Online Word Of Mouth is powerful! I don’t think anyone would dispute that fact but just to back it up here are some recent statistics

  • 50% of Americans would pick word of mouth if they had to pick one source of information [Chatter Matters Report]
  • 72% of people get news from friends and family, making word-of-mouth the most popular channel for sharing [Pew Research]
  • Building an online community is most important to brand awareness and word of mouth referrals, with average rankings of 8.87 and 8.52 on a 10 point scale, according to marketers.[Referral Rock]
  • 72% of people say that they most trust content that they get from family or friends.[Statistia]

I could go on and on, but you get the general idea. Online Word Of Mouth (eWOM) is huge and very important to any business.

But, What Happens When It Goes Bad?

In recent years it has happened over and over from one industry to another. Everything is sailing along smoothly for a brand when all of a sudden, seemingly out of nowhere, social media explodes with a wrath over something that the brand said or did. From that moment, forward, the brand’s world has been turned upside down.

You don’t have to look far to find brands that have mishandled a disgruntled customer and consequently have felt the sting from their social media followers, customers, and even the general public. Do you remember these company’s missteps?

  • American Airlines (sometimes too many to count) dragging a passenger off of their plane?
  • How about Adidas who text “Congrats you survived the Boston Marathon.”
  • Or, Chase Bank suggesting that overspending is resulting in your bank account being too low, as opposed to too many bank fees.

What do all of these examples illustrate? That often times a seemingly harmless (well, not in American Airline’s instance) tweet will come off poorly and before you know it you have a Firestorm on your hands.

Are you prepared?

Q: When is the worst time to learn how to put out a grease fire?

A: When the pan on top of the stove is on fire!

Q: When is the worst time to try to figure out how to reply to an irate customer on social media?

A: When they are in the middle of telling the world how bad you are!

According to a report by Ethical Corp, 72% of companies rate their preparedness for potential online firestorms as “below average.”

So, you’re probably now wondering what you have to do to be prepared. In a perfect world, step one would be recognizing what causes these firestorms and deal with them before they gain momentum. Short of that, though, it’s critically important to know how to handle these firestorms once they get going.

How To Detect Potential Trouble

Before we get too far into the detection, let’s start by talking about what a firestorm is. Generally speaking, an online firestorm is defined as a sudden engagement and banding together of negative eWOM messages against a person, company, or organization via social media platforms.

Ok, now that we all have a definition of an online firestorm, let’s start with detection. How can you spot trouble before it hits? Is it even possible? If you follow what people are saying about you, then you can detect a firestorm before it gets traction.

The first step, monitor all mentions about you or your brand. You can’t stop a firestorm if you’re not aware of what people are saying about you. And, don’t think that you don’t have to respond to negative comments. You do! You also have to respond promptly. Remember that eWOM is way harder than traditional WOM. In the online communities, everything that is said about you is seen by everyone.

Think about it this way. Someone walks into your store or office and starts telling you about the poor experience that they had with your company. In this scenario, you handle the situation, try to please this customer, and hopefully, that’s it. Online is a whole different scenario. Within the online context, everyone hears what that person who walks into your store or office is saying. They hear the frustration in their voice. They hear your response (or lack of response), and then they decide who’s side to take in the story that is quickly unfolding.

We’ve written about this before. Too many business people have decided that the best way to avoid a firestorm is to not engage with the online communities. The problem with this strategy is that, like it or not; you don’t have to be engaged online for people to be venting about you. And, if you don’t respond everyone that has any interest in your company, product or service will see that you’re unengaged and that all by its self will degrade the value of your brand to all these community members that are waiting to hear your solution to a customer’s problem.


A recent paper by the American Marketing Association found that 78% of online firestorms started and ended within 24 hours when properly handled – 24 hours! That means that you have to be monitoring comments about you and your company all the time. If you check in once a week, you’re already too late to handle a potential situation. It will already be a firestorm that is engulfing your company; you simply don’t know it yet.


Now, not every customer that has an issue with your company is going to turn into a firestorm and you don’t want to overreact to negative eWOM. How can you tell if a person’s negative eWOM has the likelihood to become a firestorm? There are a couple of ways:

  1. Their Words: Take a look at the words that the people are using. The more emotional the words are that they are using to describe their situation, the more likely it will be that more people in the online community will respond to their situation and join in the calls for “justice.”
  2. Their Connections: The more connected that the disgruntled person is the more reach that their comments will have. Because of this increase in reach, the greater the chance that their complaint will go viral.

Proper Handling Of Negative eWOM

There are a lot of articles out there about how to handle the negative comments that you may get.

  • Change Channels:One of the more popular recommendations is to try to take the conversation offline and handle the situation one-on-one with the person that is frustrated. The problem with this method of handling negative eWOM is that the community, who has been witness to the situation, has no idea how the situation is being handled and often will continue its verbal assault. In this scenario, you may well have taken care of the initial problem. However, a firestorm could easily kickup because the community as a whole has not been satisfied.
  • Explination: Often times people try to appease dissatisfaction with an explanation of why something happened or went wrong. Something like “our production line was broken yesterday. If the complainant isn’t emotional (you’ll be able to tell by the words that they are using) and they’ve not yet engaged a large following, this strategy may work. Know that, generally speaking, however, an explanation alone usually won’t work.
  • Empathy: Being empathetic is a critical emotion to be able to show whenever you’re dealing with an upset customer or community. They want to know that you care, that you feel their pain, and that you want to fix their concerns. As with the explanation response, and empathetic only response will seldom fix the problem. It would be like saying “I completely understand how you feel…we’re not going to do anything about it but we fully understand your feelings”. Not very effective.
  • Empathetic Explanation: This is one of the best responses that you can use when responding to negative eWOM. By combining the two, you’re expressing that you understand their feelings and you’re validating those feelings. By going on to explain why something happened you’re demonstrating the desire to research the problem and, to the best of your ability, resolve the problem moving forward.


eWOM can be both a blessing and a curse, depending on how you use it. Ignore it, and it will be a burden that could, without exaggeration, ruin your business. Engage with it, and it could literally make your business grow beyond your imagination. Have a plan for how to handle negative eWOM by using an Empathetic Explanation​ strategy, execute the plan quickly should the need arise, and make sure that everyone in your company knows what to do.