By Kelly-Anne Gee, Account Coordinator

Here at Write Away, our team has a bit of a soft spot for social media.

As professional communicators we get excited by the opportunities social media provides to directly engage and develop relationships with our clients’ target audiences. We can’t get enough of the warm and fuzzy feeling that comes from building and nurturing a community of appreciative fans. And we just love injecting personality into brands through clever, entertaining content.

Many big consumer brands have made social media the cornerstone of their online strategy. They’re attracted to the benefits that social media promises to deliver – marketing buzzwords like awareness, sentiment and loyalty. Needless to say they’re also attracted to the dollar signs. According to a recent report, Australians spent more than $16 billion online in the last financial year, a figure they expect will reach $27 billion by 2016. With around 74 per cent of social media users researching online before they make a purchase decision, good social media management could mean big returns.

We’re the first to admit however, that it’s not all sunshine and lollipops out there. To turn a famous quote on its head, with all great rewards, come great risks – and social media is inherently risky. Social media platforms allow consumers to instantly broadcast uncensored feedback and as a brand online you are expected to be listening. In fact, in Australia the Advertising Standards Board legally compels you to.

After decades of frustration with unanswered customer service hotlines and email forms which one can only assume disappear into the abyss, consumers have become incredibly savvy at using social media to garner a response (on Twitter in 140 characters or less, no less). And if it’s a big enough problem, you can rest assured that social media provides no place to hide – something we’re sure Volkswagen can attest to, as well as the likes of Vodafone, QANTAS and many others before them. But social media doesn’t have to be the problem; it can be part of the solution.

Here are some guidelines for dealing with customer complaints, negativity and new-age old-fashioned troublemaking:

  • Have a plan Establish a social media policy and be clear about who will maintain the account, where enquiries will be directed and the plan of action in the case of an emergency.
  • Be honest In the online world, dishonesty will be spotted quickly. Be sure to admit mistakes where they exist and do not make promises that cannot be reasonably fulfilled.
  • Try to take the conversation off-line Encourage consumers to contact you directly, taking the conversation out of the public domain. Doing so allows the situation to be gauged more effectively and the disgruntled party will feel satisfied to know their problem is being addressed by a real person.
  • Respond in a timely manner The online world moves a lot more quickly than offline. Address issues quickly. Don’t leave criticisms and questions unanswered. Silence not only implies a lack of concern, but allows the conversation to continue and potentially grow into something unmanageable.
  • Demonstrate empathy Show the concerned party that you care by responding in a personable way. Do not send an automated response to an already disgruntled customer as this can agitate the situation.
  • Don’t delete posts Do not simply delete a complaint or negative post because you do not want other followers to see it. This will aggravate your audience and appear dishonest. Handling an online complaint effectively can actually increase the perception of your brand in other consumers’ minds.
  • Don’t give trolls ammunition Some followers will not be appeased by legitimate attempts to solve their problems. These troublemakers or ‘trolls’ aren’t looking for customer service – they simply want to create a disturbance or attack others in the community. In these cases the general wisdom is to ‘not feed the trolls’. Use the block and report functions and delete their posts (our exception to the rule above).

Managing large online communities can be challenging, however active monitoring and regular interaction with customers is a great way to gather valuable feedback, identify areas for improvement, foster customer loyalty and support them on their path to purchase.