Don’t let your users become a Twitter mob

Why is complaining on Twitter so very effective? Is it because companies do not want your criticism to get noticed, favorited, retweeted, or worse, #trending?

To borrow an analogy from Jon Ronson’s excellent book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, social media empowers the public with the “weapon” of public humiliation. If you have an issue with a celebrity, brand, journalist, politician, virtually anyone really, you can mention them on Twitter and almost guarantee they – and many others – will see it. That’s power.

The problem is that most people are unaware of the potential repercussions of this modern-day form of pillory. There are many, many cases, but in Silicon Valley recently we saw Adria Richards threatened and bullied online following an incident at PyCon.

This power dynamic exists in the business world too. Ever had a tough time cancelling your cable service? Here’s one way to get the company’s attention:


Mr. Block, a former editor at Engadget with thousands of followers, did post the exchange. It immediately went viral as other frustrated Comcast customers dog piled onto his public complaint. You can find nearly 500,000 mentions of “Ryan Block Comcast” on Google, including a small public apology issued by Comcast.

Lots of companies respond poorly, or not at all, to negativity that arises via Twitter; others bend over backwards to appease their online hecklers. Both are bad. It’s naive to ignore this channel but you don’t have to be scared of it either. You can extinguish situations online before they spiral out of control, with a combination of quick reflexes, empathy, and professionalism. Here are a few guidelines to get you started:

1. Identify who is saying this

Step one is to figure out who tweeted you and determine how serious their issue is e.g. is it something that’s preventing someone from doing their job, like a sudden service outage.

Prioritize messages from your customers and those with a ton of followers, whose comments are more likely to go viral, and acknowledge those who’ve never tweeted complaints to you before. At Intercom we also check a user’s profile to see if they’ve reported the issue through our support channel first. If the answer is yes, we address those people first.

If you’re monitoring your account properly, you should notice if the same user is constantly trashing you on Twitter, and you can probably start to downplay those. But it’s always better to give people the benefit of the doubt and treat their issue as a real problem. Even if you don’t know the answer, a simple, reflexive response within an hour is already good customer experience and can quickly diffuse a frustrated customer:



2. Take it off Twitter

If you’ve determined that the issue is valid, steer the conversation away from the public forum as quickly as possible. 140 characters usually isn’t enough space to properly help anyone. Not only can you address their issue in more depth, you might also find the customer’s tone softens. The founder of said his customers were friendlier after they moved from an online forum, where everyone could see the responses, to Intercom, for support conversations. At Intercom we respond to folks on Twitter by asking them to submit their support questions through Intercom itself or email:



3. Don’t engage a troll (and how to identify one)

Not every complaint is worth an immediate response, or any response at all. It’s important to have a sense of what people are saying about you on Twitter (or as marketers call it, sentiment analysis), but you don’t have to respond to everyone who mentions you. Here’s how to identify a troll:

  • Their complaint isn’t specific, ie. “Hey @Comcast, wanna not screw with my Internet that’d be great :D”
  • Their complaint isn’t actionable, ie. “@Comcast will never be good I’m going to @Centurylink”
  • They use rude language or make any sort of personal attack.
  • They’re best friends with your competitor. Enough said.

In those scenarios directly engaging can just legitimize their soap box. You also may start to notice the same user mouthing off about you via Twitter every time they have any issue, despite your efforts to steer them towards a 1:1 channel. Best to shrug them off.

4. Stick to your principles

A lot of companies are so scared of negative publicity about their company that common sense flies out the window and they may react excessively. Remember the Gamergate controversy? When gamers took to social media to shame companies who advertised in any publication that was critical of Gamergate, many of these companies, like Intel, capitulated and pulled ads from these publications. But this quickly backfired when it was revealed that most of these companies had not done any real research into whether or not this was the right call, and the tide of public opinion went against them.

We’ve also seen companies, desperate to save face, that have been quick to fire employees for saying something deemed tasteless by the Twitterati. In his book Ronson mentions Justine Sacco, the woman who tweeted a tasteless comment on her way to Africa and was immediately fired by her employer, IAC.

Reacting without a proper, transparent investigation sets a bad precedent for your company and gives the mob even more reason to behave like jerks online. Treat a legitimate complaint raised on social media just as you would in a 1:1 support conversation – be level-headed and helpful, rather than obsequious. Seek to understand the entire situation before reacting defensively.

5. Make your support experience effortless

Most people with legitimate issues just want their issue fixed, not to ruin your business. They reached out via Twitter because they didn’t expect a timely response through traditional means. This relates to something my colleague Jeff Gardner wrote about recently: make customer delight effortless. Focus on the fundamentals, rather than flashy gifts.

Encourage feedback, and remind people the best way to do so (hey Intercom users, best way to share your feedback is through Intercom itself or by emailing us at

A live chat experience can also offer your customer the same gratification as Twitter, as long as you manage their expectations for a response time properly. As in real life, people tend to be ruder to those they don’t have a real relationship with.