My guilty pleasure is Reddit, the massive online bulletin board and self-proclaimed “front page of the Internet.” On Reddit there’s a board for everything (Bernie supporters, former Bernie supporters, fast food fails, and so on), but the real gold is in the comments: the unvarnished, usually hilarious, often obscene, rude and shocking banter among anonymous commenters.
Anonymous forums like Reddit function as a kind of pressure release valve for society. That release can be incredibly destructive. But it can also be constructive, and unleash creativity. Anti-bullying campaigners, for example, have recently harnessed anonymity to empower witnesses to bullying to come forward through the anonymous social app Whisper.
I see a lesson here for enterprises. Anonymous feedback from angry customers can create a lopsided, incomplete picture of what customers are thinking. But anonymous customer feedback can have tremendous value when put in the right context.
The challenge for companies is to find the gold amid the obscenity. There’s truth in anonymity. According to a study from the online review community Trustpilot, 62% of adults in the U.S. prefer to make complaints online rather than on the phone or in person, and an even larger share—68% —of Americans like to avoid personal confrontation when issuing complaints. The survey also found that the biggest reason Americans complain about companies (80%) is to give feedback that helps companies improve.
The Trustpilot survey confirms that, while people are enthusiastic about offering feedback and sincerely want to help companies improve their products and processes, they aren’t so enthusiastic about being confrontational. Feedback, as a result, tends to take different forms depending on how intimate the interaction is between brand and customer.
I tend to agree: if I’m in a store standing in front of a clerk, demanding a refund for a lousy product, I’m likely to be stern but polite. I don’t want to be a total jerk. Only a step removed from a person-to-person interaction and things start to change.
Recently, I had a terrible experience with a large airline. After calling to complain and sending an email, I went online as an anonymous customer and went wild. The rant made me feel better but, more importantly, in the process I also spelled out all the things the airline does that drive me crazy. This is the kind of totally honest feedback that business leaders should crave.
Anonymous anger can reveal what truly moves customers at an emotional level, even if they might not be able to articulate it directly themselves. A good brand will want to know how angry we are and make an effort to understand why.
The JC Penney fiasco—in which the company did away with the old model of sales and coupons—is a classic example of a brand failing to listen to its customers. Then-CEO Ron Johnson famously declined to gather market research on how customers would respond. As soon as the changes were made, customers took it upon themselves to voice their anger publicly.
In the comments under the commercial announcing the new JC Penney policy, YouTube user 1katiebella said, "Hate the commercial! Annoying! No more sales and coupons means no more J.C. Penney shopping for me!” The complaint isn’t exactly eloquent, but there’s value there nonetheless. It says volumes that, a little over a year later, the company released an apologetic TV ad about how JC Penney “learned a very simple thing: to listen to you.”
Real people, of course, are not monolithic, and different people communicate differently through different channels. The Trustpilot survey revealed that more young people are comfortable complaining via online reviews (78%) than the American population overall (50%). The survey also found that men are much more comfortable complaining in person (64%) than women (45%), leading to different kinds of feedback in each instance. Each channel across the feedback spectrum has value, from anonymous to personal.
There’s gold on all sides and smart brands should lean into those differences, embracing feedback of all kinds, finding ways to make use of them all.