STUDY: Clients Should Get Aggressive to Defend Their Reputations on Facebook

Research from Penn State/University of Texas at Arlington.


The rants of anti-vaxxers, tinfoil hatters, and legitimately concerned citizens have more influence than you might think…on Facebook.

Conclusions of a new study published in Corporate Communications: An International Journal should serve as a wake-up call of sorts: negative Facebook posts about clients can quickly damage their reputations.

The paper (full version available here for subscribers) more specifically concerned user generated commentary on the Facebook pages of businesses.

From head researcher Michel M. Haigh, who came up with the idea for the study along with Shelley Wigley of the University of Texas at Arlington:

“We found that negative, user-generated Facebook posts significantly impact stakeholders.”

Here’s how it went down:

  • Researchers at Penn State and the University of Texas at Arlington gauged approximately 500 students’ impressions of a massive but unnamed “food manufacturing firm”
  • The group was then split in two; one half read materials challenging “existing attitudes about the firm” while others read neutral statements
  • A week later, both were exposed to negative posts left on the company’s Facebook page and re-surveyed

All other factors aside, all students’ opinions of the business in question declined after they read the UGC. This finding supports a quote drawn from a previous study which calls the process of leaving such comments on public forums “Consumer complaints made easy. Maybe too easy.”

The key takeaway is that UGC can, at times, command more attention than corporate messaging efforts. This finding takes us back to the fact, drawn from Edelman’s recent trust barometer, that fewer than 50 percent of respondents worldwide say they trust social media for “news” even though they seem to place an inordinate amount of faith in the comments of random users.

Here’s the encouraging/confusing part: the study also found that those users who read statements challenging the negative UGC saw a less extreme decline in their perceptions of the company.

In other words, comments posted by someone’s paranoid aunt could have a greater influence on a given business’s reputation than we might like to admit — but that influence can be diluted, at least slightly, with materials challenging the negative sentiments.

There’s currently no standard “best practice” for responding to negativity on Facebook, but this study indicates that an aggressive pushback may well be the most effective approach.

It’s a brave new world out there for social media managers…