When Going Viral Goes Wrong

I started college at the turn of the century, which, in the lifespan of technology, is akin to the Mesozoic Era. Back in those days, widespread use of the Internet was just picking up. Most people still used AOL, video sharing was only through America’s Funniest Home Videos and the word “viral” didn’t exist outside of the doctor’s office. It was a time when the only emails you received were the dreaded forwarded chain messages from relatives.

In today’s world, “going viral” has become accepted nomenclature for videos, images, or stories that are popular or trending at the moment. Hashtags and memes are built around them as if they’re offerings to the Greek deities. Thanks in large part to the ubiquity of YouTube, and social sites like Twitter, Vine and Reddit, anyone can find their 15 minutes now.

Going viral isn’t just for individuals; businesses often get in on the act, hoping to capitalize on a bit of free press with a marketing campaign or a positive story. But what happens when you go viral for the wrong reasons? Union Street Guest House in Hudson, New York, found out this week.

A quick overview of the story that made the news:Union Street Guest House Review Policy

Union Street Guest House, a hotel/B&B, has a listed policy that if a guest of a wedding party held at USGH posted a negative review online, the bride would have $500 deducted from their deposit until the comment was deleted. In this policy, USGH acknowledges that their building is old, er, historic, and that not all guests may appreciate the charm.

What happened next probably won’t come as a surprise – users of the online review site Yelp left negative comments. A lot of them. And many of them came from people who had never stayed at the hotel, but had heard the story and were commenting on the bad business practice. In addition to their Yelp reviews, Union Street Guest House’s Facebook page was bombarded with negative comments, prompting the owner to post a message. He acknowledged the gaffe, suggesting the policy was originally intended as a “joke” and never meant to be enforced.

Unfortunately for USGH, they found out the brutally hard way just how much power the Internet (I say it like it’s a living thing) has. The backlash from this story will have severe repercussions, and no doubt could impact their ability to stay in business.

Customer feedback – good or bad – is a part of business. A business that ignores criticism and doesn’t serve their customers well can’t expect to be around long. The good news (for the rest of us, at least) is that we can learn from the mistakes of Union Street Guest House, whose first order of business should have been to hire a PR firm:

  • Monitor your business profiles on review sites, as well as your mentions on social media.
  • Establish a follow-up protocol. It’s easy to respond to or retweet positive comments, but how will you deal with negative feedback?
  • Respond quickly.
  • Apologize.
  • Remember that anything you post on the Internet can exist forever, so think before you post.

A couple of months ago, a US Airways employee accidentally tweeted (from the verified US Airways account) a [blushing] very graphic photo that, naturally, went viral and led to some negative backlash. US Airways obviously deleted the photo, but not before the Internet had a chance to screengrab and pass it around. After a company-issued apology, they later announced they would not fire the employee responsible for the tweet, citing that mistakes happen. US Airways owned the issue, came out looking good for not firing the employee, and very few remember the incident.

In the case of Union Street Guest House, the story will blow over pretty quick, but the damage has been done. Changing public perception is no easy undertaking, and if you filter out the fake reviews from the real ones, it would appear as though they had plenty of negative feedback even before this story came out.

There is a marketing adage, derived from a consumer research study, that suggests a customer who has a bad experience with a product or service will tell 10 people about it. Today that same bad experience could reach millions of people in a matter of minutes. Word-of-mouth marketing works both ways, and the Union Street Guest House was just on the receiving end of a marketing nightmare.

This post was originally featured on G.1440. To find out how to get more leads from online marketing, contact us at marketing@g1440.com.

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