Commenting or posting anonymously may be old hat on web forums, but newer apps allowing users to share secrets are gaining in popularity. The iPhone app Secret, which allows users to send anonymous messages to contacts on their phone (and friends of friends), is getting a lot of buzz, particularly in the tech scene of Silicon Valley.
Secret is part of a wave of apps emphasizing anonymity. Others include Whisper (where conversations are among strangers) and Wut (which mass texts all of your friends). The idea is that anonymity removes inhibition, allowing people to communicate more freely about ideas they may normally keep to themselves.
But Secret has a dark side that could negatively impact small businesses. Its community guide calls for kind, respectful and honest communication; states that defamatory, offensive or mean-spirited posts will be removed; and that harassment won’t be tolerated. However, some businesses and individuals have been victims of nasty comments or rumors they say are inaccurate. Evernote CEO Phil Libin took to Twitter to publicly respond to rumors of acquisition started on Secret in February.
“I’ve often thought about the need for an anonymous social network to go along with the fully public and the friends-only ones. But I can’t figure out a way to stop an anonymous network from decaying into a Mean Girls-style burn book,” venture capitalist Sam Altman wrote on his blog after deleting the app from his phone.
Unfortunately, refusing to participate doesn’t mean that you or your business won’t be a target of anonymous negativity, and it’s often difficult to know what to do in that situation. To find out, we spoke with Melissa Agnes, president and co-founder of crisis intelligence firm Agnes Day.
Small businesses are vulnerable
As people flex their anonymous muscles and learn the power of their voice, platforms such as Secret are proving to be very powerful. “You can really do a lot of damage, so, unfortunately, people take advantage of this, and there are a lot of trolls who just don’t stop,” Agnes says.
She points out that even small businesses can be targets of false rumors or anonymous negativity. “Small businesses can often be the most vulnerable because they don’t expect it –the impact, all of the chatter that might be negative – whereas large organizations are very used to it,” she says. “Unfortunately, small organizations or small companies can be the biggest victims.
Instead of trying to determine whether or not to respond while in the middle of a situation, Agnes recommends that companies determine what to do ahead of time by developing a response flowchart.
Different variables include the type of comments being made (positive, neutral or negative), whether the claim is valid, and if the comments can be corrected – as well as how influential the person is and how they’re likely to respond. “Can you fix it and transform it into a positive thing if you responded, or is it a troll that’s completely negative – the more you help the more they bash?” asks Agnes. How you’ll respond is a personal decision, but the big key is to prepare for it in advance.
A range of options might include not responding at all, responding privately, responding publicly on the forum where the comment is made or responding on your own site or email newsletter. Agnes also points out that although proving defamation is difficult, taking legal action is an option.
The tone of the response is also important. Being negative or defensive can give off the wrong impression. This is another reason why coming up with a plan before a situation arises is so important – it allows you to respond in a logical way even when emotions are running high.
Pick your battleground
Agnes also makes a distinction based on the potential volatility of a comment, since very negative emotions that are relatable mean that a post is more likely to escalate because it’ll get shared or even go viral. Making an assessment of the emotion involved can help you gauge the situation and potential impact from the start.
If you do determine that a comment or issue is worth responding to, Agnes recommends responding on the platform where the conversation is taking place.
In a crisis situation, an option would be to respond to the rumor on your own blog, but this can sometimes call attention and bring more power to a post or comment that very few people saw. “If it’s simply an issue and not a crisis, you may not want to bring light to it by putting it on your site,” says Agnes.
However, posting on one’s blog also allows some control that’s not available on other forums – by closing comments or moderating them, for instance. It can be a good choice for a worst-case scenario, where persistent rumors are starting to have a negative effect on your business.
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