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What Happens When the Wrong Message Goes Viral?

Having content go viral is a small business owner’s dream. But what happens when the message spread online is damaging to your business?

A Cautionary facebook tale

This week a Michigan mom took to her personal Facebook account to share her experience at a local spa in which she witnessed the owner berate a mom of a crying autistic toddler while he got his hair cut.

In less than 48 hours, that post was shared 26,000+ times. Local news outlets picked up the story. So did the Huffington Post.

But the fallout didn’t stop there. The spa was forced to shut down its Facebook page after receiving critical comments from around the world regarding the story. Perhaps more damaging was that people immediately took to online review sites like Yelp, Yahoo and CitySearch to leave scathing one star reviews about their own experiences at the spa, including previous run-ins with the owner.

The spa owner has yet to personally respond to the situation (instead issuing a statement through her lawyer) but the damage done to her business’ reputation online is obvious.

There are a few important lessons here that small businesses can learn from this experience:

Stories that evoke strong emotional reactions spread quickly online.

Jonah Berger, author of the recently published book Contagious, has done significant research the last 5 years to understand why people share certain things online more than others.

What he found was that there are six steps that make content contagious and one of the most important is emotion. When people are aroused by emotion — whether good or bad — they take action. The stronger the emotion, the stronger the response.

This story perfectly demonstrates the concept at work. Parents — particularly moms — and autism activists from around the world read the detailed account and were moved to anger. Their anger quickly turned to seeking justice online — commenting on the business owner’s Facebook page, writing bad reviews online and setting up Facebook pages to boycott the spa.

The experience you provide your customers outweighs the product or service you sell.

There’s one thing that’s missing from this story. No one is complaining about the cost of a haircut or pedicure at the salon. And isn’t that what they’re selling? Instead, the story — and the overwhelming online response — focuses on the lack of customer service and uncomfortable experience the spa owner created (and from online comments related to the story, this may have happened more than once).

Don’t underestimate the power of the customer experience. A 2011 study showed that 89% of customers will dump a brand for a competitor following a bad experience (and a quarter of those scorned will tell their friends about it on Facebook and Twitter). And the smart competitors notice. At least one local salon has capitalized on this, showing their support for the mom and offering her son complimentary haircuts.

Small businesses will live or die by their online reputation.

Small businesses — especially local service providers like salons — rely heavily on search traffic and word of mouth for new customers. Those reviews and one star ratings are the first thing people see when they type in the name of that spa in their search engine.

Consider the impact of this. A 2012 survey found that 72% of local business customers trust online reviews as much as personal recommendations. Your own online search habits are a testament to this. How often have you tried a restaurant or car mechanic after finding consistently low online reviews or customer horror stories? Chances are, the answer is none.

Here’s the reality — Facebook has become a virtual megaphone, giving each of your customers a worldwide platform to shape the message of who you are. As Amazon founder Jeff Bezos famously said,

Your brand is what other people say about you when you’re not in the room.

How to Respond

Negative online feedback about your small business — whether it goes viral or not — demands a response. In fact, how you respond is much more important than the initial complaint.

Here’s how to do that:

  • Respond quickly and personally. Address the complaint online immediately and then offer a way for people to contact you off social media to continue the conversation. This is the best way to prevent a social media meltdown for your business. 
  • Take responsibility. Ultimately, it’s your responsibility as a business owner to meet the needs of your customer. Show them that you take that responsibility seriously, even if you think they’re wrong. Burying your head in the sand or — worse — acting defensively and denying any wrong doing will extend the damage to your business’ reputation.
  • Make it Right. Understand that this part doesn’t happen overnight (especially the longer you wait to address the situation). You’ll have to work to earn back the trust and loyalty of your customers. Tell them how you plan to do that and invite them to be a part of the process.
Ultimately, the best strategy is this:
Focus on crafting great experiences for your customers around the products and services you provide. 
What other lessons do you think small businesses can learn from this social media meltdown? Share in the comments below.