By Andrew Orchard, CEO of Netemic
Social media content (blogs, forums, wikis, social networks) is the fastest growing body of information on the internet. To put this into perspective there are currently well over 70 million blogs in existence and this number is forecast to double very six months up until the end of the decade.
This is the sort of figure no savvy marketer can realistically ignore, especially when you consider this number only reflects the number of people writing blogs. It doesn’t factor in readers or more significantly those contributing to forums or using social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace.
The sheer amount of opinion represented in user generated content can be daunting, however it does offer unmediated insight to consumer attitudes. Admittedly much of this can charitably be described as “noise” but it is also true that brands undervalue social media at their peril.
With strategically implemented filtering, measurement and analysis opinions expressed online are invaluable for campaign planning and reputation management.
Online media is breaking down the barriers between customers and brands. Consumers display a healthy scepticism for traditional (i.e. non interactive) advertising formats and social media is swiftly becoming the key channel of influence.
An estimated 80% of US adults consult online opinion before buying a product, established sites such as Amazon use a rating system, and increasingly there’s nowhere to hide negative feedback.
There have been many and well documented instances of consumer backlash online. While it’s difficult to salvage much sympathy from a sweatshop controversy other PR blunders, such as Dell’s exploding laptop fiasco, could have been averted or minimised. It is very possible for brand marketers to address grievances before they snowball into damaging hate campaigns.
By engaging with dissatisfied customers head on you are building an ongoing dialogue. Complaints should be viewed as constructive feedback to help you improve your product or service. By demonstrating your willingness to work with customers you improve your chances of keeping them in the longer term.
Branding is still king but realistically many products show little to differentiate themselves, so in the digital age brand equity is more important than ever.
The Internet operates twenty four hours a day on a global scale, time is of the essence and there’s a limited window to (re)act. Therefore social media monitoring needs to work in real time; responsive outbound communications can be incredibly successful – it’s something financial communities have honed over the years.
Of course you can’t please everyone and there are plenty of hyperbolic “I hate…” style sites throughout the blogosphere. However, trend monitoring can spot recurring issues (negative or positive) and customer behaviour to factor these into PR/marketing drives.
Of course not all web users focus on the negative. It’s important to identify the influencers and engage with them to ensure they remain onside as brand champions. The old adage “keep your friends close and your enemies closer” as is clearly demonstrated by the Hollywood studios’ relationship with Harry Knowles, founder of cult movie site ‘Ain’t it Cool News’.
The lesson to be learned here is although it’s easy to discount fanboys/girls as harmless nerds, they’re eccentrics with a lot of clout – just ask the accountants at Apple or Nintendo!
Many brands, particularly charities, have chosen to engage directly with their customers directly on social networking sites such as YouTube and Facebook.
These environments not only offer branding opportunities through widgets etc., they also enable you to build a dialogue with your customers and offer a wealth of valuable demographic data.
However, bear in mind this approach is unlikely to work as a shallow exercise in branding, you need to offer something back such as exclusive offers or competitions. For example, Vauxhall cars set up a branded YouTube channel which encouraged users to submit UGC as part of its successful “C’mon” campaign for Vauxhall Corsa.
Business intelligence can also offer a clear advantage, monitoring your competitors can be just as valuable as managing your own brand perception. Thanks to the blogosphere it’s very rare that a story ever breaks anywhere other than online.
Close monitoring can often give away the story before it hits the headlines. Speculation, leaks and market trends can allow you to anticipate your rival’s next move and prepare accordingly.
Social media offers a fantastic opportunity for brands to build relationships and carry out market research to find out exactly what their customers want and thus to improve their offering.
There will be more PR disasters to come but only for those who are unprepared or continue to ignore the weight of evidence that suggests that social media represents a fundamental shift in how brands must engage with their customers.
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