Avoiding Snark Online


January 27, 2014

snark

We do business with people we like. While this adage has been in play for generations, it takes on added meaning as social media allows us to get closer than ever before with our customers. Facebook, the world’s largest social network, even calls their signature social signal a “like” button. Now that it’s easier than ever to communicate, maintaining an engaging brand voice is more critical than ever. And yet many today opt for a different tone — snark.

Let’s take a look at why snark is so prevalent online and how your brand can prosper by taking the road less traveled.

The Perception of Distance Makes Snark Easy

"It's amazing how nasty we can get  ..."

“It’s amazing how nasty we can get …”

Comedian Louis CK notes, we say things from the safety of our cars when people cut us off in traffic that we would never consider saying in person. The car insulates us and provides a safe distance for our own snark to rage un-checked. Communicating online offers a unique combination of closeness and distance that many struggle to successfully navigate. As a friend complains about a political issue on Facebook, it’s easy to choose a snarky response, like the anonymous driver shaking their fist in traffic. Many of us — myself included — have fallen into this trap.

Where we get into real trouble is when this happens at the brand level. When a customer complains online — often under the impression that most brands aren’t listening — a glib community manager too often replies with a bit of snark. It’s become the go-to currency of the social web. Worse still are organizations who embrace this tone as the backbone of their brand voice. An extremely successful consultant whose work I’ve read and whose teachings I value, has developed a brand voice online sick with snark and disgust. Even when his followers mirror his thoughts, he finds something grumpy to say back to them.

While it’s true some brands have built storied reputations on being less-than-friendly or “telling it like it is,” by and large this tactic is one that is very tricky to successfully employ. Dr. House was a fun character on TV but he was carefully written by a team of writers. To most in the real world, mean people and mean brands are just that. To quote another adage often reserved for bumper stickers — Mean people suck. The same could be said about mean brands.

The Critical Misstep

Why is this so prevalent? Most social media practitioners preach a consistent sermon of authenticity and transparency. However, these abstract concepts aren’t easily understood. Especially, by a twenty-something social media manager for a nascent brand with an under-developed brand voice. The misstep comes by taking what appears to be the easier road to authenticity and transparency. This is usually a lethal cocktail of snide remarks under the guise of “keeping it real.”

Authenticity doesn’t mean scathing and brutal honestly that belittles the customer. We see brands like Old Spice and Taco Bell develop witty and wry brand voices but neither of these were developed in a vacuum. Both involve a heavy assist from other brand touch points including traditional media. Plus, brands like these rarely if ever cross the line and end up being mean to their community.

Taking the Road Less Traveled

Recently, I caught a piece on CBS Sunday Morning (still one of my favorite ways to start the week) about Marilyn Hagerty, the 87-year old restaurant critic for the Grand Forks World Herald. In a town the size of Grand Forks, Hagerty has worked to cover every inch of the area’s food scene, including the local Olive Garden.

When her comprehensive and considerate review — which included praise of their “comforting food” and “impressive decor” — went viral, many in the first wave opted for snark about someone taking the time to review an Olive Garden. This was quickly followed by overwhelmingly positive national media coverage and attention from the likes Anthony Bourdain. All of this came as a result of being nice instead of cracking a few easy jokes about a national chain.

"She's very likable."

“She’s very likable.”

Nice is also why personal brands such as Tom Hanks and Jennifer Lawrence endure. Apart from being “nice celebrities,” both have found the sought-after space between fake platitudes and brutal snark. When watching Lawrence’s Oscar-winning turn in Silver Linings Playbook with my wife, I said, “It’s not like she’s giving the best performance ever but … I want to root for her.” My wife’s response? “She’s very likable.”

It’s opting for likable and nice that makes people come back time and again, rooting for your brand. Don’t get me wrong. This can be much more challenging. It takes two to tango and many online will come at you and your brand with their snark without thinking twice. This is another reason why many of us can’t resist responding with a proportional response instead of letting it roll off of our backs with humanity and humility.

A Fork in Your Road

Bottom line – if you find yourself at a critical impasse of what you or your brand could say online, try the nicer choice and see where it gets you. Maybe if we channel a little bit of Marilyn Hagerty and Jennifer Lawrence, we too can reap some of the rewards of nice instead of getting bogged down in the culture of snark. Your mom was right. You can indeed catch more flies with honey than with you can with vinegar.

What do you think? Are you taking mom’s advice or has snark crept into your brand’s voice online?

Photo via Flickr user See-ming Lee
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is a strategist, speaker, educator, and author of Brand Now: How to Stand Out in a Crowded, Distracted World and Get Scrappy: Smarter Digital Marketing for Businesses Big and Small. He is the Chief Brand Strategist at Brand Driven Digital, an educator at the University of Iowa, and host of the On Brand podcast. More about Nick.




5 comments
DouglasCloven
DouglasCloven

I'm liking the recent theme of positivity on here. Not that it was absent before, but I agree that it is too easy to be "boldly blunt" instead of using tact when hiding behind a keyboard. I also believe that people assume the worst when reading responses online and it is very easy to be misinterpreted, thereby making you seem snark when you weren't meaning to be.

NickWestergaard
NickWestergaard moderator

@DouglasCloven Thanks Doug! Glad you liked both posts. They definitely make sense together DO this (Encouragement), DON'T do this (Snark). I just see too many brands going with that "edgy, snarky" voice as the only means of establishing a unique voice and — unless carefully planned — this misses more often than not. As always, thanks for reading and commenting. And for the encouragement :)