by Mongezi Mtati (@Mongezi) The age of social influence and the growth of platforms that enable individuals to self-organise with less effort than 20 years ago do not come without a darker side. Brands often find themselves at the mercy of individuals who wield more influence, far greater popularity and trust in their social circles than some of the most celebrated brands.

Call it a day

In most instances, it seems more logical to call it a day than to have a long drawn-out public spat with someone who may be more likely to become a hero in various blog posts the next day.

But that is not always the case.

Presidency SONA TweetThere are instances when influence or the power to drive an action and rally a crowd are used negatively or, as with the recent pre-State of the Nation (SONA) address, they may reveal community concerns which need to be addressed.

The South African Presidency asked citizens on social media about what they think the president should talk about in his speech and, over 2000 mentions later on Twitter and Facebook, the people had spoken. Most of the comments pointed to unresolved issues from previous public appearances; the majority of those still went unspoken of in the address. It’s as if the nation pulled together to speak its mind, without fear or favour, and the campaign became an open forum for truths that went un-televised on the parliamentary channel.

Open dissatisfaction vs trolling

The open dissatisfaction of communities may often be confused with trolling because it’s easier to blame outside forces than it is to offer unparalleled service that builds an influencer base. People who stir up controversy just for the sake of attention from either a brand or its community (and often very successfully) — and then walk away with free products and as customer heroes — are the ones who misuse their influence. They are the trolls who tend attack brands.

The most common attributes among such brand bullies is that they tend to strike unprovoked and they distract both the brand and the community from normal day-to-day interactions.

But when your customer community feels part of the brand, when they have a sense of ownership, they come to the defence of the brand.

Take the high road

Coca-Cola came up with the idea to make the web a happier place, to offset all the hate and negativity on the social web by spreading smiles and “happiness”. It created its #MakeItHappy campaign that started with a commercial which aired at the 2015 Super Bowl and shows what happens when a bad moment is replaced with a good one.

It took to the social web with the same idea: if someone tweeted something negative and someone responded with the hashtag #MakeItHappy, Coca-Cola’s automated bot would revert with a ‘cute’ ASCII art picture composed of words to make you smile. On other platforms, such as Instagram, YouTube and Facebook, individuals needed to send a picture of themselves smiling and include the hashtag well. Coca-Cola even collaborated with some global influencers such as the famed Kid President.

Negative buzz

Everyone was on their way to a happier and smiling internet… until gossip site Gawker created its own automated system from its labs. It used the hashtag #SignalBoost, combined with #MakeItHappy and a quote from Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf”. The result? A negative buzz as the cute ASCII cute animals were now quoting the worst and negative things using Coca-Cola’s brand.

Following several of these posts, Coca-Cola pulled the campaign and reported it publicly, telling AdWeek: “It’s unfortunate that Gawker is trying to turn this campaign into something that it isn’t. Building a bot that attempts to spread hate through #MakeItHappy is a perfect example of the pervasive online negativity Coca-Cola wanted to address with this campaign.”

Instead of taking the fight to the public domain and feeding the troll, it’s sometimes better be like Coke and take the high road. This is often the hardest decision, too, as the campaign may cost the brand a lot of potential buzz. (Also note that automation may cause problems in itself.)

Prepare for the trolls

Twitter CEO, Dick Costolo, has spoken to his team about the challenges that come with the abuse that Twitter experiences. The following is from an internal email which was later published on The Verge:

“We suck at dealing with abuse and trolls on the platform and we’ve sucked at it for years. It’s no secret and the rest of the world talks about it every day. We lose core user after core user by not addressing simple trolling issues that they face every day.

“I’m frankly ashamed of how poorly we’ve dealt with this issue during my tenure as CEO. It’s absurd. There’s no excuse for it.”

Brand communities are similar in that they have a responsibility to protect and guide their fans as they go about building a culture. Trolls, though, are looking for an outlet and stand to break the solidarity that has been created over time. Knowing this allows you to prepare for the attacks and abuse.

Protect the brand and your community:

  1. Trolls scour the web for unsuspecting victims. Focus on the community by not feeding them with unnecessary attention.
  2. Know when to take the high road and when to continue engaging. Draw that line upfront.
  3. Have a plan in place for when they strike; it’s a matter of time ’til they do.
  4. Know when to separate trolling from valid customer complaints or open conversation that needs answers for the whole community.
  5. Reward your community members for the support; don’t shut up the trolls at the expense of loyal community members.


Mongezi Mtati


Mongezi Mtati (@Mongezi) is the founding MD of WordStart ( Apart from being a kiteboarding and sandboarding adventurer, Mongezi connects companies and brands with measurable word-of-mouth. He contributes the monthly “The Word” column on word-of-mouth marketing and social media strategy to MarkLives.


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