It’s hard to resist having a good moan on Twitter, especially when something or someone isn’t doing their job and we hope that our moaning, combined with our perceived influence, will get us special attention.

The trouble is that your complaining, whilst seemingly resolving your current short term frustration, might be causing you long term brand damage.

The reason why lies in understanding how people form impressions of you – both at a first glance, and also over time.

Horns and Halos

In First Impressions (aff link), Ann Demararis and Valerie White discuss the “horns and halos effect”, which is a phenomena related to when people first meet you. A first impression is a retained remembrance of a small sample, a tiny percentage of what a person is really like. However it’s the only sample that someone has and they use to to fill in the blanks and the rest of my life to created this remembrance.

Whilst I have 27 years of life, when I meet someone I might only be able to impart 2 minutes and 27 seconds of who I am – say 5% of who I am – and the psychological fact is that this short representation will be used by the person I am meeting to inform their opinion of the other 95% of my life.

If this 5% contains negative traits – such as being angry, distracted, moody, or a complainer – the person will add “horns” to you and consider those traits to be a small sample of a greater amount that is is present in your life and might take you for someone who is far moody than you are, simply because you, for example, had just heard some bad news. Likewise, if someone encounters positive traits such as appreciation, smiling, encouragement, then they will add “halos” to you and imagine you to be an all round nice person – possible even nicer than you actually are!

Complainers and their Horns

The problem with complainers online is that in just 140 characters they create an impression that they are a complaining person. Even the fact that I am calling them “complainers” now shows that they have put themselves in a category of people who predictably moan about a lot, even though they might have only complained once on Twitter or Facebook.

This is particularly important if you represent a brand. I have tried to hold the conviction myself that I will not be a complainer online because if I do, I am representing Like Minds and therefore make it to be a complaining organisation. I am also quick to ask people not to use the #likeminds hashtag to complain on (of course, if they want to, they will), but through my relationship with everyone I encourage them not to in order to keep our hashtag and thus our brand complainer-free.

Complaining also says “I’m not in control”, a brand value that none of us would want to have associated with us. I’ll be honest, when I see people complain, I normally make a decision to step back from them because complainers are not normally the type of people who solve problems, they are the ones who wallow in them.

The Two Times When Complaining is Human

It’s important to not overlook the fact that there is a side to complaining which is human. There are times when a complaint can benefit your brand. In fact, there are two approaches:

The first is when we are frustrated with a situation that it can endear us to our community because it revelas our wounds and shows we aren’t perfect.

What is essential here is that you must acknowledge the complaint in such a way that you safe proof yourself from being labelled as a complainer. So rather than saying, “OMG Vodafone Network down again. When will they learn #FAIL”, one should rather say “I hate to moan, but Vodafone’s network being done is really delaying me today.”

Someone who does this well is Chris Brogan. If you follow Chris on Facebook (not Twitter) you’ll sometimes see him vent off on a particular struggle, but done in a way that endears his community to him and presents him as a non-complainer who is frustrated at this moment in time and needs help.

The second time when complaining is beneficial for your brand is if you polarize people based on your position. Take my friend Olivier Blanchard who regularly calls people out. When he tweets or writes a blog post that complains about a situation, he does so in a polarising nature that means you love him or hate him, and this means those who follow him do so more vehemently.

The safety catch here is that you must offer solutions to what you are complaining about. Olivier is an incredibly intelligent person and his passion overflows in calling people out – but his intelligence always wins because he paints the picture of how things should be instead. This means he is being objective and offering solutions, this demonstrating his expertise. Be warned however this polarising people is tricky business and not always the best long term strategy.

Your Leading Thoughts

  • Are you a complainer? Have you ever considered that the digital impression you are leaving is giving your horns rather than halos?
  • Do you have a brand strategy on complaining and using it to your advantage?

Photo courtesy of B Rosen

Archived Comments

  • http://www.notfrombolton.co.uk Not From Bolton

    An excellent post and a well considered point but I find it interesting that this is something that you avoid. I agree that your brand is on display 24/7 and that those that fall across it make snap decisions based upon their perceptions of what they find but that’s the point surely.

    There are always elements of ourselves that we censor from others. But for me some of the best examples of Twitter in business are those that reach out to stake holders so perhaps it is something that should be actively encouraged rather than the opposite?

    Consider @BTcare for example the knock on effects of what they are doing on Twitter by dealing with situations and problems make it an incredibly powerful tool for that business.

    As you have suggested Olivier is a master at polarisation, but if we consider it more deeply he is also the master at drawing in the client type he wants to work with. He is filtering out those who don’t agree with him. Clever stuff, and a strategy that probably ensures a day at work for Olivier is a day he is surrounding himself with people that have bought into his approach and processes. To me that sounds like a good day at work ;)

    For me though it is all about filtering, what you have highlighted here is consumer filtering on the basis of their preconceptions of a complaint you might have. But equally they could filter you on the colour of your eyes, or the nature of your facial hair this month. Worrying about all of that would be paralysing as you would never tweet anything and achieve nothing.

    Surely it is better to lay it bare and be done with it, allowing people to quickly form an opinion about you / your brand one way or another? This way we all know where we stand and can move on to the more important issues such as what we are eating for lunch or watching on the TV ;)

  • http://www.jdblundell.com jdblundell

    A good reminder. It’s so easy to complain/flame people and groups on social media. I don’t know if it’s the sense of “empowerment” that comes with having X number of people listening, or the empowerment that comes from often having a direct line to a company – but there are folks in my social streams with complaints taking up 75-90% of their updates.
    I’m probably a bit more lenient with my personal Twitter account when it comes to complaining or venting on Twitter, but always do my best to avoid it when I’m using one of the accounts tied to one of my brands/websites.
    I like your idea of complaining without complaining.
    You can voice your opinion without coming across as a Debbie Downer (Saturday Night Live reference for UK folks) or as the consummate complainer.
    Great reminder – thanks again!

  • http://chrisbrogan.com Chris Brogan

    I am such a moaner on Facebook. But ONLY on Facebook. I needed a digital vent *somewhere*. And even then, as you say, I’m risking my brand each time.

    You’re good, mister. You’re real good.


  • http://dr1665.com Brian Driggs

    When I learned Aston Martin was essentially warming over a Toyota iQ econobox as their own model, I penned a post, “The Aston Martin Cygnet is a Joke.” I mocked it openly, with hastily Photoshopped “premium” commuters.

    A week passed. I felt like a cretin for so publicly throwing one of my most beloved brands under the bus. It was then I realized complaining – without offering possible alternatives – is a self-centered waste of time. Soon thereafter, I posited an idea for a small Aston (I called the the DBM) based not on a tin car Toyota iQ, but a sporty, Mazda Miata, along with reasons why I felt this better aligned with Aston’s brand.

    I’m not so much concerned with my brand anymore, as I believe brand is the result of action. Talk is cheap. We need less talk about branding, and more talk about doing. :)

  • / Scott Gould


    Interesting build, and one that I actually disagree with! (There’s a conversation starter)

    I think being a complaining person (a behaviour) is totally different to your hair colour (a trait). I would never discriminate on hair colour but if someone is a moaner, I’m liable to unfollow them in an instant. These are two very different things.

    I would also say that we shouldn’t lay ourselves out bare. There are always things that you hold back because not everyone can handle it. You don’t tell kids everything because they can’t handle it – it’s for THEIR benefit. In the same way, me not complaining online is for your benefit because you’re not my trash can for me to dump my rubbish on!

    This approach requires far more self-sacrifice, where as laying it bare isn’t about self sacrifice at all – it’s about ME. And as I wrote today, it’s through self-sacrificing approaches that focus on OTHERS that we really impart meaning.

    What say you?


  • / Scott Gould

    Hey Jonathan, good to chat again!

    I agree very much your “sense of empowerment” line, and perhaps we do get a power trip here which isn’t actually justified!

    Glad the article was able to remind you to keep on the straight and narrow and all that :-)

    Philippians 2:14

  • / Scott Gould

    Brogfest – when you complain, you do it as the wounded healer buddy. It works. I’m sure this is why you use Facebook for it as the thread approach serves better for this than the 140 character moan.

  • / Scott Gould

    Hey Brian

    That’s a story I’m sure we can all relate too! I can relate most in my marriage – whenever I get a bad attitude about something my wife always tells me that I can have the attitude if I want, or be a leader and get a good attitude.

    She’s a good wife!

  • http://dr1665.com Brian Driggs

    The one thing we can control in life is how we let things affect us.

    Not saying it’s easy, but it’s true. :)

  • / Scott Gould

    “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way”

  • http://dr1665.com Brian Driggs

    Given quotation marks, I Googled. Far more eloquent than I, and no wonder! Frankl! I wasn’t familiar with this quote, but it makes sense.

    If only such thoughtfulness were more common in the absence of tragedy.

  • / Scott Gould

    It’s one I quote to myself continually – to be a better person when faced with such a easy life compared to Viktors.

  • http://www.notfrombolton.co.uk Not From Bolton

    Hi Scott,

    What do I say. It’s an interesting topic that is for sure. I think it important to raise that I am not suggesting that you would discriminate on the basis of a trait or physical characteristic.

    As you have highlighted a ‘moaner’ is a turn off for you and a consistent complainer would be for many. You rightly question the effectiveness of that as an approach,ultimately it would be self limiting.

    I was raising the issue that people make a value judgement on any number of reasons and that this is as personal as the individual involved, we all see things differently. If we take the issue of complaining on Twitter what value you place on that information is different for the creator, the recipients and the subject or target.

    I suppose that my position is from that of subject or target of a complaint, if it is personal then it is not warranted, there are many more appropriate ways to raise those sorts of issues than taking it online. However if it is business issue one of warranted dissatisfaction with a product or service then that’s fair game.

    You and I know the value of a complaint to a business as it can highlight problem areas that they can actively work on to improve their offering and become a better business. We both also understand the value of converting a complainer into a screaming advocate as a result of their concern being picked up on and dealt with quickly and effectively.

    Of course there are elements of us all that we don’t share for any number of reasons. They could be social, psychological, environmental, business or branding constraints and they vary depending on the environment.

    For example, I suspect the topic of discussion and language you use in the pub chatting your best mate would be somewhat different to a discussion over Sunday lunch with your parents. As Twitter is increasingly becoming mobile the flavor of our output will be affected by these environmental fluctuations.

    I completely agree with your sentiments with regard focusing on others as the way forward have a look at my #canyourecommed post to see that I am a great advocate of the value paying it forward.

    Your approach to what you discuss on Twitter is just that it is your approach, it’s personal and is constrained by the boundaries you place upon it. I suggest that it is not the reaction of the recipient that limits us but perhaps our preconception of what their reaction might be. You see a complaint as dumping rubbish, there is nothing right or wrong with that, it just is and a matter for your followers to decide and opt in or out of accordingly.

    Is laying it bare a selfish approach? Possibly, but equally you cannot be all things to all people or you will quickly go mental ;)

  • / Scott Gould

    Hey Peter

    Thanks for this very thought through response!

    I hear what you’re saying about complaining about products being different to personal complaints – although for me, I still put all complaining into one box. If something doesn’t work, I privately sort it out, not making everyone else hear my tirad.

    And certainly, that’s just my approach. However I do think that when people moan and complain, it does damage their brand unless done in a way that is very human.

    And yes, there is no right or wrong way, and trying to work out the perfect solution will leave your struggling to be all things to all people, which as you say, is a way to quickly go mental.

    BUT – we all have some things that we are to some people, and complaining falls into one of those categories that I guard.

    For me and you, who don’t complain much, the conversation is perhaps not as pertinent to those who I see moaning about literally everything. The rare positive tweet is then normally soaking with ego anyway.

    So if we don’t lay it ALL bare, and we can’t be ALL things to all men – how have you found your middle ground?