Why the Tweet Is Mightier Than the Ad

Last Updated Jul 5, 2011 4:24 PM EDT

A multimillion dollar, multi-platform ad will never be as credible as a recommendation from a trusted friend. A new study shows that increasingly anonymous online commenters fall into the trusted friend category when they include two key elements -- neither of which are enthusiastic approval. What people find most persuasive are direct experience... and anger.

Companies promoting their products can have a tough time persuading buyers to believe them, especially when online resources like Amazon and Yelp put customer comments on the same page as the product information. So how consumers respond to those comments has become at least as important as their receptivity to the company's own messages.

The power of the lowly rant
While some evidence suggests that correct spelling and grammar add credibility to a positive comment, Mizzou's Hyunmin Lee and Bo Kyung Kim used the responses to a car safety recall to focus on what makes a negative comment more believable. They found that "victims have higher credible perceptions" among consumers, and so their comments are given more weight. They may be anonymous, but people generally assume they're honest.

The Internet has created more efficient system to deliver advertising to customers, but it has also made possible the most devastating mechanism for feedback that can undermine even the mightiest brand. You don't have to be mega-blog star Dooce , whose takedown of Whirlpool via blog and Twitter is now a legend or movie director Kevin Smith, who live-tweeted his humiliating removal from a Southwest flight for being overweight, or even columnist Dan Savage, whose fans so enthusiastically supported his effort to name a byproduct of gay sex after former Sen. Rick Santorum that it's currently the first result returned by a Google search of the politician's name.

An angry complaint from a non-famous or even anonymous blog post or tweet can be just as damaging. There has been a lot of anecdotal evidence about the power of online complaints, fueled by poor judgment by companies who waited too long to respond. Artists complaining that Urban Outfitters was ripping off their designs made no progress until it hit Twitter.

Kim told me:
Our research is not about why and how social media changed the way people form their opinions, but whether and how those angry online comments, what we call 'angry social media content,' affect readers' perceptions of a crisis and an organization.
Mere exposure to such angry comments on social media made people more likely to have a negative perception, more likely to have negative feelings toward a company, and more likely to demonstrate their disatisfaction by joining boycotts. Platform (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) didn't matter; what made a difference was that the comment by its own terms was based on personal experience.

Kim pointed out that in some cases these comments came up doing Google searches about the recall. The very fact of their placement alongside news reports and company statements is a likely factor in their credibility, along with the perceived independence and objectivity of an individual without any apparent ties to the company or its competitors.

Since advertising began, one of its most powerful selling techniques has been the faux confidante. It's designed to make you feel that it isn't the big, rich, powerful corporation telling you that its product will make your clothes smell fresher or your car run better; it's a trusted friend. These days, that trusted friend may be an angry tweet.

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  • Nell Minow

    Nell Minow, a member of the board of GovernanceMetrics International and founder of The Corporate Library, writes about corporate governance issues, focusing especially on CEO pay, executive compensation, shareholder rights and best business practices.You can follow her on Twitter at @nminow.

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