Is brand trolling worth the risk?
A view from Paul M. Rand

Is brand trolling worth the risk?

Brands engaging only in polite conversation often pull their punches, but when they turn to the dark side the gloves come off, writes the president and CEO of Zocalo Group.

"Hey @realdonaldtrump. u up?" 

Within five minutes after Oscars’ host Jimmy Kimmel taunted President Trump with this cheeky tweet, more than 100,000 people retweeted the missive. A few minutes later, it became Kimmel’s most retweeted post.

The taunting wasn’t done: "Some of you will come up here on this stage tonight and give a speech that the President of the United States will tweet about in all caps during his 5:00 a.m. bowel movement tomorrow," Kimmel concluded. "And I think that’s pretty darn excellent …"

As our new president became "Troller in Chief," it has empowered many people, such as Jimmy Kimmel, to troll back, often escalating a war of words that ultimately no one really wins.        

Trolling is in the eye of the beholder
So, what is trolling? The Urban Dictionary concisely defines it as: "Being a prick on the internet because you can."

There is a growing spectrum of trolling online, from bigotry on one end to vanilla brands looking to spice up their social engagement with a new sassy persona on the other. And with a new U.S. president making trolling one of his key forms of communications, there has been a rise of freewheeling and aggressive online banter. Many brands—even those normally considered staid—have decided that they need to get into the game as well.

Brand trolling can be risky, but some brands have found notable benefits, at least short term, by engaging in this type of online antics. 

The media loves to cover bad behavior, and aggressive social personas can create buzzworthy events that extend the reach of a brand’s social presence. Witty banter and aggressive engagements are inherently notable and memorable with the target audience.   

Brand trolling can also help marketers clearly articulate competitive differences between brands. Brands engaging only in polite conversation often pull their punches, but when brands turn to the dark side the gloves quickly come off.

Some brands have also discovered that they can use trolling to market themselves inexpensively. Crashing and trashing your competitor’s big television ad buy is much cheaper that buying your own ad space.

Verizon, for example, recently skipped out on advertising during the Super Bowl, opting instead to troll T-Mobile’s #UnlimitedMoves campaign with a series of "unlimited moves T-Mobile doesn’t want you to see" tweets. After the tweeting back and forth between the brands became more vitriolic and offensive, T-Mobile’s CEO, John Legere stepped in: "@verizonguys…it can’t go any further. Calm down.

Unexpected consequences
While trolling may seem like a fun way for brands to become relevant, cool and timely, the downsides are rarely worth the risk—eventually you’re going to step in it.

Wendy’s became everyone’s favorite brand on Twitter recently with its series of snarky tweets and trolls. They got a ton of attention, mostly positive, especially when the brand defended itself against critics. But the trolls were waiting to strike back and they soon had their chance: Wendy’s posted a Pepe meme without realizing that the symbol had been adopted by the so-called alt-right. The internet quickly responded, blasting Wendy’s on all sides, and after 15 minutes, they deleted the offending image.

There are other potential downsides. If you become aggressive with customers or competitors, you increase the likelihood that they’ll be aggressive with you. If you express an opinion (political or otherwise), you risk alienating at least some of your audience. And, of course, you’ll likely increase your legal peril (with both consumers and competitors) with bold claims and aggressive social engagements.   

Once you start trolling, you’ll need to be constantly creative, cunning and clever—nobody is going to want to throw down with you if your comebacks are lame. And, the biggest reason to be very thoughtful before wading into trolling waters is that once you’ve changed your brand voice to be more aggressive, there’s no going back. Be prepared to commit. 

The writer and activist, Lindy West, recently posted an article on the Guardian with a headline flatly stating: "I’ve left Twitter. It is unusable for anyone but trolls, robots and dictators."

And the Washington Post recently reported that Trump’s trolls are emboldening a level of nationalism in Mexico and vitriol toward the U.S. that hasn’t been seen in years. "It is American nationalism at Mexico’s expense and it stings in a deep, atavistic way, like a childhood bully coming back to beat you up again," the reporter noted. 

I’m far from recommending that brands abandon their Twitter presence (although that call seems to be gaining momentum in digital marketing circles), but I am advocating that brands think carefully about becoming a Twitter troll, even if it seems like it will make you as hip and popular as Jimmy Kimmel.

If you are going to wade in, just be sure to think through all possible ramifications and have your brand protect plan in place. You will unquestionably need it.

Paul M. Rand is the president and CEO of Zocalo Group, a division of Critical Mass.