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


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