Tom Chapman
Tom Chapman 18 July 2018
Categories Innovation & Trends

‘Complainer marketing’ – should we harness rage to promote brands?

As marketers, we're always looking to get the best results for our clients. But should we highjack the emotions of their customers to do so? No, as I explain in this post, you're better than that.

For marketers, social media is still a relatively recent development. With the growth of these networks, we are still identifying the best ways to interact with customers. As with many platforms, there are differing opinions.

One recent strategy involves hijacking the emotions of customers to push your own brand. By doing so, adopters of this technique aim to convince customers to either switch or share their updates. Dubbed ‘complainer marketing’ it has positives and negatives.

What is complainer marketing?

Social media has changed how humans, as a society, interact with each other. Unfortunately, individuals commonly use platforms such as Twitter to vent about anything. Whether politics or day-to-day gripes, some people’s feeds are just accounts of rage.

According to a study conducted by the Institute of Customer Service, across a three-month period, 25% of social media users used these platforms to complain at least once. Yet, I would argue this figure is a gross understatement.

Furthermore, research published by the Pew Research Center discovered that complaints on social media increased the stress levels of others because it made them aware of problems. Therefore, this could cause the number of complaints to increase. As a result, once the cause of rage becomes viral, it becomes very difficult to stop and usually just has to burn itself out.

Complainer marketing is the idea of using this rage. For example, you could identify a problem with a competitor, make the issue known on social media, let users chip in with their gripes, and then allow the situation to develop.

Alternatively, by creating attention-grabbing content, brands aim to draw attention to themselves. Taking the old-adage of ‘there’s no such thing as bad PR’, they intend to strike the nerves of customers and encourage debate. 

Will Facebook empower complainer marketing?

Social Media Today recently ran an article discussing Facebook’s advertiser insights. Aimed at bringing transparency to adverts and pages on the platform, this is intended to create increased accountability for advertisers and marketers.

For example, using advertiser insights, a user will be able to see:

  • All active adverts an advertiser is running across Facebook, Messenger etc. As a result, customers can help understand how and why they are being targeted.
  • Page information about the advert. For example, if the name of the piece has been changed and date it was created.

Although this is beneficial for users, it creates great opportunities for competitors. Brands can identify what adverts work best and how. In turn, these strategies can be replicated or improved to create better results.

Yet, similar to how customers responded to the Cambridge Analytica scandal, it seems unlikely that individuals will be receptive to how their data is being used to sell products. More understanding could lead to more outrage. Savvy brands could take advantage of this to stoke the flames of complaining customers and encourage them to switch.

One example of how this could develop would be the Twitter argument between telecommunications companies T-Mobile and Sprint. The CEOs of these firms –  John Legere and Marcelo Claure, respectively – took to Twitter arguing over company policies:



I blame Trump

Regardless of how you feel about the man, there is no question that Donald Trump is a force to be reckoned with on social media. Although my feed is a lot more joyful since I blocked the president, it’s clear that many are attempting to replicate his style.

Search for ‘what marketers can learn from Trump’ on Google and you’ll get about 98,000,000 results, with article upon article examining his tweets.

Writing in their article ‘What Trump understands about using social media to drive attention’, Barbara Bickart, Susan Fournier, and Martin Nisenholtz stated: “Leaders should consider how they could make their messages provocative in order to draw attention and encourage discussion far beyond the social media platforms on which the message was originally posted.”

This strategy has its merits and, if the millions of Google results are any indicator, complainer marketing is here to stay. However, I would argue it is not sustainable.

What’s the problem?

Brands frequently want to take their competition down a notch but stirring resentment among customers feels cheap. When users learnt about their Facebook data files, marketers scrambled to put the genie back in the bottle. We should have learnt and grown from this experience – listening to them instead.

If a customer is complaining about a company’s service, we should review this to better understand their needs – not use the incident to belittle the competition. Furthermore, while it is easy to stir emotions on social media, a consumer motivated by anger is not loyal. They are reactionary and difficult to predict.

No right-thinking company wants a customer base full of people with easily manipulated loyalties. Those drawn to your ‘shows’ on social media are only there until the next event occurs. Converting them into brand advocates is a huge challenge.

Instead, make your product/service the best it can possibly be and customers will almost certainly rant about it…but in a good way.

Donald Trump might have changed how social media works but don’t go looking for lessons from him. As marketers, we are better than that. You are better than that.

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