/Katie Boyts

Responding to a Hostile Audience

Engagement isn’t a given. While some marketers are blessed with a receptive audience of cheerleaders for their branded content, others are not so lucky. From advocate to antagonist, the reality is that our audiences exist on a spectrum of sentiment. 

But what if your audience seems to be stuck in the awful territory of “negative brand sentiment”?

Fortunately, most audience sentiment is not at all static. It has the potential to evolve, and any shift will largely be in response to how and what you communicate, or what you’re doing or not doing.

Public speaking experts often break this audience sentiment into four types: Friendly > Apathetic > Uninformed > Hostile

While ‘friendly’ is the summit of the content engagement triangle, for some brands even apathy would be a positive step as their communications face a hostile reception.

Maybe that’s because they, as a brand, legitimately messed up. Perhaps they have horrible customer service or have lied to shareholders, or misused user data. Maybe they're in that unfortunate group of brands who are just misunderstood and can’t seem to get a handle on changing the conversation. And for some brands, every message just seems to naturally invite polarisation. 

Either way, how do we engage when our content meets a crowd of dreaded angry emojis.

To heckle back?

There is certainly precedence for brands to take a page from the comedian’s handbook on hostile hecklers. Simply put, shout back with more snark, more wit, and/or more information than the heckler. Aka hostile consumer.

To be clear, heckling back will definitely communicate you don’t give a crap about that individual as a consumer. It assumes the action won’t negatively impact the rest of your audience engagement and actually may make them love you even more.

Yet, there are scenarios where it may work:

When heckling back communicates a commitment to your values and purpose.

As in the Patagonia example:

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 Or when your brand’s voice and personality is intentionally sarcastic and witty so a zinger reply here and there would be “on brand”.

As in the Wendy’s example:

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But let’s be honest, it takes a remarkably resilient brand to get away with heckling. Most aren’t in the position to do so without a fierce backlash, as well as bottomline consequences to the business. 


As a reminder of the obvious - We're all just humans clumsily trying to communicate with each other through the dehumanising computer screen. So it’s tempting to write off pissed comments and harsh critiques as just another asshole on the internet, but perhaps thoughtfully considering their perspective may actually be necessary.

Dig deeper into the lives of your audience (and I don’t mean buying data from Zuckerberg). Ask questions. Engage your audience in actual and constructive conversation.

What is the root of their frustrations? Are they grounded in a legit mistake that needs attention? Or do they just not feel heard? Is their hostility a bigger message about your brand’s failure at keeping up with them and addressing the challenges they face?

Sometimes you need to correct a mistake (even if it is just their perception) and the business relies on them. In which case, it may be time to swallow your pride and create content that owns up to that. See “the Age of the Apology Video”.

Don't be afraid to explicitly let customers know that you're listening as even small steps pave the way for a brighter future.

For example, it was interesting to see Commbank release their first ads since the royal banking commission, which although were absent of any explicit apology, were clear about their commitment to “making changes” to be “better for you”. 

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Support the conversation you want to have

Sometimes you need to focus on those in the middle of the sentiment spectrum, and use your hostile reactions as an asset. For instance, it might be that your content, whether it’s intentional or not, is highly charged or polarising. In which case, the hostility is fully expected, perhaps even welcomed.

Take Nike’s Dream Crazy campaign from 2018. Nike certainly would have expected a negative and loud response from a segment of their audience, some of whom started literally burning their shoes. It was a calculated risk. But with the risk of losing a certain segment, came the benefit of gaining favour from another - the apathetic segment, a segment who perked up in response to the campaign and moved toward more brand loyalty.


The recent Respect Women: Call It Out TV spot produced by us folks at Commoner received a similar reception. The concept was created to spark conversation about how men can respond to sexual harassment - a conversation that has historically been highly charged and often hostile.


So it’s no surprise that the Youtube comment section is rife with angry, defensive men. On another platform, Twitter - the sheer number of comments and shares reflected a broader spectrum of debate, which we’d argue is healthy for raising the issue into social consciousness. The hostility is unfortunate, but rather than lament the loss of a purely positive reception, that hostility can actually serve to amplify the conversation as it sparks meaningful (and not so meaningful) debate online. See Gabrielle William’s editorial on Why Our Sexual Harassment Ad is Right and Mark Latham is Wrong.

Stop talking about yourself.

This should already be largely true for your content, but it’s wisdom worth returning to as an especially salient point here. Brands that have hostile audiences are even more tempted to grab the mic and talk about themselves, perhaps in self defense, perhaps with the misguided belief that information and explanations are the way to change hearts.

We’ve all dealt with that ex who thinks if s/he just explains enough, the misdeed will suddenly make sense and become forgivable. Or the customer service rep whose tactics to appease revolve around explaining policy and process again and again.

People don’t want proof points about the number of times you didn’t piss them off.

The posters on the Metro platforms come to mind. They read: “91.8% punctuality!”, a piece of information that appeals to the commuter's logic and is presented to argue their own side of the debate about public transit efficiency.

And yet, no commuter (I’ve ever heard of) who is dealing with a late train is appeased by this data point. Perhaps because it doesn’t express any empathy about that 8.2% - about the exhaustion or stress or missed meetings and dinners and ball games.

Tell (Great) Stories.

As an alternative to explanations and proof points, do the hard work of turning the mic over and telling stories. Stories that communicate you understand the problems your audience is facing, what’s important to them, and what role you want to play in helping.

In a recent example, last year the American company Yeti, known for its high quality coolers (I believe you Aussies call them “eskies”), and whose audience is made up of those who love the outdoors, had their own run-in with hostility.

After announcing an end to a discount program for the National Rifle Association (NRA), a choice that united them with many brands boycotting the NRA after the Parkland shooting, Yeti faced a fierce backlash from NRA supporters. And by fierce backlash I mean dudes out in fields literally blowing up their coolers. So I can only imagine the online circus.

But Yeti, whose brand foundation was built on an incredibly solid content strategy, particularly in video, certainly didn’t stop telling stories about their audience and the challenges they face in the wild. If anything, a quick glance at their Youtube channel indicates they doubled down on story as strategy. There’s the Hungry Life series, The YETI Presents series, and the Drifting podcast.


Stories (not about you) are a way for an audience to work through your brand in a more independent or unbiased space, where they are encouraged to connect with the brand through an intermediary- the character at the heart of the story.

Why make content for people that hate us so much?

I think the question is more complicated than a simple black and white diagram of lovers and haters. Our audience is a complex, dynamic set of individuals and so the spectrum of sentiment is complex and dynamic as well.

Responding to hostility effectively means understanding where it's coming from and why. Often, our detractors teach us as much about the value of our brand as those who blindly follow us. Taking this full spectrum into account provides firmer ground to craft stories that embrace the complexity and richness of the human condition.

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