Will Aldrich from TripIt wins this week’s Social Signal silver star in social media relations. (To those of you who would point out that this is the first week that the silver star has been awarded, let me say that such observations may be held against you by judges in future weeks.)

Will responded today to my Saturday night post about my experience with TripIt’s social invitation process, and his response is a model of how to handle online criticism. I’m going to break it down to highlight how others can respond, and to offer a few additional pointers on how to handle these kinds of situations.

First, let me acknowledge that the post I wrote was what I’d describe as a B-grade challenge in social media relations. On the one hand, it was a direct criticism of the company, in a blog with a readership that consists of people who are probably in TripIt’s target audience. On the other hand, it was a fairly polite critique, for a blog with a niche readership, and it tackled a detail of the TripIt experience rather than its core value or offering.

An A-grade challenge — a fire that must be put out, and quickly — would be a critique of your core offering on a blog with a large readership among your target audience.

Here’s how Will responded:

Thanks for all the detailed feedback. We appreciate the valuable perspective and constructive criticism you shared in your post.

First off, we want to apologize for any frustration caused by our invite process. As you can imagine, we keep a very close eye on this process for all of the reasons you outline above. We want to make it easy for people to make connections and share our service with others, in a useful and meaningful way.

The data we capture about the invite process shows that a large percentage of the people who go through the flow click on the “skip this step” link, which suggests that the link is more discoverable in practice than you found it to be, but we also think that you make a very good point.  We are planning to make the “skip this step” link more prominent in our next release, and we hope that this helps create a friendlier invite process.

Will Aldrich
VP of Product, TripIt

Will did this right — and you can too. Here’s how:

  1. Thank the blogger for her feedback. Don’t just say “thank you” — offer a little concrete acknowledgement of the input. That applies even if you’re super annoyed. And yes, you can use boilerplate text here, if it’s thoughtful; Will’s intro could be used in a variety of situations.
  2. Apologize, if you feel you can do that with integrity. You don’t need to say “we’re sorry we did X” — you can, as Will did, apologize for the impact it had, even if that impact is subjective (like my frustration).
  3. Clarify your intent. What were you trying to accomplish as a company, brand or campaign? Help the blogger see things from your perspective by telling them what led to the situation, experience or content they complained about. Will makes the point that they want to make it easy for people to make connections; that provides useful background on why they designed an invitation process.
  4. Be transparent and share your information. By telling me (and Social Signal readers) that TripIt’s own data show that lots of people do in fact click the “skip this step” link, Will makes a good case for TripIt’s invitation process being less egregious than the way it was presented in my blog post.
  5. Be on your guest behaviour. No matter how annoying the blogger is, you have to remember that when you’re leaving a comment, you’re playing on their playing field. The “be polite to your host” etiquette still prevails. Let the data speak for itself: Will didn’t need to explicitly point out that I seem to be more, um, interface challenged than other TripIt users.
  6. Convey concrete next steps. The more specific you can be about how this issue is being addressed — either as a result of the comment, or due to preexisting plans — the better. By stating that TripIt would be making the “skip this step” link more prominent, Will offered a very direct and likely fully satisfactory resolution of the issue in question. If you can’t do that, tell them the specific steps you’ll take to escalate the issue and ensure their feedback is considered — and how and when you’ll be conveying the result.
  7. The sig line matters. Believe me, I noticed that Will was the VP of Product, not “junior consultant, product nterface and customer relations”. Whoever is responding to social media comments in your organization, make sure their title conveys that they are either senior or directly responsible for the issue or product in question.
  8. Follow up with personal contact. In addition to his post on my site, Will e-mailed me directly to ensure I’d seen his response and felt satisfied that my concerns were addressed, and to offer any further info or support. This is a great way to win the appreciation of your critic and turn them into an ally.

Will did an exemplary job on all of the above. Here are a few more tips that will earn you not just the silver star, but the gold:

  1. Track your feeds. I tipped Will off to my blog post on the TripIt feedback form, so he didn’t need to find my blog post himself. But you shouldn’t rely on bloggers (or twitterers, or Facebookers) to do your media monitoring for you. Get up and running with a reliable social media monitoring system scaled to the volume of comments you receive, the workflow you need to coordinate a fast and effective response, and your budget.
  2. Respond promptly. Tracking your feeds should allow you to respond to posts within 24 hours. 48 hours (considering that I posted on a weekend) is quite respectable, so maybe we should give Will some gold veneer for his silver star.
  3. State your position. Remember: you aren’t just (or even primarily) speaking to the blogger or critic. You’re speaking to all their readers. So in addition to responding directly to criticism, it’s appropriate to include a brief summary of what your core offering is, so that other readers will have more context. It’s not the place for a pitch, but Will could have added a line like “We know that a key part of the TripIt experience is being able to find out when your friends and colleagues will intersect with you in your travels, so we try to support that by helping people connect with more of their contacts through TripIt.”
  4. Close with another thank you, and a request to try again. A final thank you is a nice touch, and is also a good opportunity to directly ask your customer to try your product or service again, or for your supporter to give you another chance. That prompt may be just what the blogger needs to give you another shot — or what encourages her readers to do so.

In closing:

Will, thank you so much for your comment. We really appeciate you taking the time to review our concerns, and to respond so clearly and effectively.

I’m sorry if my post reflected an atypical user experience; I was trying to convey my own experience using the site in a way that would speak to a larger issue around social network invitations. I will be blogging soon with some additional thoughts about the social invitation process, which I hope will provide some more context on this issue.

Now that I know that other people had more success finding the link, I’m going to do my part to be more attentive when using social invitation processes. Your careful response has not only made me eager to see how TripIt modifies the invitation process; it’s also made me keen to give TripIt a serious try, since there’s little that wins me over so quickly to a web service as a very responsive team!

Again, I really appreciate your considerate response. I hope you’ll visit Social Signal again for other useful insights on social media that may also be applicable to TripIt.

Alexandra Samuel
CEO, Social Signal