Share this content
MyCustomer.com

When the internet attacks: How to engage with online critics

by
1st Aug 2008
Share this content

There has been a proliferation of brand commentary as Web 2.0 has dawned - and much of this comment is negative. So how should organisations respond when their brand is under fire? Neil Davey explores how to engage with online critics and turn a negative into a positive.

A fist punching through the screen

By Neil Davey, editor

Using the internet as a tool to air customer grievances is far from a new phenomenon. Back in the early days of this decade, disgruntled customers of ntl set up nthellworld.com, whilst Ryanair passenger Michael Coulston's online account of his disappointing experience with the airline attracted large numbers of visitors.

What is new circa 2008 is the way that organisations are responding to online criticism. Back in 2002, ntl bought up nthellworld.com, whilst Ryanair complained to Coulston's ISP, and the site was promptly closed. But these strategies just won't cut it in the Web 2.0 era.

In 2002, the internet had a vertical structure, with businesses distributing information down to users. Now the web has evolved a far more horizontal structure, with users looking to share information and thoughts with other consumers, whether this is through social networking sites like Facebook, file sharing hubs such as YouTube or places to share reviews of products and services such as TripAdvisor and LondonEating. And the opinions that are expressed matter. In a study by Forrester Research, over 60% of those polled suggested that they would trust a consumer opinion online.

photo of James Paterson, Plebble.com"Every organisation has bad news to a greater or lesser extent, but the issue is what you do about it. One way is to bury your head in the sand and be scared. But the smart thing to do is to actually look for ways to engage with it."

James Paterson, Plebble.com

This raises a problem for brands, as a large proportion of the reviews and comment about companies, products and services online is negative. A recent study by brand research firm Millward Brown found that whilst the number of consumers referring to informal sources online (such as message boards, digital communities and blogs) for information about brands and products has doubled over the last two years, the feedback from these sources is likely to be negative. In a survey of 1,000 UK consumers, over 30% of people who had used online communities, online contacts and blogs said they received negative brand recommendations from them.

"In terms of the comparison between 2005 and 2007, we weren't surprised to see a huge increase proportionally in the use of online CGM sites," says Fergus Hampton, CEO of Millward Brown Precis. "But the fact that online communities generate almost as much negative brand news as they do positive recommendations is something that every brand needs to take on board."

With the sheer volume of blogs, community groups and review sites in existence it is simply unthinkable that brands could take a leaf out of Ryanair or ntl's book and buy up or shut down every site that is critical of them. And this has left brands in a quandary. "Companies have found stability, comfort and confidence in traditional market research and customer satisfaction scorecards, but what we have today is an uneasy scorecard being written by all these consumers and customers who have relevant experience with your product and it is crating massive instability," says Pete Blackshaw, executive vice president of digital strategic services at Nielsen Online. "It can be incredibly disruptive and companies really have to wake up to it."

Stepping up to the plate

So how should the modern firm react to the proliferation of online negative brand comments? James Paterson, co-founder of innovative feedback management firm Plebble, believes firms cannot afford to ignore the problem. "It is difficult to keep track of and it is very hard to engineer the conversations, so it is increasingly impossible to bury bad news," he explains. "Every organisation has bad news to a greater or lesser extent, but the issue is what you do about it. One way is to bury your head in the sand and be scared. But the smart thing to do is to actually look for ways to engage with it."

photo of Fergus Hampton"The fact that online communities generate almost as much negative brand news as they do positive recommendations is something that every brand needs to take on board."

Fergus Hampton, Millward Brown Precis

And some organisations have already stepped up to the plate. An increasing number of brands are now monitoring social media – including blogs and social networking sites - for mentions of their company name, and then responding to customer service issues. It can be a delicate matter – whilst online review sites tend to provide a platform for brands to respond to complaints, other less formal social sources have no official process for firms to join the conversation. Yet if organisations can work out the rules of engagement in these communities, there is much to be gained from a proactive attitude.

"It is a bit of minefield, because there are certain forums where people are talking about brands and the brands just aren't welcome," says Paterson. "If you don't understand the ethos and etiquette of the world you are tying to communicate in, you can come across wrong. And you might be completely innocent and acting in good faith but your actions could be misinterpreted, you could be seen as bullying or trying to market. So you have to be careful. As a first step, brands should be looking for platforms that are specifically for feedback and communication with customers."

"You need to define the model you are going to use," adds Hampton. "If you appoint people to respond to comments, are they the official spokesperson of the company, are they private individuals who happen to work for the organisation – and say so, clearly – or are they part of customer services? Brand owners have a difficulty figuring out how official their response should be. Probably the best way to do it is to come across as an ordinary guy or girl and be transparent about the fact that you work for the organisation. 'Hi, you have a problem with your product, I work for the manufacturer, I will see if I can do something to help'. Rather than 'I am the official company social media correspondent, this is what we have to say...'"

A shining example

A shining example of how to respond effectively has been demonstrated by Dell Computers. In 2006, in the wake of a popular anti-Dell online diatribe by disgruntled customer Jeff Jarvis, the PC firm decided to start measuring what was happening in the blogosphere. To its horror, it found that 50% of comments about Dell on any given day were negative. As such, it set a goal of reducing this number.

It went about this in two ways. Firstly, it made changes to customer service and put its product line under the microscope, making important changes based upon what the customers were saying about the firm online. Secondly, it started responding to customers, its public affairs department and customer service department reaching out to customers online, thanking them if their comments were positive, and asking them how they could solve their problems if the comments were negative. 18 months later it had slashed the number of negative messages being posted about the company to 22%.

"The interesting story about Dell is that the customer community acted as a bellwether for its underlying structural problems so that it could recognise what the problems were, start doing something about it, and also use social media to explain what it was doing."

John Cass

"The interesting story about Dell is that the customer community acted as a bellwether for its underlying structural problems so that it could recognise what the problems were, start doing something about it, and also use social media to explain what it was doing," says John Cass, Forrester's online community manager author of 'Strategies and Tools for Corporate Blogging'. "And it helped to turn the company around. The stock price has revived a little and it is more profitable. It is a good example of a company that has really learnt how to use social media as a goal to communicate with its customers."

Paterson agrees. "It's a great example of what brands should be doing, which is listening carefully to what people are saying, analysing it, working out what you're doing wrong, fix it, and then blog about it yourself," he suggests. "There is an inherent anxiety amongst businesses about getting negative feedback. But we also have examples of businesses nicking that feedback, doing something about it and then getting back in touch with the customer who almost becomes far more of an advocate than if they'd had a good experience from the beginning, as they're thinking 'wow you really do listen to me'."

A further online avenue that Dell has chosen to use to engage with unhappy customers is social networking and microblogging service Twitter. Following the likes of Comcast and Southwest Airlines, Dell has set up several customer service members on Twitter to find complaints and then address them. Numerous reports have been blogged of customers having vented their frustrations on Twitter after failing to receive support through traditional methods only to be pleasantly surprised when they receive a Tweeted response from a support rep.

Other channels for unhappy customers

And other channels are emerging for firms to engage with unhappy customers. Plebble, for instance, is a customer communication channel that has been set up specifically to address the issue of where brands should go to reach out to customers. For customers, it provides an opportunity to rate businesses on the service and experience they provide. For businesses, it provides an insight into their customers' views.

"We're trying to put together the disparate voices of consumers in one place and then punching that information, in a succinct and easy to understand way, to brands so that they can analyse it and understand what they are doing right and wrong so that they can do more of what they are doing right and address what they are doing wrong," say Paterson. "And it is very powerful for consumers because they are actually able to get a response and engage with brands to help them give consumers more of what they want."

"It is absolutely direct engagement, and that requires slightly different mindset to the typical marketing mindset."

Fergus Hampton, Millward Brown Precis

The way that Web 2.0 has empowered customers and given a platform for their opinion has undoubtedly been a sharp shock for many brands. They are dealing with an entirely new dynamic when it comes to customer communication. But ultimately responding to this new world relies on so many of the traditional foundations of customer relationship management – listen to customers, engage them in a two-way dialogue and turn complaints into opportunities. The difference is that in the social world this should be done publicly, rather than behind the scenes in an internal CRM system.

This may still require a cultural shift in some organisations, however, particularly in terms of learning the etiquette of engaging customers in a new and uncommon/strange environment. "A whole new mindset needs to be brought to the corporation, and lots of the engagement activity will be a lot easier," says Blackshaw. "We have seen right now that there is a lot of examples of firms going into social media activity with all guns blazing without really listening first and that is one reason why word of mouth marketing and social media activity can get a bad rap. But if companies really get close to the conversation and listen attentively, and figure out what is the proper grove for entering the conversation I think everyone is going to win."

"It is the whole notion of engaging digitally with consumers without mediation through a PR agency, a journalist, an advertising campaign," concludes Hampton. "It is absolutely direct engagement, and that requires a slightly different mindset to the typical marketing mindset. It requires you to under promise and over deliver, for instance. It requires you to be much more transparent when things go wrong, in terms of what you are going to do about it. And it also requires you to be more responsive about what you are going to do about it and not just wanting it to go away. It requires a different dynamic. But I think it will be a healthy thing."

Related articles

Tags:

Replies (0)

Please login or register to join the discussion.

There are currently no replies, be the first to post a reply.