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How should you handle complaints on Twitter? Humor might be the way

research finds it's OK for companies to use humor against complaints

For as long as there have been customers, there have been complaints. In the digital age, Twitter has emerged as a key customer service (and complaint) channel.

Handling complaints on this platform can be nerve-wracking; you need to make some sort of reply, but what’s the right method? When the complainer is being particularly aggressive, you may end up adding fuel to the fire (rather than helping) and creating a larger negative space for your brand.

Fortunately, recent research has come out from the Journal of Interactive Marketing that might give you some direction.


The study looked at how humor can be used on social media to combat online complainers, and found that when a complainer was uncivil to the brand they were complaining to, using humorous replies improved purchase intent and amusement among observers on social media more than when the complaint was civil.

Why we find it interesting

Our take on this research is that, while humor isn’t the best choice in all cases, it can be particularly useful when dealing with someone who is being aggressive or nasty.

Social media observers (those on social media who are seeing the discussion go down, who may be the most important people in situation in terms of your brand) tend to be more sympathetic to brands who use humor against someone who is not being nice.

In addition, humor is a great way to de-escalate an intense exchange, while hopefully proving a point. It’s important to note that the research didn’t use aggressive humor (i.e., the complainer is the victim of the joke), but rather affiliative humor (i.e., the complainer laughs with the joke). You should proceed with caution when conducting burns on social media. While you might get short-term buzz or virality, a fiery clap-back may end up doing more long term damage. More retweets don’t necessarily result more sales.

What’s more, if the complainer isn’t being uncivil – just a simple question or concern – you’re likely best off just being helpful and courteous, rather than amusing. I know when I personally have an issue with a company, I find humor can be disrespectful to my problem, as well as to my time.

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