If you identify as a geek, you’ve probably heard of online retailer ThinkGeek, which sells shirts, toys, games, and other gear for a tech-savvy audience. But even if you don’t know the company, we have a social media success story involving ThinkGeek that’s worth paying attention to.

This April, ThinkGeek got caught in the middle of online backlash between fans of the television show Firefly and 20th Century Fox. Fox had taken notice of fans selling hand-knitted hats similar to one seen in the show and had started sending out cease and desist notices to the sellers. This sort of situation isn’t entirely uncommon: Fans will often make items from their favorite books, movies, or television shows, especially if the owner of the property hasn’t merchandised it. And sometimes fans will go further, offering these items for sale online, which can attract the attention of the copyright holder and result in legal action.

Since Fox had turned a blind eye to these knitting fans for years, many were surprised and angry to find Fox suddenly shutting them down. And ThinkGeek, which had started selling a licensed version of the hat in December 2012, found itself caught in the crossfire. ThinkGeek was just selling hats. Not only had it not been involved in the legal action, its product page for the hats even mentioned that buyers looking for hand-knitted hats could find them for sale on sites like Etsy.

“It was one of those things we didn’t have that much of a problem with,” explained ThinkGeek PR Manager Steve Zimmerman. “We recognized what it meant for people who were fans of the show and we weren’t going to try to shut those down. We just wanted to offer alternatives for people who didn’t have friends that could knit or who wanted to buy an officially licensed product for collectible reasons.” Nevertheless, many of the cease and desist orders coming from Fox were misconstrued as originating from ThinkGeek. This guilt by association meant that online buzz about the company was very negative. So how could ThinkGeek regain the affections of its customer base and set them straight about its position on the cease and desist issue?

Turning the Tides of Online Opinion

“We started to see Facebook posts and tweets,” Zimmerman tells us. “I monitor Google Alerts and was seeing articles pop up — we clearly had something that was developing here. Our initial step was to put a statement on our blog saying we’re sorry that this is happening, but we don’t have anything to do with this. We’re not responsible for the cease and desists. We’re not the ones sending them. We haven’t been in contact with Fox about them.”

ThinkGeek continued to track social response to the issue, but it became clear that just addressing the situation hadn’t slowed down the negative online response it was getting. Wanting to do the right thing for fans and customers, ThinkGeek decided to take all profits from sales of its Firefly hats and donate them to the fan-run charity organization Can’t Stop the Serenity, which organizes charity Firefly screenings that support Equality Now.

“A great many of us are Browncoats [Firefly fans] and have an involvement with Can’t Stop the Serenity,” Zimmerman says. “We decided the best way to handle this was to say we stand with our fans and we stand with the Browncoats. While we won’t stop selling the hats per se, we’re going to take the opportunity to make a little bit of a difference.”

How ThinkGeek Decided Turned a Social Disaster Into a Charity Donation

ThinkGeek is, of course, a business, and the decision to donate profits wasn’t made lightly. The idea had to be cleared internally by ThinkGeek’s Chief Marketing Executive and Chief Financial Officer. Zimmerman also contacted Can’t Stop the Serenity to be sure it was fine with its name being used. From the inception of the idea to the execution, it took only took two hours. “We’re only about a 60-person company,” Zimmerman says, “and to that end we are fairly nimble in how we can integrate social media and respond to things that are on the Internet.”

When ThinkGeek posted about donating profits from hat sales, the fan reaction was immediate — and overwhelmingly positive. “There are obviously still some people who are going to argue and gripe for the sake of arguing and griping, and that’s partially because it’s the Internet and partially because they are exceptionally passionate about the show. And we respect that,” Zimmerman says. One of the show’s stars, Nathan Fillion, tweeted to say it was the classiest thing he’d seen a business do in a long time, bringing ThinkGeek’s blog down with the resulting surge in traffic. “It’s one of the best reasons we’ve ever been taken down,” Zimmerman adds.

What Should Your Company Do With Tricky Social Situations?

ThinkGeek is a small company, and the team watching and responding to social media is also small — only a couple of people. But the company takes its fans seriously. “If you get in touch with ThinkGeek via Facebook or Twitter, you are being seen,” Zimmerman explains. “We value the fans and the time that they put into it, so if they’re going to interact with us, we’re going to pay them the respect to at read it or interact with them and comment back.”

That, in a nutshell, is how ThinkGeek fixed what could have been a real social mess: by paying careful attention to what its fans and customers were saying rather than just writing the situation off as not their fault. In fact, the first comment response to its blog post was “Thanks for listening to us!” Though not everyone can make a bold move like donating profits to charity, you don’t have to go that far to prove to your customers that you’re listening.

[Image credits: Wiertz SébastienSammy4586MDGovpics]