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Research Insight | Schadenfreude and Sympathy: How Brands Should Approach Loyal Customers' Bad Behavior on Social Media

Social media is a high-visibility platform where customer complaints, responses from other customers, and company responses can shape brand perceptions. Take, for example, the following anecdotal account. One disgruntled customer took to a brand’s social media channel to post this complaint: “Epic fail [brand name], order an XL hot coffee Mocha and get no mocha.”

Another customer chimed in with this reply: “If you want to exaggerate while also sounding 12, sure it’s an ‘epic fail’… Is your life so shallow and empty that someone forgetting your sugary treat in your coffee is an ‘epic fail’?” The response continued with sarcastic well-wishes and laughing emojis. This condescending retort, laced with mockery, not only belittled the complaining customer but also trivialized their grievance.

A Journal of Interactive Marketing study shows that firms must actively denounce such responses to maintain a positive brand image and customer relationships, even if the uncivil comments come from a loyal customer who is ostensibly defending a brand. Addressing comments featuring schadenfreude is essential for mitigating a negative backlash. By fostering a culture of respectful engagement and addressing customer complaints, brands can cultivate a positive online reputation and foster stronger connections with their audience.

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What You Need to Know

  • Uncivil comments from one customer directed toward another customer can be perceived by observers as the attacker exhibiting schadenfreude, which produces sympathy in observers toward the victim.
  • Loyal customers more than trolls can harm brand perceptions on social media, particularly when engaging in uncivil comments toward other customers on social media.
  • Instead of passively ignoring or agreeing with uncivil customer-to-customer exchanges in defense of a brand, firms should adopt a response strategy that denounces online incivility to avoid a negative backlash effect from observers.
 

Abstract

Complex social dynamics occur when complaints are voiced on firms’ social media channels. In combination, a complainer criticizes a firm, which may be responded to uncivilly by different online personas (i.e., internet trolls or loyal customers), with virtually present observers watching how a firm responds. This research examines customer-to-customer (C2C) uncivil commentary from troll and loyal customer personas perceived by observers to elicit schadenfreude (malicious joy due to another’s adverse event). Three studies show how C2C schadenfreude targeting a complainer elicits sympathy from observers, which influences observers’ future purchase intent. Study 1’s online content analysis using field data shows the frequency of C2C schadenfreude during social media service recovery. Study 2 uncovers moderated mediation of C2C schadenfreude–sympathy–purchase intent, with loyal customer persona comments producing more observer sympathy than troll persona comments. Study 3 finds the harmful effect of observer sympathy on purchase intent varies based on how or if a firm addresses the C2C dialogue. This research uses a novel cognition (perceived schadenfreude from another’s comment), examines a lesser-studied emotion in marketing (sympathy), and is the first marketing-related work to incorporate backlash theory from organizational management to exemplify how loyal customer comments produce a backlash effect in observers.

Todd J. Bacile, A. Banu Elmadag, Mehmet Okan, Denitsa Dineva, and Ania Izabela Rynarzewska, “Schadenfreude and Sympathy: Observer Reactions to Malicious Joy During Social Media Service Recovery,” Journal of Interactive Marketing. doi:10.1177/10949968241246252.