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?

{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

Kelly Rusk February 9, 2011 at 11:29 am

Great analysis Mack and I think you’re absolutely right.

What I found interesting is that I didn’t see the Groupon ads on the Superbowl, but I did click through the next day and watch them through the landing page with the charitable campaign, so from that perspective I got right away what they were doing.

I did notice (later) that there was absolutely no call to action (or mention whatsoever) of the charitable campaign IN the actual ad. I think that was the big fail right there. And what he probably should have apologized.. that in the grand scheme of things they overlooked a (very important!) detail that really made the difference between being a social campaign and mocking social causes.

I was surprised his non-apology didn’t really explain that either. And you’re right about the tone, though I didn’t pick up on it right away (again, not angry about the ads to begin with, so I was more of a neutral observer)

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Mack Collier February 9, 2011 at 12:56 pm

Kelly I saw Jay Baer tweeting the point that the SB ads as a whole had almost no calls to action. I am very sensitive to how companies respond online to customer complaints, and his tone screamed ‘Oh give me a break guys, you’re overreacting!’ Even if you THINK that, you don’t SAY that!

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Becky McCray February 9, 2011 at 11:33 am

This is golden advice: “How you handle the first conversation (after a problem), leads to the second one.”

Would you agree that the bigger the company, the more they are tempted to dismiss or downplay the viewpoints of others?

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Mack Collier February 9, 2011 at 12:59 pm

Becky I think a lot of companies seem to have the mentality that if they ignore negative comments, that they ‘go away’. Then when they don’t ignore them, they end up calling SEO firms and have the ‘how can we get this off the first page of Google?’ conversation ;)

In general, the companies that don’t understand the power of social media and blogs are the ones that tend to downplay comments from customers. And yes, I agree with you that bigger companies seem to do this more, as if a few customers leaving negative comments can’t move the needle.

The problem is when those small groups of customers leaving negative comments all start sharing links and become CONNECTED. Then you’ve got issues.

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Mary H Ruth February 9, 2011 at 11:47 am

Is it the marketer’s job to court or challenge? Is the world divided in two: those who must be nurtured and those who must be butt-kicked before they’ll take action?

So many great quotes in this post and I especially appreciate Kelly Rusk’s comment – excellent articulations from all sides!

Must admit, though, that Groupon’s ‘voice’ is always a bit abrasive. Do you read their sales copy on daily email offers? It’s definitely unique but also sort of offensive IMO. I chalked it up to style and quit reading the messages, but it appears the company may have to … is it mature, or buckle? … I’m not sure which.

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Mack Collier February 9, 2011 at 1:03 pm

Mary that’s a good point about Groupon’s voice being a bit abrasive as a rule. But again, this is the 1st time a lot of us are being exposed to Groupon, so we wouldn’t know that. I also think it’s a good chance for Groupon to be human, Andrew could have added something like ‘Hey we like to have fun and a sense of humor here, but what we’re hearing from you is that maybe we went too far this time. Moving forward, we’ll think more about how we can maintain our sense of fun, but also be as respectful of the views of others, as possible.’

Again, acknowledging why customers are complaining is a BIG thing. Even if you think they are dead wrong, you need to let them know that their voice has been heard.

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Allison Carter February 9, 2011 at 1:41 pm

Mack, as I mentioned to you on Twitter, I had been planning on writing my own take on what Groupon should do to repair the damage, but you hit them all.

I think one of Groupon’s biggest mistakes was to believe their own hype. They’re the big kid on the playground right now–we turned down $6 billion from Google! We have a host of imitators! We’re awesome and everyone knows us! While that might be true in the online world, bursting into the mainstream world of the Super Bowl is a whole different matter. They assumed that people would know who they were and that they started off as a philanthropic organization, that people would understand that their tone is always flippant and sarcastic.

They assumed a much higher level of brand awareness than actually exists, and are paying the price. That’s not to say that the commercials aren’t in poor taste, but they may have made more sense if Groupon had had a more established brand identity.

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Jennifer February 9, 2011 at 2:07 pm

Mack- You are so right. The way I describe it is as follows. When a stranger says something sarcastic, it’s sometimes hard to tell and it can be off-putting. Same thing with a brand that is not well known. While I have been a GroupOn member for some time, I don’t have a strong association with the brand. So when they act snarky, it puts me off.

It was an error in judgement and simply pointing that out, apologizing and pulling the ad was in order.

Instead, they lost me and many others as customers.

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Mack Collier February 9, 2011 at 2:37 pm

Jennifer that’s a great point, it’s MUCH harder to read sarcasm coming from someone we don’t know. Excellent observation.

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Joel Capperella February 9, 2011 at 2:10 pm

Mack,
I don’t know that I agree with the necessity of an “I’m sorry” I see that you qualify that with “if you are at fault”, but I don’t think it necessary to take a remorseful position in order to appease. That said the rest of the post is spot on and I’m amazed that Groupon hasn’t engaged those leaving comments at all. you would think that Crispin Porter + Bogusky would have prepared Groupon for handling the inevitable backlash. They achieved the intent of the add, to increase the buzz well beyond the broadcast, but their client seems ill prepared to manage the response.

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Mack Collier February 9, 2011 at 2:35 pm

Joel I think CP&B was just interested in getting buzz with these ads, as was Groupon. They probably guessed there would be some people irritated, but that that would also feed more buzz.

Not sure dealing with the negativity was a high priority for them.

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Robert Pickstone February 9, 2011 at 4:31 pm

Hi Mark,

Here’s my take.

First step: The 3 A’s – Acknowledge, Apologise, Act.

“We appreciate all the feedback we are receiving and are sorry that our advert has caused offence. We will try to ensure that this doesn’t happen again in the future”.

Ok, it can be stretched out a little but the above points need to be made clear. (maybe Groupon didn’t want to make these points)

Second Step: Engage

Speak to those who are showing an interest in your company – show the world how well you handle complaints – display your customer service, credibility and human side.

Third step (well, actually it’s before the first): Run your company better and address core issues – it will help to avoid this type of firefighting.

Thanks

Rob

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Jason Yormark February 9, 2011 at 6:37 pm

I don’t know, I didn’t find the ads entertaining, witty, or funny. Blah. They would have been much better off at least hinting to their charitable actions, but hey, if buzz was the goal, mission accomplished.

Their response definitely reeks of arrogance, and in the growing group buying rush, you’d think they’d be more “community” in their approach rather then just telling everybody to get over it. I wasn’t offended by the ads, but their inability to respond effectively and interact is the bigger fail.

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Keith February 10, 2011 at 6:23 am

Personally, I think people are too wrapped up in what offends people. Really? Was that commercial offensive? I didn’t find anything offensive about it at all, and see no need for any apology from Groupon.

“Get over it” is the attitude I would have too….

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Joe Chernov February 10, 2011 at 9:38 am

First sign of a flawed position: Taking a “but they are even worse” stance (see the red herring “objectification” argument). Two wrongs don’t make a right. They make you a terrible debater.

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Deborah Sexton February 10, 2011 at 9:56 am

Thanks to Mack and everyone else who posted here. I haven’t pissed off anyone yet but now if I do, I’m ready to deal with it correctly!

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Mack Collier February 10, 2011 at 10:25 am

Thanks Deborah, you just made my day ;)

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Andrea Wenger February 10, 2011 at 10:50 am

The ads make it clear that Groupon is branding themselves as sarcastic, arrogant, self-absorbed, and absolutely unconcerned with political correctness. Their response to criticism is consistent with that brand. They’ve decided that they’re not interested in engaging with a certain segment of the population nor courting them as potential customers. Groupon is narrowing their customer base, but that’s a business decision that they seem to have made consciously. I think the real harm is that many people they’ve offended will boycott them zealously and evangelically. Will the buzz be worth it? Possibly, but it’s a gamble.

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Mack Collier February 10, 2011 at 11:19 am

Andrea those are great points and while we can scrutinize their actions and response now, the bigger question is what will the long-term impact be? My bet is that this will only bring more awareness to them, which is no doubt what they wanted by buying SB ads, and putting an agency known for creating edgy work such as CP&B in charge of creating them.

It’s a fine line to walk. Main people have pointed out that the ads are consistent with Groupon’s branding and messaging. That’s fine, but also at play is the fact that Sunday was the FIRST time a lot of people had ever heard of Groupon. So they weren’t aware of how they had previously branded themselves. As Jennifer said above, it’s tough to read sarcasm from a stranger.

Still, being edgy doesn’t mean that you still can’t be respectful and empathic toward your customers’ concerns. That’s just good business.

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Larry Irons February 10, 2011 at 11:09 am

Empathy goes a long way in social communication, especially when dealing with upset strangers.

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Erik February 10, 2011 at 11:26 am

While I do like your comments on Groupon’s response, I’m going to take it a different direction here…

Remember when GoDaddy started their Super Bowl ads? They actually got press before-hand because they had to cut the end, because it was too racy for television. It was more specifically sexist, it exploited women. They took a little heat, but instead of apologizing, they continued to make more ads the same way.

And now, everyone knows GoDaddy. (To be honest, I think it is a horrible web hosting company.) But take any average American, and it’s probably the only web host they could name off the top of their head – and they don’t give a hoot who was exploited to make their ads popular and memorable. They just want a website.

People want a discount, they don’t really care if a commercial makes fun of Tibet. They just like to talk about it. In the social media era, people love to be sensitive, and they love to ride high horses.

My point is that maybe their response is exactly the kind of attitude they want to have. They aren’t going to be proper with their disaster recovery PR because that isn’t the way they operate. Rock star’s get to be asshole’s as long as they make great music. And everyone loves a great discount!

We talk about authenticity and transparency in social media all the time. His thought was “jeeze, can’t you people take a joke” and that’s the response he gave. Take it or leave it. Guess how many people get fired up next time they run a controversial ad? I bet a lot less.

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Kelly February 10, 2011 at 12:56 pm

Hi, Mack,

As always, I appreciate how you add to the learning without “piling on.”

In that same spirit I’ll say that the excerpt from the CEO’s post seemed a bit defensive to me in tone. And defensiveness is the first act of war. A little humility would go a long way here. It’s strange how we often feel that humility diminishes us in the eyes of our community, when in fact it endears us.

Kelly

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Ari Herzog February 10, 2011 at 10:52 pm

Thanks for referencing me and something I wrote (though I have no recollection writing it, but that’s no surprise since I sometimes come across blog articles and attempt to write a comment when I notice I already commented there with the same thought so many months earlier).

The company’s Superbowl ads didn’t upset me as much as others, but that may partially because I’ve never participated in any GroupOn initiatives. Maybe if I was more involved with them I’d be more upset?

What I’d like to mention here is within hours after tweeting a link to Andrew Mason’s GroupOn blog apology with specific reference to the 100% match the company would donate when people donated, I received a response from @GroupOnBoston ( http://twitter.com/#!/grouponboston/status/34808112921710592 ) with the simple sentence, “That was always part of the plan.”

I thank them for tweeting me, which makes me wonder why they hadn’t replied to any of the blog comments.

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Jeannie Chan February 11, 2011 at 2:14 am

Groupon did finally apologize. I think this would have been a far better response… but I think Groupon fell in love with their ads, and couldn’t see (hear) clearly how the situation was unfolding. (My post on more here http://bit.ly/fpmujY)

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Tristan March 19, 2011 at 3:44 pm

they do have some commercial backlash, here is a funny joke I saw about the Dalai Lama and Groupon, http://ponderingstuff.com/2011/03/19/dalai-lama-retires-groupon/

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Melissa Agnes February 8, 2012 at 12:20 pm

Great post! You’re right on. They should have taken a cue from Chapstick and learned through their mistakes that offence can lead to disaster when not handled properly.

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