Thursday, October 7, 2010

When to Backpedal? - Dealing With User Backlash

Up against massive customer backlash over their new logo (which was only unveiled yesterday), Gap has already made a swift about-face, announcing in a Facebook status update that there will shortly be a crowd-sourcing project to design a new one. This has got to be some of the fastest backpedaling I've ever seen.

Being the Community Manager of a user-generated content site, I'm very familiar with the user-backlash phenomenon. While it's not on as large a scale as the Gap logo drama, since we have a smaller "customer" base and are less universally recognized, we deal with it on a much more regular basis.

While the unveiling of our new logo 8 months ago got mixed feedback, it certainly hasn't been the most controversial change. At HubPages, our highly active forums mean that even the smallest site updates can be brought up and discussed by users 24 hours a day, whether we announce them or not.

Recently, it was one of these rather minor updates (the addition of the Facebook social plug-in) that caused an enormous uproar. Some of the upset centered around misunderstanding of how the plug-in works, but a lot of it was vehement criticism, plain and simple. Now, a company would have to be suicidal to ignore that kind of negative feedback, so we called a meeting to discuss it, but ultimately, we decided that the feature added enough value and there was enough positive feedback to continue to use the plug-in. Having seen a lot of these flare-ups over new features, we were confident that once the dissenting users had aired their grievances, and felt heard, the complaints would die out.

As it turned out, we were right, and reading the Mashable story on Gap's change of heart, I wondered if Gap had waited a little longer and stood their ground, while helping their customers feel heard, would they have had the same experience? Obviously, there are major differences between our companies and our "user" bases, but I think that as brands establish (and rely more heavily on) Web 2.0 presences, it will become an issue more and more companies must grapple with.

There will always be people resistant to change. It would seem to me that there has always been this type of backlash, but the difference is that companies have never before received it so immediately and on such a great scale. When your favorite brand of chips changes their packaging, 5 years ago you might have complained about it to your friends, but chances are you wouldn't have bothered to write a letter to the manufacturer protesting it. But today, Gap unveils a new logo, and is suddenly flooded with negative comments on Facebook, thousands of unhappy tweets, and who knows how many emails.

In a way, this is a great advantage, because brands have the opportunity to receive and act on feedback quickly, instead of potentially losing a customer. However, I think there is danger of abandoning a carefully planned strategy based on the reflexive reactions of the people of the interwebs. Just because someone wants to gripe about something does not mean they're actually going to abandon your brand. By all means, take feedback seriously. But remember that you've thought things through in a way the average consumer has not. If I like the chips, I'm going to keep eating them, no matter what package they come in... and I might decide I like the package tomorrow, but I won't have that chance if my instant negative feedback causes the company to make an about-face today.