Seth Godin: A Case Study in Handling Online Critcism the Right Way

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Brands in Public

Although there are a countless number of people who call themselves experts, that doesn’t always mean that they can step up to the plate when the heat gets pointed at them. An example of this was the Loren Feldman and Shel Israel saga that began last year. For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, here’s a quick recap from Mathew Ingram:

For anyone who has an actual life and hasn’t been paying attention to the brouhaha between Shel and Loren, it started when Shel began doing video interviews for Loren — who makes corporate videos and also does his own blend of free-form comedy and commentary videos at — began criticizing the quality of Shel’s videos mercilessly on Twitter and on his blog, and also started posting parodies of Shel’s videos using Muppet-style hand puppets.

This saga continued to grow (including Loren registering and posting his puppet videos there), and you can get the full analysis of what happened from this post: “How a videoblogger from NYC outsmarted a so-called “Social Media Expert”

While this is a great example of an expert who doesn’t deserve that title, it doesn’t mean that all experts flop when the pressure is put directly on them. As most readers of this blog probably know, Seth Godin is a well-known marketing expert who has written over ten books, in addition to launching Squidoo.

On Wednesday, Seth announced on his blog that he was launching Brands in Public. As he explained in his post:

Over the last few months, we’ve seen big brands (like Amazon and Maytag) get caught in a twitterstorm. An idea (one that’s negative to the brand) starts and spreads, and absent a response, it just spirals. Of course, Amazon can’t respond on their home page (they’re busy running a store) and they don’t have an active corporate blog that I could find, so where? How?

Enter Brands In Public.

Squidoo has built several hundred pages, each one about a major brand. More are on the way. We’ll keep going until we have thousands of important brands, each on its own page (and we’ll happily add one for you if you like). Each page collects tweets, blog posts, news stories, images, videos and comments about a brand. All of these feeds are algorithmic… the good and the bad show up, all collated and easy to find.

Of course, these comments and conversations are already going on, all over the web. What we’ve done is bring them together in one place. And then we’ve made it easy for the brand to chime in.

Okay, so on the surface, this sounds like a pretty good idea. However, it’s the next paragraph that ruffled a lot of feathers:

If your brand wants to be in charge of developing this page, it will cost you $400 a month. And once [we build] the page, the left hand column belongs to you. You can post responses, highlight blog posts, run contests or quizzes. You can publicly have your say right next to the constant stream of information about your brand (information that’s currently all over the web–and information you can’t “take down” or censor). You can respond, lead and organize. If a crisis hits, your page will be there, ready for you to speak up. If your fans are delighted, your page makes it easy for them to chime in and speak up on sites around the web.”

As you can see from the Techmeme screenshot below, it didn’t take long for the criticisms to start flying:


At this point, Seth could have overreacted and gone on the complete defensive, or he could have tried to hide from the public spotlight. However, he instead jumped in and made himself part of the discussions in an intelligent way. For example, take a look at the comment he left on Outspoken Media’s “Seth Godin Tries Out Brandjacking“:

Seth Godin Comment

If you look through the other posts that were made about Brands in Public, you will most likely see Seth joining in on those discussions as well.

While he handled the criticism in a very appropriate way, it didn’t take long to realize that in spite of this, the criticism wasn’t going to die down. As a result, Seth took what was said into consideration, and then made a new post this morning, titled “Adjusting as we go“. In it, he made this announcement:

The goal of the program is to invite brands into the conversation that’s already going on around the web, to make it easy for them to do it on their terms. I talked with a brand manager yesterday who explained that this is exactly what he’s been trying to do for his company, but the corporate website systems make that difficult for him. We want to open the door and to permit large brands a way to get started without having to roll their own solution.

One way we tried to encourage that was to build 200 sample pages, pages brands could adopt. Alas, some people felt that this was inappropriate, so we’ve recalibrated and we’ll take those pages down before the end of the day.

When a brand wants a page, we’ll build it, they’ll run it and we’ll both have achieved our goals.

Part of the magic of the web is that you can adjust as you go, particularly if you’re willing to listen.

As a result, most of the original posts have now added an update and told Seth that they felt this was a good decision.

So, what can you learn from Seth and how he handled this situation? Unlike Shel (who ultimately made the situation much worse for himself because he immediately went on the defensive), Seth listened to what was being said, calmly joined in on the discussion, and ultimately made a change to his plan as a result of the overwhelming amount of discussion to do so.

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