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How to Extinguish an Online Brand Firestorm

Dennis Herhausen, Stephan Ludwig, Dhruv Grewal, Jochen Wulf and Marcus Schoegel


Listen to the authors present their findings (source: May 2019 JM Webinar)


More than 65 million firms leverage online brand communities to connect with customers and achieve key benefits such as increased online reputation, brand patronage, and customer spending. However, online communities are vulnerable to online firestorms, or negative electronic word of mouth (eWOM), that receives substantial support from other customers in a short period of time. For example, when United Airlines forcibly removed passengers from planes, the incidents were captured by social media and ignited intensive negative media coverage for the firm. Similarly, the many missteps of Uber and its then-CEO Travis Kalanick fueled the #deleteUber movement.

Managers lack the ability to predict how negative eWOM messages will evolve. In addition, they have a limited understanding of how to respond to negative eWOM about dissatisfactory consumption experiences or how to address angered mass audiences exposed to such negative eWOM. Lacking clear guidelines, firms continue to suffer damages due to negative electronic word of mouth. We address this gap by identifying sources of firestorms and detailing appropriate sequences for firm responses to follow as they respond negative viral content.

A new Journal of Marketing study explores the conditions that make eWOM go viral and how to detect, prevent, and mitigate online firestorms. We studied 472,995 negative customer posts across 89 online brand communities from leading S&P 500 companies, discounting posts that contained visuals, events, or external links as we could not control for the influence of external content.

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Extant marketing research describes the spreading of word of mouth (WOM) as a contagious process, whereby receivers “catch” others’ emotions through social transmission. The relatively rare research on negative WOM suggests that its contagiousness depends primarily on the sender’s emotions and the relationship between senders and receivers. Yet few studies apply these valuable insights to an online brand community context. As a consequence, our team identified sender and relational aspects of negative eWOM firestorms in online brand communities.

In addition to identifying sources that help spread negative electronic word of mouth, firms need to strategize the response. Services recovery research proposes several viable approaches to negative customer experiences, including empathic and explanatory responses. The online brand community makes customers’ complaints and the firm’s recovery efforts visible, unlike traditional compliant channels. Therefore, the firm needs to move beyond mitigating the complaining customer’s unsatisfactory consumption experience and formulate and share a response that can minimize negative effects on the wider audience of online brand community members. By investigating regulation strategies that can reduce receivers’ susceptibility to negative emotions, our research investigates how firms should tailor responses to limit the virality of negative eWOM. In so doing, we do not limit our assessment to a single response, because customers in online brand communities often evaluate cross-message developments. Therefore, we consider how sequences of firm responses might mitigate the virality of online firestorms as they evolve.

To achieve these aims, we first systematically delineate sender and relational aspects that trigger greater virality of negative eWOM. We then systematize extant knowledge on common firm responses and contrast their effectiveness with the arousal of negative eWOM and viable cross-message composition.

With these empirical assessments of ways to detect, prevent, and mitigate the virality of negative eWOM in online brand communities, we offer three main contributions.

  1. We specify how different types of emotional arousal, the strength of the senders’ structural ties, and their similarity to the online brand community contribute to the virality of negative electronic word of mouth. At an operational level, we establish a reliable, computerized technique to determine the similarity of language used within online brand communities.
  2. We provide insights into firms’ ability to prevent online firestorms by issuing responses designed to engage with—or disengage from—customers online. More explanatory responses are best for negative eWOM messages containing above-average negative high arousal emotions; the effectiveness of disengaging approaches varies.
  3. We identify structured sequences of different engaging responses across multiple firm messages as a novel, actionable approach to mitigate the impact of evolved online firestorms.

For the 65 million firms that leverage online brand communities to connect with customers, our findings provide guidance on:

  • How to detect potential online firestorms, by using our dictionary-based, straightforward, automatic text-mining approach. Complaining customers who use strong emotional language, have strong structural ties, and closely match the community’s dominant communication style are especially likely to raise a firestorm.
  • How to prevent potential online firestorms by using the best response technique. Not responding is the worst choice. We show how firm responses can be tailored to the customer’s message.
  • How to mitigate online firestorms that have already evolved. Some negative electronic word of mouth cannot be prevented from “catching fire,” so we offer insights into how firms should sequence their multiple responses to mitigate further virality.

Read the full article.

From: Dennis Herhausen, Stephan Ludwig, Dhruv Grewal, Jochen Wulf, and Marcus Schoegel, “Detecting, Preventing, and Mitigating Online Firestorms in Brand Communities,” Journal of Marketing, 83 (May).

Go to the Journal of Marketing

Dennis Herhausen is Associate Professor of Marketing, KEDGE Business School, France.

Stephan Ludwig is Associate Professor of Marketing, University of Melbourne, Australia.

Dhruv Grewal is Toyota Chair of Commerce and Electronic Business and Professor of Marketing, Babson College.

Jochen Wulf is Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Institute of Information Management, University of St. Gallen, Switzerland.

Marcus Schoegel is Associate Professor of Marketing, University of St. Gallen, Switzerland.