real difference that makes social media so powerful and so important. But that’s not what we’re seeing here.

I’d argue that these thousands of ‘likes’ add up to less than zero in terms of impact on the brand. Has Coles increased the price of a pint of milk? Did Nine show less swimming during the Olympics? Has your Vodafone service stopped dropping out?

Most critically, what impact did these issues have on the share price? Bottom line: unchanged.

Nelson Simpsons

A ‘like’ simply does not imply change in behaviour, a likeliness to take action, shop elsewhere, change provider…It’s like Nelson from the Simpsons saying “HAH-hah;” generating a quick smirk or a frown; a moment of sympathy, an acknowledgement of the mild inconveniences we all encounter in the modern world.

It’s Kony-ism demonstrating affinity with a cause while taking no real action.

These causes and gripes are also artificially inflated by the news cycle.


One great example is Kit Kat. The Kit Kat Australia & New Zealand Facebook page has around 189,812 fans. When, in what the brand claims was an inadvertent mimicry of an internet meme, the brand’s first Instagram upload featured what looked suspiciously like the character “Pedobear”, barely any fans reacted at first.

The Pedobear meme, which originated on anarchic website 4chan is certainly well known to heavy internet users, but is perhaps less well known to mainstream audiences.
But despite the fact that hardly a ripple occurred in KitKat’s page, the blunder was suddenly a hot topic on mainstream media. Gawker, HuffPo, the Daily Mail, and the L.A. Times amongst others reported on the issue, along with the usual Australian publications.
But ask yourself why, really, and truly, the Los Angeles press is reporting on something which initially may have reached a couple hundred thousand Aussies? Slow news day or not, I’m certain there were incidents and accidents worldwide which must have been more relevant and more newsworthy for readers in California than this gaffe.

It seems to me there’s a certain gleefulness in which traditional media loves to report on the slips and trips of the new.

For brands, the risk is either that they become so terrified of any backlash they fail to take advantage of the opportunity of this two-way dialogue. That, or they become so jaded and complacent as wave after wave of comments breaks ineffectively that they fail to prepare for a real tsunami.

For consumers, the risk is the same – shouting rabble rabble rabble so often that when you finally genuinely care enough to take action, no one is listening.

Cathie McGinn


  1. Offal Spokesperson
    15 Aug 12
    1:41 pm

  2. Who’s to blame?

    Marketing simpletons that have told clients that ‘ facebook, twitter and any kind of social media activity” is actually advertising and important.

    The “Konyism” term is the most relevant here.

    Likes, retweets and general social media comment is much less relevant than many in our industry are suggesting. Its just being used as another way to spend advertisers money, without demonstrating any actual benefit.

  3. Geordie
    15 Aug 12
    1:44 pm

  4. Perhaps as well as worrying about the value / risk balance in social media presence and delving into brand responses to criticism, these brands could stop being… douches?

    Target treated its customers’ daughters like prostitutes, Coles has farmers over a barrel, Seven’s tact was MIA in its reporting, Nine’s Olympic coverage was awful and further back than the examples you’ve given, nobody in the back five sixths of an aeroplane is going to let an opportunity to backlash at customer service go begging.

    I can’t help but think that as well as analysing responses to public criticism, Australia’s customer service landscape would benefit from offering less opportunities for it.

  5. Ricky
    15 Aug 12
    1:49 pm

  6. Nice Kaiser Chiefs reference

  7. Aidan
    15 Aug 12
    2:03 pm

  8. Best thing i have read on Mumbrella, all year. Couldn’t agree more

  9. Amy
    15 Aug 12
    2:20 pm

  10. Great article! The number of times I’ve read someone’s amusing facebook criticism to a brand, thought, ‘haha, so true!’, hit ‘like’ and promptly forgot all about it! Brands need to remember that it’s a lot easier to post negative stuff about a nameless faceless corporation than an actual person. It’s not that everyone on Facebook hates your brand, it’s that when it comes down to it, no one on there is genuinely its friend.

  11. James Macleod
    15 Aug 12
    2:25 pm

  12. Love the Vodafone screen grab…

    So did Vodafone ask for this more by having a facebook page giving people a place to vent right under their logo… Or, by having a global tagline that is ‘Power to You’.

  13. Golum
    15 Aug 12
    2:32 pm

  14. Offal spokesperson you’ve got it in one

    Whinger media has caused more reputational harm than good and hopefully is experiencing a rapid decline in popularity

    it’s social media, not corporate – companies didnt belong there in the first place, their attempts are clumsy and often damaging

    there’s plenty of other better ways to survey customers and hear their grievances

    you dont need to hand the anonymous web whingers a stick to beat you with

    At my employer, our customers are older are not very interested in social media. They prefer to interact with us personally by phone or by dropping in, or through their financial adviser.

    When they decide they want to genuinely interact with financial institutions on social media, we’ll be there for sure.

    But until that time there are better ways to hear customer viewpoints, more robust ways to research our consumers, and more scalable and proven ways to market our value proposition.

    We don’t fear being ‘left behind’ or not having ‘first mover advantage’.

    Have you ever heard of a company called Alta Vista?

  15. karalee
    15 Aug 12
    2:43 pm

  16. Nothing happens in isolation, and as much as these examples of digital issues management should be reviewed and used as lessons in having community managers and processes in place at the times and days Australians use the channels, brands need to look at the underlining issue; what went wrong IRL?

    In most cases social media backlashes, whether they’re inflated or genuine, are outputs of a break down in customer service as Geordie references, a supply chain issue or just silly advertising. So, what lessons can brands learn around their business practices that will help to prevent a facewashing on their FB page?

    These examples, and #qantasluxury before it, simply show digital, marketing and PR can’t operate in isolation from the rest of the business. And if something goes wrong IRL, be prepared to respond in real-time online – best response is a quick, honest response. And then move on and change the business process.

  17. karalee
    15 Aug 12
    2:46 pm

  18. p.s more of this quality analysis, please Cathie!

  19. MsDovic
    15 Aug 12
    2:50 pm

  20. Agreed. Most media stories around social media gaffes by brands are over before they’ve begun. And you’re right about consumers too. It can be a little of the boy who cried wolf.

    It’s a great channel though. And it’s a shame that so much noise, for the pure sake of noise, can diminish its credibility..

  21. Sarah
    15 Aug 12
    2:56 pm

  22. Finally someone speaking reason, and just in time too!

    May consumers jump off this FB bandwagon as fast as they jumped on.

  23. Jim
    15 Aug 12
    3:08 pm

  24. Hold on here…along comes a platform that allows for interaction, not passive viewing like TV and these brands get a bit of a kick in the pants..well I really could care less. Coles..exploits farmers with TV in Australia..I mean look at the programming? Terrible..we have some of the worst TV in the world hands down. Target, making a mint of sweatshops..who cares if they get a little kick in the pants..its not like they didn’t have it coming. I media is just one piece of the puzzle..a bigger piece than what most advertisers realise..mainly because most agencies are run by out of touch hacks, just like corporations who see anything new as threatening. I’ve worked on so many campaigns where social media was relegated to the backwater or done half assed and I’ve worked on campaigns where it suited the company perfectly with great results…but you have to take chances and most companies are risk nothing really gets done.

  25. charles bayer
    15 Aug 12
    3:54 pm

  26. I would have thought that a company like Target (or any retailer or brand) would have read the negative responses as valuable market research and responded quickly to rectify the situation. How much would it have cost them to get a research company to tell them that some of their product range stinks…and how long would it have taken them to conduct it? Weeks? Months? Unfortunately many of our marketers really don’t ‘get it’ when it comes to social media platforms. Missed opportunities? You betcha.

  27. Trichosurus Vulpecula
    15 Aug 12
    4:50 pm

  28. Charles Bayer has a great point. Retailers/Brand should be using this media as great way to rectify problems and get some quick feedback (whilst sorting out the trolls from the genuine information). A great article but there is another perspective.

    There is a lack of choice in the Australian market. Many large retailers have destroyed small business (seen a small computer store or furniture store near a Harvey Norman lately?) So when outrage on social media is generated, it is often difficult to change buying or viewing behaviour. IMO in some way this (Facebook/Twitter outrage) is many Australians frustration with not being listened to by the major brands boiling over. I think sustained pressure is having some results. Sponsors deserted “The Circle” over the comments made on the show and in the end 6 months later the show lost its ability to hold veiwers and remain profitable (regardless of whether you agreed with the comments or not). I think most brands manage social media poorly. Had Channel 9 listened to the comments and taken they may have come out looking a lot better… who knows!

  29. @wess
    15 Aug 12
    4:56 pm

  30. Hopefully we will get to the point where these sort of backlashes are no longer news ?
    Yes there are lessons to be learned here by brands who do indeed need to run their Facebook pages more responsibly and managed by people by experienced staff who are trained in dealing in real-time communications.
    Granted new Ad formats like ‘promoted posts ‘certainly don’t help But should this deter from brands getting involved in social media certainly not.
    If managed properly and fully integrated across the brands communications strategy social media can be a positive asset and there are just as many examples of this. Current examples include Expedia “tag me if you can ” & TA’s “Discover Australia through your friends”.
    My advice is before you start a Facebook page for your brand thoroughly research your what other brands on Facebook are doing in your business sector so you know what to expect .Social Bakers is a good place to start which has all of the main sectors of Australian Facebook page data.
    Likewise if you already have a Facebook page and are concerned by this backlash than make sure you are monitoring your page at least 3/4 times a day and advise your community managers to use the Facebook pages app that sends all comments to your mobile phone 24/7.
    Finally ensuring you have a plan in place to deal with any such occurrences quickly and effectively is the way to go. If a Facebook page is managed on an ongoing basis a lot of these stories would simply not occur .Yes there are always going to be detractors but it is ALSO an opportunity for brands to be seen to be doing the right thing by its customers and winning their loyalty.

  31. Annabel
    15 Aug 12
    5:29 pm

  32. Great article Cathie!

    I was thinking the same thing when I saw the asylum seekers post on the Channel 9 page. The rant was about the user wanting the government to look after the Australian homeless before assisting asylum seekers. I for one did not agree with the post that tens of thousands were liking but it did make me think… what does this even have to do with the brand?

    This change in FB functionality is definitely making brands stand up and take notice but is it more hype than risk? I think so.

  33. jean cave
    15 Aug 12
    7:18 pm

  34. Don’t write a word until you have checked meanings on Urban Dictionary . . .

  35. Galba
    16 Aug 12
    9:50 am

  36. But how much long-term impact do these social media backlashes have? Especially if more and more of these backlashes occur, and they become less newsworthy and instead perceived to be “just another rant”.

    And given the rapid-pace news cycle, how long before a Facebook storm is shoved to the back pages while another online mass rant takes its place? Perhaps some companies might be better off ignoring it altogether and waiting for it to go away…

  37. charles bayer
    16 Aug 12
    10:21 am

  38. Interesting comments — but again I think people are missing the point of posting on Facebook. The idea of posting on Facebook or any other social media platform is NOT to gain exposure in traditional media which we know is slowly dying due to lack of readers, interest (and in the case of the UK – credibility) but to engage in one of the most widely used web activities that today reaches nearly 90% of the Australian internet population (see Comscore) which is around the 4 million mark. Like it or not, social media is a fact of life and it’s NOT going to fade away like traditional traditional media nor will it be relegated to the back pages of the press.

  39. Luke
    16 Aug 12
    10:51 am

  40. I wonder at times if there is any point to some corporations being on Facebook at all. Is it just for fear of not being on there because everyone says it is so important? Would it drastically affect the bottom line if they weren’t on there?
    I’m on Facebook all the time. But if Coles dropped off Facebook tomorrow I wouldn’t stop buying there – it’s still a kilometre closer to my house than the next supermarket. The basics are still way ahead of Facebook in terms of driving buyers.

  41. kia
    16 Aug 12
    11:44 am

  42. I wish corporations would all leave social media far behind. I doubt it’s actually doing anything for them, and it just makes every moment online feel like living inside a giant advertisement. Sick of looking at brands – it’s oversaturation.

  43. Hugo
    16 Aug 12
    12:11 pm

  44. I know it’s a media/advertisers blog but I can’t help thinking this is being looked at in completely the wrong way. The best cure is prevention. Rather than thinking too hard about how to “manage” offending customers, perhaps the smart invest of time and resources would be in……..(shocking concept I know)………..not treating customers badly in the first place?

    Now linking it back to marketing/advertising – don’t try to say that Aussie companies value their customers because frankly – you only have to watch/listen to/read their adds to know that they think they’re customers are shallow dimwits unable to prevent themselves from satisfying their basest desires (moral basest desires not the base of the Maslow pyramid) while enjoying some light sexism/racism/ageism on the side.

    So maybe the fruitful area of work is attitude. If you respected your customers you would treat them well *and* you will have learned how to speak to them.

  45. Peter Mountford
    16 Aug 12
    1:19 pm

  46. ‘A ‘like’ simply does not imply change in behaviour, a likeliness to take action, shop elsewhere, change provider’

    If this is the case why are brands trying to be involved in social media at all?

    If we are going to claim that customers that are frustrated with Target won’t stop shopping there then how can we conclude that the boring posts that appear on Target’s Facebook page daily are going to drive any action?

  47. T-man
    16 Aug 12
    4:17 pm

  48. I reckon the CommBank ‘T’ issues re: James M and suicide bomber – had about .0000001% of .000000000000001% detrimental effect on the CommBank brand or the CAN campaign. Most people just don’t care and if they do they’ve forgotten all about it by tomorrow.

  49. Social Media Guy
    17 Aug 12
    1:20 pm

  50. “I’d argue that these thousands of ‘likes’ add up to less than zero in terms of impact on the brand.”

    With a product that is more of an emotional decision that potentially choosing the supermarket closest too you regardless of how many people have ‘liked’ a negative comment on a Facebook page, yes – there is an impact on the brand. In the same way that a bunch of people at a BBQ slagging off a company to a potential customer influences their decision more than advertising from the company or competitors.

    Brands that believe ‘word of mouth’ plays any part in their sales cycle need to care what happens in social media.

  51. Téa
    20 Aug 12
    10:51 am

  52. Or, maybe, again, this comes down to having the right people managing brands on social media, rather than your traditional agencies who offer it as an add-on… instead working with people who actually understand that social media is a different beast & requires people who live & understand the culture, have seen all the 4Chan memes, and can help navigate through the landmines, that generally disappear as quickly as they arrive if they are managed well.

    The Vodafone comment was a brilliant piece of comedy. It was an opportunity for them to turn it around and embrace the humour. As was the Pedobear ‘incident’. It is funny. People engage with the comments because they are funny and I love to wait & see how their reps will respond.

    The big brands & their agencies need to relax. Have a strategy that allows for these scenarios. Be more self-deprecating. Accept that, with social media, you can’t please everybody, and seize the tremendous opportunity that these discussions provide to strategically embrace the fun.

    Maybe I am naive… but the brands that get that a witty response will score you more brownie points than any sort of moderation, deletion or canned response combined… will win at social media. It’s rather simple really.

  53. charles bayer
    20 Aug 12
    12:18 pm

  54. Totally agree with Tea’s comment, best C.

  55. Craig
    22 Aug 12
    6:08 pm

  56. The assumption in this article is that people forget bad experiences after they’ve had their rant.

    Research suggests the opposite is true. Brands build and lose credibility over time, with the impact most noticeable when a convenient alternate supplier becomes available and suddenly large number of customers switch.

    Brand with bad reputations can hold on for years where there’s no convenient alternative, or other brands are perceived as ‘just as bad’ (the current position of our PM and the Opposition Leader spring to mind).

    As a result brands don’t need a good reputation, they just need a reputation better than the convenient alternatives – and largely industries function like this.

    However when an industry is going through turmoil, with new players coming in and a changing competitive landscape due to technological change, brand value suddenly becomes critical for survival.

    So for most companies I’d say don’t get too stressed about online feedback. However if your industry is being disintermediated or your products are easily and conveniently replaceable by those of another company, I think investing in brand management is critical.

    Though, as @Hugo suggested, prevention is better than cure and certainly helps retain good staff!