Anonymity_body.jpgby Jennifer Shaheen.


Anonymous comments and reviews are the bane of many small business owners’ existence. Whether negative comments pop up on your own site, on review sites like Yelp, or appear on social media, the potential negative impact on your business is obvious. What’s not so obvious is what business owners should do about it. Here is what experts say are the best ways to handle negative anonymous commentary:


Stop the problem before it starts

“Making it extremely easy for your customers to connect with you whenever there’s a problem is the key to avoiding damaging negative anonymous comments,” says Micah Solomon, a consumer experience consultant and professional speaker. “Customers need every possible opportunity to tell you how they’re feeling. And they need to be able to see that you care, are listening, and will consider their opinion.” Make your email, contact form, and phone number prominent on your website, and be responsive to customer issues and concerns. “That way, your customers won’t have a need to take their negative comments to the web for the world to see,” he says.

 

Understand the nature of anonymity

The belief that anonymous comments and reviews are harsher than those that are signed—even with a pseudonym or web handle—is correct, according to research. University of Houston assistant professor Arthur D. Santana at the Jack J. Valenti School of Communication found that anonymity and bad manners are linked. In his study, he found that more than half of anonymous comments were negative. This is due to what he calls the "online disinhibition effect." When people’s identities are hidden online, he explains, they are much more likely to behave differently than they would if people could see who they are.

 

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Not all negative comments are damaging

Comments that are profane, written in all capital letters, or barely literate can be extremely upsetting to read, but they do minimal damage in a world of sophisticated web users who view them as little more than noise not worth paying attention to. If you have control over the platforms where these comments appear, it’s safe to delete them. If you don’t have control, some measure of comfort can be found in the knowledge that the vast majority of readers won’t be influenced by them. It’s also worth appealing to the site where the comments appear. They may be persuaded to take them down if the comments add no real value to the conversation.


Consider the reach of anonymous negative comments

Someone shouting horrible things about your company doesn’t do a lot of damage if they’re yelling into an empty room. Neal Shaffer, a social media strategy consultant, points out the importance of keeping a sense of perspective about where negative comments appear. He recalls a small business owner in the financial services industry who discovered that someone on Twitter was posting negative things about him on a daily basis.  “But the Twitter user complaining had very few followers and only seemed to be sending out complaining tweets, a sign that no one was listening and that the user had very little, if any, influence,” Shaffer says.


Don’t aim for perfection

While a no-hitter wins a baseball pitcher widespread acclaim, having no negative reviews associated with your products or services can actually make your business look bad. “It is impossible for any company to get 100 percent positive reviews over time, no matter how hard they try,” Schaffer says. “In fact, if there was a review site that offered only five-star reviews, people who aren’t familiar with your product or service might suspect that some of the reviews were fake. Having a negative comment here or there makes the reviews seem more legitimate.” Still, there’s no harm in encouraging your customers to post their own positive reviews as often as possible.


How you respond to negative reviews demonstrates how you do business

“The best policy is to respond to any negative comment when they appear on a legitimate review site and there is a user profile attached to it,” Shaffer says. “If it is anonymous, at least responding to it on the review site will show other consumers that you cared enough to respond and make things right.”


“Consumers feel empowered by social media and reviews site and are often surprised when their comments are being read by the companies they reviewed,” he adds. For maximum impact, responses should be friendly, professional, and to the point. “Let them know that their opinions matter,” Shaffer says. “When handled in such a way, those who complain can potentially be transformed into passionate fans.”