The Benefits of Hearing the Bad Stuff


So, you’re opening a channel for your audience to talk to you about your company, your work and their experience of it.

It’s pretty much a guarantee that as SOON as you start talking about doing this, somebody in your organization is going to say,


“This is all well and good,” they say, “when everybody loves us. But what about when they HATE US?? Aren’t we just making it easier for them to poison the well and tell everyone in the world how awful we are?”

This hypothetical situation has stopped many many theater companies from adopting social media into their audience building strategy.

If the objection is overcome, it is usually by a marketing director or PR person saying, “Don’t worry! We’ll moderate the comments. Nobody will ever see the bad ones!”

I understand the impulse. But here’s what’s true.

If they have something bad to say about you, they are ALREADY SAYING it. Choosing not to listen doesn’t suppress the conversation, it just leaves you helpless to do anything about it.

And if you filter your audience engagement so that only the good stuff gets shared, you are losing a huge opportunity– for revenue, for audience retention, for trust building, for looking like a rockstar.

This is a very smug thing for me (or anyone who writes about social media) to say. But go along for the ride with me for a minute.

In THEORY, absolute transparency in your engagement with the audience (publishing both the good and the bad feedback) does the following:

1. It makes you trustworthy. That negative comment posted on your blog or facebook page (and allowed to stand without defensiveness) just dramatically increased the reliability of every positive thing that’s ever been said about you in the same venue. It feels authentic. Your commentors feel that their voices will be heard, good or bad.

2. It gives your supporters an opportunity to go to bat for you. An unfairly critical, whiny or nasty comment posted (and left visible) in a public forum read by your fans and supporters often spurs an otherwise silent enthusiast to come to your “rescue,” engaging with the negative commentor and refuting whatever claims were made. The comments posted after an unfair negative attack are often SIGNIFICANTLY more committed and positive than the ones posted before. And that “loyalty” factor has a halo that holds over in your future conversations with those audience members (and their future participation with your organization).

3. It gives you the opportunity to engage with, and dramatically improve your relationship with the negative commentor. You can respond to that patron’s discomfort or concerns the same way you would in person at the box office, using the same techniques you would use to regain their trust, i.e.:
If their complaint is legitimate, you can point to the ways their feedback is going to help improve the organization.

If their complaint is inaccurate, you can correct their misperceptions.

If it is merely a difference of artistic opinion, you can reassure them that creative differences are what make for a vibrant creative community, and thank them for helping make the community more vibrant.

The best part is, your mature, considered, inclusive, helpful and accurate reaction to negative feedback is there for all the world to see. The watchers on the sidelines come away feeling that, whether they agree with the commentor or not, they at least like the way you handled the situation.

4. And this should probably not be last, but: An open channel for both positive and negative feedback helps you get honest information about whether your work is landing right with the audience, and whether you have found the right audience for your work.

All very well and good in theory. But in practice, does it work? I mean sure, it might make you look authentic and burnish your reputation for customer service, but can’t it still negatively impact sales? Excellent question. Here’s my answer.

My organization committed to 100% transparency in our social media dealings (a big commitment, considering that our website is itself a blog, and people can post comments right on the show sales page).

The vast majority of the comments received through our various channels are positive. But there have been some very instructive exceptions.

One exception was a world premiere piece we commissioned from a Portland artist who had a huge music following but was not well known as a playwright or an actor. The show was very personal, with some very dark and difficult material in it. There was a ton of positive audience response. It also sparked a comment on the show page that was extremely negative. Here’s an excerpt from that anonymous comment:

Dear Portland,

After having seen “Crazy Enough” and reading all of these blog posts boasting it, and purchasing and listening to her cd, and finding out that it has been extended for another month, I have to say to you this: have you no other entertainment in town?

Because I’m sorry but, story: rich chic from mass suburb turns slut, turns “drug addict” turns stripper turns “rock legend” just doesn’t cut it in the real world… congrats for kicking the dope, but reality is that a couple months of doing your boyfriends drugs really doesn’t count as drug addiction. When your heart stops, literally stops and you die, literally, clinically die, until you take more narcotics because it can’t beat without them, and you have to figure out how to survive with out them, then you can call yourself a recovered drug addict.

You want to see women empowerment? Go see Richard II at the shoebox…. Portland, really? This is what you all are feigning for? Read a book. Maybe Chekhov, he at least suffered. For real.

Ouch. Right?

Here are a couple of interesting responses to that comment:

“It’s understandable that this show doesn’t speak to you – it can’t possibly speak to everyone. It’s not understandable, however, for you to belittle the people it does speak to. Didn’t anyone ever tell you that you can’t argue taste? And you definitely can’t argue with 8 sold-out shows a week.

So maybe let this go, and, I’m serious – write YOUR show! Show Storm and the world what it is to know “true” pain. We’ll watch for it.”

Another one continues the conversation:

“Yeah…. ‘anon’ is really hating. I saw it last night and thought it was great. Very courageous and entertaining. Someone else suggested that u should do your own show… u should, show us all how it should be done.”

and finally:

“She told my story (our stories, I’m sure) on-stage. She dramatized, verbalized, “humorized” and portrayed via movement and song experiences in my life that I didn’t think could be accurately expressed. It could be overwhelming at times because of the potential to bring up pain, but because of the humor, the music it wasn’t. It’s funny how art works that way, letting us receive truth isn’t it?”

Total comment stream ran to 57 comments. The takeaway? As the top grossing studio show in our history, that negative comment clearly did not take away from the project’s financial success. It did, however, spark a conversation about the role of art in healing that was quite interesting.

One last quick example. Our current run of Adam Bock’s The Receptionist has proven to be controversial with our audience, and they have shared their feelings on the show page The comments have been about 50/50 in terms of liking or not liking the play. Here’s a sample:

“This play is a must see! Tremendous acting and humor, setting up the audience to experience a jolt after a single chilling line is uttered. Wonderful and thought provoking. Sharonlee Maclean is outstanding!”

“It’s time to blow the whistle on this way overrated script…. This play wants to be 1984, but what is delivered is the Apple Superbowl commercial. It looks good, it’s well executed, but in the end it’s just trying to sell us something. “Did you get that boys and girls? If you’re only interested in your mundane jobs and romantic pursuits there’s going to be a bad person coming to take you away some day. Let me explain how this whole tyranny thing will come down.”

“Steve – are you sure you were watching ‘The Receptionist’? Based on your summary of the play’s theme, I’d have to say that you entirely missed the point. As for ‘not very funny comedy,’ you’re entitled to whatever suits you, humor-wise, but the audience with whom I attended laughed heartily. I laughed too, so I disagree with your completely subjective opinion on that count.”

My favorite part of that comment stream though, and the one that illustrates my whole point (I hope) is the following:

Mandy said in 2-16-2010 @ 16:55:36

“I’m looking forward to The Receptionist after these comments. The dueling critiques have made me curious.”

We’re halfway through the run of this production, and the ticket sales seems to have been more spurred than suppressed by the debate.

Trust your audience. Trust their feelings. Even the negative ones. There are rich rewards to be had (artistically, culturally and financially) for hearing them. LOUD AND CLEAR.

  • March 3, 2010
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