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The Role of Criticism in Customer Communities

Posted by Patrick Groome on Dec 3, 2015 10:09:03 AM

4 minute read


The Role of Criticism in Customer CommunitiesCriticism is always an interesting issue. It can be tremendously useful for improving any kind of endeavour, from art to business to athletics. Without people willing to tell us what’s wrong with our work, we can never improve it. Few are possessed of the necessary self awareness to effectively criticise  their own work, we all need an external viewpoint. Constructive criticism is often touted  as one of the advantages of a customer community, and a full, frank and actionable opinion on the positives and negatives of your products can be a big help in product development.

Then there’s the other type of criticism. The kind that’s brutal, unhelpful and often insulting. Even harsh criticism can be useful, but a lot of criticism simply boils down to “Why isn’t this thing like the things I like?” or “Why isn’t this product designed for me, and only me?”. Make no mistake, this happens to everyone. The more well known your products become, the more likely you are to encounter a customer who simply doesn’t get what they want out of the product. That might be because their expectations were set at an unrealistic level, or it might simply be that they’re a jerk. Sometimes they might have a point that you could learn from, but it’s so buried in invective that it’s difficult to get anything useful from it.

How Do You Deal With Harsh Criticism?

One of the most common questions I hear from people setting up communities is “What do I do about the critics?”. It’s a worry that’s at the front of any business’s mind; that a prospective customer will visit their community and encounter a screaming banshee proclaiming their products to be perverse manifestations of purest evil. The follow up to the question is always “Can I just delete them?”. Or even “Should there be rules against negative criticism in the community?"

It’s a bad road to go down. Deleting content unnecessarily is one of the community management practices that I’d most strongly caution against. No one wants to take part in a community where their contributions can be deleted at any time. Conversations with deleted posts are confusing or even unreadable, and the pruning shears always end up taking away legitimate content along with the insults.

It also reduces trust in your business. Instead of positive comments being taken at face value, they’ll be seen as the only content you allowed to stay. Maybe you only deleted one or two comments, but as far as a casual reader knows, you’ve been shutting down pages and pages of criticism. The posts that they can’t see due to deletion could have said anything. No matter how rude the person actually was, in the mind of an observer they could have been completely reasonable. Perhaps even correct. What do you have to hide? Something, apparently. [bctt tweet="If you have a rule against negative criticism, no amount of positive praise will be believed."]

Make Your Motivation Clear

Try taking your community’s view on this. Rather than considering how this nasty criticism affects your bottom line, consider how it affects the community. These vocal critics are just like any other kind of toxic user. They drag down the quality of conversation and disrupt other members from contributing. Rather than having rules against negative criticism, have rules about being rude and toxic.

A moderator on one of my forums put it very well recently, to the point where I felt like I had no choice but to shamelessly steal from him:  If you’re coming into a conversation simply to tell people who enjoy something that they’re wrong, you’re being a jerk. It’s like walking into a club where everyone is dancing just to say “Attention everyone, the fun you are having is wrong because this song you like is terrible. Stop having fun and reflect on why you are wrong." That person is ruining the party. It’s not about the person that wrote the song, or the party organiser, it’s about the guests. No one objects to a bouncer who removes people like that from a club.

That should be your focus: keeping the community pleasant for your guests. People who are constantly being rude and disruptive with negative criticism aren’t just tarnishing your products (and your other members won’t care about that), they’re making the community a more negative and unpleasant place. It’s ok to tell them to stop, and to step in when this happens. You don’t need to delete the comments outside of extreme scenarios, you can leave them there as evidence of how unreasonable the person was being. Your community doesn’t have to believe that everything you do is perfect, they know it can’t be. They just need to know  that you have their best interests at heart, that you’re not going to censor or punish them for having the wrong opinion. That requires trust, and if you don’t trust them, why would they trust you?

Topics: Community, Support, News

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