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How to Use Humor to Address Complainers Online

How to Use Humor to Address Complainers Online

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We are all familiar with just how rude and negative certain online commenters can be on social media. But as marketers, how can we address complainers online in a civil, professional manner? There are different ways that brands can handle negative comments and complaints on social media. Some research has found that companies, brands, and marketers can use humor as an effective strategy to address complainers’ incivility on social media. After all, we know that humor works on social media. But since social media comments can impact sales, it is important to know the best way to address complainers online. In this article, we will dive into a recent study into the effectiveness of whether or not humor is an effective strategy to address complainers’ uncivil complaints on social media. Marketers can use this study to determine how to craft their own responses to uncivil complaints on social media for their own brands. 

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How to Use Humor to Address Complainers Online

Comment management is a critical skill for marketers. A study published in the Journal of Interactive Marketing from October 2022, “Let’s Laugh About It! Using Humor to Address Complainers’ Online Incivility,” investigates whether companies’ use of humor is an effective strategy to address complainers’ incivility on social media. The study used three main experiments to examine observers’ evaluation of companies’ humorous responses on social media in relation to the degree of incivility of the complaints. Finally, the study discusses the theoretical and managerial implications of using humor to address complainers online.

The Prevalence of Uncivil Complaints on Social Media

An uncivil complaint includes all forms of rude, disrespectful, condescending, or degrading complaints made by customers about a firm or an employee. The phenomenon of customer incivility is on the rise on social media because of the anonymity associated with online environments. There are several reasons that people complain online. Many people are more willing to issue a complaint online that they might not offer up verbally in real life. So, how can marketers go about addressing these uncivil complaints? 

Is Humor an Effective Strategy for Addressing Complainers Online?

The study found that observers develop higher purchase intentions toward companies that use humor to respond to uncivil complaints. The authors of the study explain that observers are less committed to uncivil complainers, which makes the use of humor amusing and benign. Second, the study compared the effectiveness of humor compared to other types of responses, like an apology and explanation. 

How to Respond to Complainers On Social Media

Every marketer should know how companies can de-escalate angry customer complaints on social media. There are two primary strategies to take when replying to a complainer on social media from a brand account. The first strategy is by apologizing. The second strategy is humor. 

According to the study, when the complaint is civil, an accommodative recovery like an apology and an explanation is a more effective strategy than a humorous response. 


However, when the complaint is uncivil, affiliative humor is more effective and tends to gain higher engagement and higher purchase intentions. These findings can help social media marketers determine how to write responses to impolite responses to brand accounts on platforms like Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, LinkedIn, Google Business Profile, and Instagram. 

Example of How to Respond to Complainers on Social Media

Let’s take a look at an example of how to respond to complainers on social media. This example comes from the study. These two examples present two responses from Virgins Trains to customers’ complaints posted on social media, and specifically, Twitter. 

[Example A] 

@Twitter User: “Always f***ing up, f**k you and your stupid trains. 

@Virgin_TrainsEC: Oh I’m soooo sorry, no reaaaaaallly I am – I forgot that we poured  gallons and gallons of rain onto the tracks!” 

[Example B] 

@Twitter User: “When Virgin trains mess up and the older male train manager in the  resulting conversation dismisses you with that hideously patronising word women shudder  at in contexts such as these: ‘honey’.” @virgin TrainsEC. 

@Virgin_TrainsEC: “Sorry for the mess up Emily, would you prefer ‘pet’ or ‘love’ next  time?”

While both of these responses adopted a humorous tone in an attempt to amuse people, the reactions to each reply were very different. For Example A, Virgin Trains received large approval from followers in the form of thousands of likes and retweets. However, for Example B, the company was accused of being misogynistic and their tweet actually generated a “bad buzz.” The “bad buzz” ultimately led the company to delete the tweet and make public apologies. 

For Example B, Virgin Trains’ social media managers probably would have received a more favorable response to responding with an apology or providing an explanation rather than trying to be funny. 

These two examples illustrate that the use of humor on social media to address complainers can provide a real opportunity. However, it can also turn into a costly public crisis. 

How to Use Humor When Addressing Complainers Online

The key is to know when humor is appropriate versus when an apology is a safer strategy. Unfortunately, academic research does not provide many insights into knowing when humor is a beneficial tactic for observers or when humor should be rejected in favor of an apologetic and accommodative recovery. The right response to a negative comment to a brand might depend on the social media platform, the timing of the social media post, the seriousness of the complaint leveled against the brand, and other factors. Ultimately, it is the judgment of the social media marketer to make a decision on how to respond to complainers on social media. 

Learn More About Utilizing Humor in Marketing as a Member of the AMA

If you want to learn more about how brands can use social media to stimulate both engagement and sales or more social media strategy tips to boost your brand, consider becoming a member of the American Marketing Association today. The AMA offers the tools, training, research, and community to help you advance your marketing career, no matter your level of marketing experience.