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It's going to happen. Someone's going to have a bad experience with your brand and head directly to social media to complain about it. Far too many brands either ignore the comment or, worse, delete it entirely.

At my digital marketing agency, we created and use the SWARM Methodology – a five-step approach to converting "enemy combatants" into brand advocates. Here's how it works.

S – Speak like a human

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Organizations have a bad habit of communicating with people as if they were, well, other organizations. They speak in grand tones of "we" and "us" – trying very hard to avoid admitting that an actual human being ("I" and "me") wrote the text. Words like "we" and "us" serve only to distance yourself from your correspondent and, in a crisis situation, this is the last thing you want to do.

Instead of "We are sorry to hear of this situation," use more human language like, "Yikes! I'm so sorry about that."

W – Win/Win

People complain on your social media channels because they want something to change – better quality service on their next visit, a cheaper rate, and so on. One way to help knock down an angry swarm is to give them something more than just a response. Give them a "win."

You don't need to overthink this. Wins can be simple – a promise to check back with them to see if something they were complaining about has improved.

My agency works with a number of shopping centres to help them manage their social media channels. One day, one of the centres' Facebook pages we moderate started to blow up. A visitor had posted a complaint about the in-mall kiosk vendors' somewhat aggressive sales tactics. Someone complained on the Facebook page and it went viral. Our approach to responding was threefold: (1) Acknowledge the comments (2) promise to look into it and (3) report back the next morning on what happened.

Do something more than listen. Take action, and tell them what the action you're taking is.

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A – Avoid a public battle

Perhaps the biggest mistake I see organizations make online is they engage in a conversation about an issue in the public channel – whether that's a blog, Facebook page, Twitter account, or somewhere else.

Once you identify an issue and reach out to the combatant (for lack of a better term), you should take the issue "offline."

There are lots of ways to do this, but the simplest is to ask the person to e-mail you the details. If the issue shows up on Twitter, ask them to follow your brand account so you can DM them your direct e-mail address, then continue the conversation there. If the issue shows up on Facebook, ask them to send you a private message to your brand page, then continue the conversation there. If the issue shows up on your blog, ask them to send you an e-mail, then continue the conversation there.

R – Right the wrongs

You may find that in the heat of the moment, people exaggerate the issue. Suddenly, a simple dispute over what they were charged becomes, in their mind, a criminal action where they were billed hundreds of thousands of dollars.

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It's important that you correct the record. Remember, Google has an elephant's memory. If she had posted this in a blog review, you need to have the accurate information attached to this post, so correcting the record right on that page as a comment is critical.

There is nothing wrong with politely correcting the record, and you should absolutely do it if they have claimed something that isn't true.

M – Make friends

The final, and perhaps most important, part of the SWARM Methodology is to turn your combatants into advocates.

After telling them what action you'll be taking, make a note to follow up with them personally in a few months to ask if the situation has changed. Or offer them a discount in a few months to try it again.

Let's say you're a restaurant and someone complained that you don't offer gluten-free options. Consider asking if you can e-mail them when you have a few ideas for menu choices to ask their opinion.

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This five-step SWARM Methodology is not foolproof, but when exercised consistently, politely and quickly, it can make a huge difference in the reputation of your brand and the success of your business.

Tod Maffin is president of engageQ digital, a Vancouver– and Toronto-based digital marketing agency, specializing in online advertising, digital marketing, and social engagement. His web site, todmaffin.com, has many more resources.

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