Pissed-off people shouldn’t drive your marketing

There’s an awful lot of anger in today’s world. From the presidential campaign, to professional sports coverage, to long lines at the neighborhood java joint, people are quicker than ever to raise their voices and snap at people. They often aim that anger at companies — maybe even yours.

You’ll see evidence of it everywhere, but especially online. Whether it’s the comments section on a TV station’s site, a friend’s Facebook feed, or online review of projects, many people don’t become angry slowly. They leap to fury and vicious sarcasm almost instantly.

All that anger is affecting how some companies market. Company leaders are terrified of being the target of that anger, so they do everything possible to avoid triggering it. Two decades ago, I rarely heard decision-makers say things like “let’s be sure this doesn’t offend anyone,” but now I hear those phrases frequently.

It’s usually a good idea to be nice, and trying not to deliberately offend someone else can be laudable. But when that attitude is taken to extremes — when it almost approaches a level of paranoia — it can be crippling.  When companies’ fear of triggering anger overshadows their confidence in the quality and superiority of the products and services they offer, they can commit a lot of self-harm.

I know that nobody likes to receive angry phone calls or vicious reviews. It’s unpleasant and can even be frightening. But experience teaches me that no matter what you do, and no matter how hard you try to avoid it, someone is going to be unhappy with you. Someone will find a reason to take offense at the way you’ve worded an ad. Someone won’t like the way you’ve described your product.  Someone is going to object to some aspect of your strategy. It’s just the way it is.

I dislike conflict as much as the next guy, but I’ve learned to expect that I’m going to manage to tick someone off for some reason I can’t even envision. But that realization doesn’t stop me from doing what I know to be right. It just helps me put it into perspective. It comes from a lesson I learned after running an annual volunteer event for several years.

The event was huge, involving several hundred people and a complex schedule. It took weeks of preparation, and plenty of juggling and improvisation. Afterwards, we’d send a feedback form to the participants.  We’d receive stacks of responses raving about how much fun families had and thanking the organizers for creating such great memories.

And we’d receive two or three surveys that punched us in our collective gut, angrily criticizing us for anything and everything. We’d obsess over the disapproval and resolve to do better next year … when there would be another massive stack of praise and two or three pieces of hate mail. I may be slow on the uptake, but I came to realize that we really were doing an extraordinary job, evidenced by all the complimentary remarks. The angry comments represented a very tiny subset of participants. From then on, I glanced at the complaints and simply ignored the ones that lacked validity.

Still, I watch company leaders make the same mistake I made for so long. They’ll launch a new marketing campaign, get the inevitable angry complaint from someone who’s not quite rational, and make a panicky request that the campaign be pulled. It goes back to that flawed belief that “the customer is always right.” I used to believe that, but now I’ve accepted the fact that sometimes, the customer is simply insane.

My advice is simple: don’t magnify the importance of a handful of complaints from angry people. Don’t overreact when someone makes a cutting remark or rebukes you for offending them in ways no sane person could ever have imagined. If your marketing campaign is being seen by 100,000 people, and two of them take you to task, assume that the other 999,998 are perfectly happy with it. Thank the complainers for their time and thoughts, and simply ignore them.

Instead of letting anger drive your marketing, your product development, your sales, your communications, or any other part of your business, make confidence the centerpiece. Know what your company is, what makes you the best at what you do, why people should buy from you instead of your competitors, and start there. Give yourself the credit and the confidence you deserve, and don’t let a tiny group of naysayers tell you otherwise.