Does thinking about how to respond to online comments make you anxious? Are you worried about saying the wrong thing and inciting a small rebellion online? Can you picture a horde of virtual townsfolk brandishing pitchforks and waiting with baited breath for your reply?

If that sounds like you you’re not alone. In this article I’ll cover a simple flowchart that will help you navigate these treacherous waters and turn a nail-biting episode into an easy day-to-day task.

Why you shouldn’t be too concerned about what people say

Let’s look at a couple of scenarios.

1. You have a website and you regularly post valuable content that your audience finds useful. You love the engagement that the comments bring, allowing people to interact with you and ask questions and to dig further into the topic. However occasionally you find someone who has some kind of axe to grind and decides to leave a belittling comment on your article. You’re worried that by replying to the comment you will either incite a more colourful response or worse, that others will chip in and take sides against you. You’re left wondering should you delete the comment, pretend it never happened and hope that people forget about it, or ask someone else in your business to contact them via direct email.

2. You’re on Facebook and you notice that someone has tagged your business in a comment. Upon closer inspection you realise that the original comment was a horrendous review by an upset customer and they have actually posted several comments online saying how poor they thought your service was. You’re left wondering why this person didn’t say anything when they paid their bill last week.

Both these scenarios could easily be real, and I’ve spoken to many business owners who have found themselves in positions similar to this feeling paralysed in how to respond. The fact that the response is digital somehow makes the situation feel bigger than it really is – often because business owners feel exposed and vulnerable online… the web is a really public space.

If I was you and I found myself in either of these situations to a greater or lesser extent I would ACT like I would in REAL LIFE.

This might sound overly simple, but it’s the honest truth. If you’re the kind of person who would pull someone aside and have a quiet word with them then do the same thing over email (or better yet ask them for their phone number). If you’re the kind of person who “calls a spade a spade” then address them then and there online. If you would normally let the issue die down on it’s own, then that’s fine too. Being natural is a huge part of this.

If however you’re really needing a decision making flowchart to give you the structure to respond consistently to commentors then check the image below.

Web Response Flowchart

In Dec 2009 the United States Airforce shared a decision making flowchart designed to help their public affairs community approach online posts and comments in a consistent way. It’s been used as a fantastic template since.

I have adapted the flowchart to suit the modern small business own, but the credit for the original document has to go back to the USAF.

Online Response Flowchart v1-2

What next?

The flowchart is probably fairly self-explanatory, so instead I wanted to focus on what to do now that you have it.

  1. Decide who in your business has the authority to respond to online comments. Maybe it is only 1-2 people (for the sake of consistency), or maybe you allow several people to respond to the easy comments and reserve the “more delicate ones” for yourself or another person.
  2. Print out the document, one for each of the people who can respond to comments. Stick it above the computer for use “in the heat of the moment”.
  3. Work out 1-2 sample responses for each of the 5 response types that can be used as a template for consistent replies. This process will help you maintain similar language, as well as deciding whether you will name the author of your reply.
  4. Decide on a review period (eg, 3months) when those people touch base and look at (a) the number of responses you were happy with (eg, it all ended at least amicably), (b) any learnings you had in the process, and (c) what changes need to be made in the next review period.

At the end of the day, responding to comments really shouldn’t be any harder online than in real life, but this flowchart will give you some structure and consistency in your responses over time.

Now it’s your turn. Have you responded to narky comments? If so, how did it go? What did you learn? And what an you share with us?

Leave your responses in the comments below (honestly!!).