When Do Negative Comments Become A Social Media Backlash? Restoration Hardware And Their 17 Pound Catalog.

Restoration Hardware’s annual catalog set a record with 13 sourcebooks, 3,000 pages and 17 pounds. This tree killing giant print job has created a huge backlash on social media. One article describes the catalog as sending “critics on social media into an indignant tizzy.” But how big of a problem is this really?

It is true that people are making negative comments in social media. A simple search on Twitter reveals comments calling the catalog “wasteful,” “appalling,” “reckless/unnecessary marketing” and “a risk for shoulder injuries.” My quick search reveals the comments below. There is even a Tumblr page called Deforestation Hardware that is organizing a mass return of the “unwanted mailings.” Is the backlash massive?

TwitterRestorationHardwareThe negative comments on social media are only “1/10th of 1%” of those who received catalogs reports Restoration Hardware CEO Gary Friedman. The problem is these 1/10th of 1% are vocal and active on social media. Plus there has been enough to generate traditional media stories about the controversy in mainstream pubs such as Time Magazine, The Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald, Huffington Post, and CBS News. When social media reaction gets picked up by big news outlets comments get a huge boost of attention that may overhype the backlash.

I found a 5:1 positive to negative sentiment rating for “Restoration Hardware Catalog” on Socialmention. In my brief Twitter search above, I also did see positive comments about the catalog. So have these negative social media comments been blown out of proportion when picked up as a “backlash” news story by the traditional press? This is especially a consideration when only 1 out of the 10 stories I read mentioned the “1/10th of 1%” statistic to put it into perspective.

How much buzz constitutes a trend worthy of a news story? Visible Measures monitors viral videos and claim that 5 million views is the earned media threshold for when news media picks up something as “viral” and that story in turn boosts attention even more. What about journalistic standards? Amanda Hess from Slate reports that Shani O. Hilton, BuzzFeed deputy editor-in-chief told her,  “There are no rules. “We’re all trying to figure it out.”

Overblown or not, Huffington Post’s Robbie Vorhaus says “This could become one big PR fail.” How should Restoration Hardware react? Vorhous indicated they should publicly admit that “the mass mailing model of a group of catalogs is outdated and no longer fits with a company dedicated to customer satisfaction and sustainability.” But is this really a “controversial, wasteful campaign that fuels extensive anti-brand sentiment?” Maybe the true number of negative comments doesn’t mater. Once traditional media labels it as a blacklash, it is a backlash no matter what.

But sometimes what consumers say doesn’t always match what they do. I did find research that print catalogs are in fact a successful marketing tool. For example, online retailer Bonobos started delivering a print version of its catalog last year and says 20% of first-time website customers place orders after getting the catalog and spend 1.5 times more than those who didn’t receive it. The same research also reports 58% of online shoppers say they browse catalogs for ideas, and 31% have a retailer’s catalog with them when they make a purchase online.

We will have to wait to see if Restoration Hardware’s Social Media Catalog Backlash will hurt sales. But this year the retailer’s net income was up 217% from last year despite similar news stories in 2012 about the social media backlash over its 992 page catalog.

How many negative comments makes a backlash and how should brands react?