Groupon’s non-apology and the art of handling negative comments

by Mack Collier

The above is one of three Super Bowl ads that couponing site Groupon ran during Sunday’s game.  The tone of all three ads has sparked a ton of outrage among viewers, as you might have guessed.  So much so that Groupon CEO Andrew Mason had to address the controversy on Groupon’s blog.  And that’s where I want to focus my attention.

First, here are some quotes from Mason’s post:

When we think about commercials that offend us, we think of those that glorify antisocial behavior – like the scores of Super Bowl ads that are built around the crass objectification of women. Unlike those ads, no one walks away from our commercials taking the causes we highlighted less seriously. Not a single person watched our ad and concluded that it’s cool to kill whales. In fact – and this is part of the reason we ran them – they have the opposite effect.

And no, this post doesn’t include the two magic words: “We’re sorry.”  Now, I can somewhat give Groupon a pass on not apologizing, cause I am certain that they really don’t think they did anything wrong.  But if you aren’t going to apologize for offending people, you also should be smart enough to not belittle WHY people are offended.  Mason’s post and its tone screams ‘Look guys get over yourselves, it was a flippin’ joke!  Get a sense of humor!’

And the readers caught that.  The post so far has over 170 comments.  And a big chunk of those comments aren’t so much about the ads themselves, but about Mason’s tone in that blog post.  This reminds me of a brilliant point that someone (I believe it was Ari Herzog) once made here in the comments:

How you handle the first conversation, leads to the second one.

This is exactly what Mason and Groupon are dealing with right now.  By being mildly condescending in his post, Mason didn’t improve the situation, he made it worse.  He gave people that were already upset, more of a justification for their feelings.  Gini caught the same thing I did, his tone talked down to Groupon’s customers, instead of being humble and apologetic.

And then my friend Amy made another interesting point to me: Notice that there are over 170 comments on that post, and NONE of them are from Andrew or anyone from Groupon.  To me, this reinforces the ‘If you don’t GET the ads, then it’s not worth discussing with you’ tone of the post.  And note also in the comments that Groupon is getting a LOT of support.  Many commenters are saying they liked the ads, and even adding how the commenters that are complaining are overreacting.  But Groupon isn’t engaging them either.

Which leads to another salient point: Every online conversation has three sides: My side, your side, and the side of everyone else that’s watching us.  For many people, that blog post will be their 1st exposure to the company Groupon.  Apparently, Groupon has a history of ‘cheeky’ ads, according to some of the commenters.  I have no idea, all I know now is that they write poorly-crafted blog posts in response to online controversy involving their brand.  It’s not so much about who is right and who is wrong, it’s how you HANDLE that criticism, and what the perception is from everyone that’s watching.  Case in point, I didn’t comment on that blog post, I decided to write my own post, here.

Here’s some advice for companies like Groupon that find themselves facing backlash from customers online:

1 – Respond quickly, and in a human voice.  Speaking in the same voice as your customers does WONDERS for helping them connect with you, and understand your point of view.

2 – Acknowledge the issues that have people upset, and if you are at fault then say ‘I’m sorry’.  And for the love of Pete, do NOT trivialize the reasons why your customers are upset.  Even if you think it’s completely ridiculous (and it very well could be), you have to understand that your customers do NOT think it’s ridiculous, and they are seriously upset.  Understand why they are upset, and empathize  with their feelings, even if you don’t agree.

3 – Be polite and respectful in handling the criticism.  This applies to a blog post you might write, or how you address existing comments.  Want to see an online bruhaha turn into a DefCon5 nightmare in 2.3 seconds?  Call the asshat that’s torching you in the comments what he is.  When people are angry and upset, they sometimes lash out.  And if YOU respond in kind, that’s just going to draw fire.  Instead, be polite, actually LISTEN to what the customers are saying, and address WHAT they are saying moreso than the WAY they are saying it.

4 – Respond to comments.  This is the step that Andrew missed.  Address the complaints head on.  Actually listen to the points being raised, and let everyone know that you invite further responses from them.  In fact, give them additional ways to get in touch with you and give you more feedback.

When customers see that you are listening and making a real effort to hear them and act on their feedback, that will go a long way toward converting an angry customer into an evangelist.  My guess is if Andrew had been responding to comments from the get-go and using the advice above, not only would there be far fewer comments on that post, the vast majority of them would be positive by now.  The people that were angry would feel that their POV was heard and acknowledged, while the fans of Groupon will have felt validated, and would be rushing to Groupon’s defense even moreso than they currently are.

If you read the post from Andrew, what did think of his tone and what he said?

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