Responding to Online Criticism

2009-05-19 20:00:00 -0400

There I was minding my own business and waiting for a sandwich in the deli last week, when a headline in the NY Times poked me right between the eyes: Snark Attack, by Teri Karush Rogers. As it turns out, renters and prospective buyers in NYC are increasingly turning to online forums and blogs to share their opinions about real estate listings. They investigate, they gossip, they ask questions, speculate on pricing, and they often mock the scams and bad deals. Like all things that involve online commentary, it can get quite ugly (or entertaining, depending on your perspective):

For their part, sellers and their brokers are seething over what they perceive as a lack of accountability, hidden or misanthropic motives, and the fact that defending one’s property — even correcting a factual error — can prolong or aggravate its turn under the collective microscope. Sellers also object to being typecast as Marie Antoinette in the French Revolution-style discourse.

My, how we protest when the shoe is on the other foot. It’s really difficult to find a place to live in NYC that isn’t a complete dump without living beyond your means. Many most of the people you’ll deal with will do their best to rope you into paying a lot of money for a dismal home. It’s a hard slog and only two things are certain: there will be roommates, and it will still be expensive.

It’s no surprise that in a contracting economy people are talking more, and that sellers and landlords (and their often-inflated prices) are the butt of the discussion. Why wouldn’t buyers and renters turn to the greatest communication tool we have to enable the sharing of expertise, bloviation, and derision? It’s also no surprise that there appear to have been no seething sellers or brokers who were willing to be quoted for the article, but I sure was hoping so. It has the trashy appeal of reality television.

Obviously, value is a matter of perception; that’s why brokers always try to get you to believe they will rent the apartment later that day to somebody else if you don’t hand them a deposit immediately. The process is weighted heavily against you and relies on the fact that most people don’t know any better. People having easy access to each other and relevant information about a property changes that dynamic dramatically. Despite my faux-proletarian schadenfreude for the landlords of New York, I have some sympathy; it must be really frustrating to have some stranger come into your house and then go online afterwards and rip the place apart.

The underlying question here is when to respond to online criticism, and whether or not it is helpful. If you are selling something, it’s a pretty important question, and whether it’s helpful is determined by your attitude towards the whole thing. People are going to make online commentary, and people are going to read a lot of commentary to help them determine how to best spend their earnings. If you the vendor are going to sit this out entirely, you are doing yourself a disservice.

We find ourselves in this position once in a while. People write about our products, they make comments on our blog posts, they share their thoughts with entire social networks instantly, and they are not always laudatory. Which is fine! They’re not always accurate, either. It’s been our experience that you’re always better off keeping cool and correcting the record to the best of your ability. Reasonable people can follow along and make their own judgements. If you’re still angry, you’re not ready to respond! There’s no need to try and change somebody’s mind about what you’re selling, but you definitely don’t want any false claims to go entirely unchecked by reality.

The article makes a point of mentioning that many firms forbid or discourage their agents from participating in online threads, seeing a real potential for disaster that I wouldn’t want to under-play. At the same time, in the world of selling things online, it’s not in your best interest to sit things out, just proceed carefully.

Alison Rogers, an agent with DG Neary Realty … noted that anger, defensiveness and denial will almost certainly set off a feeding frenzy, as will a post that seems to be written by the owner or broker without the appropriate disclosure. She favors correcting factual errors and countering negative opinions — but only to a point. “You don’t want to draw conclusions for people.”

In the emerging economy, it’s people who get this who will do a lot better than the folks who just get mad. You can’t really take your ball and go home, anymore.

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