June 28, 2004
How To

How to Track (and Influence) Consumer Buzz Online About Your Brand - 6 Steps

SUMMARY: As many as 70% of consumers who contact your company with a complaint will also post their complaint in a public online forum. This year, consumers will post almost a billion comments and reviews of brands online.

In our interview with expert Pete Blackshaw, you'll learn:

- How to track consumers writing about you online

- 6 steps you can take to influence results

Please note: you should assign a staffer in marketing communications to handle this on an ongoing basis:
How much control do consumers really have over your brand presence online?

976 million high-impact ads worth.

Online consumer-written buzz about brands and products is booming everywhere, from Amazon's post-your-own review system to more than a million Blogs. The official term for this content is "consumer generated media" (CGM).

According to Pete Blackshaw, Chief Marketing & Customer Satisfaction Officer of Intelliseek, a company tracking consumer-generated media online, you should be paying attention to how your brand is mentioned on:

--public Internet discussion boards and forums
--consumer ratings websites or forums
--blogs and personal websites
--social networking sites

-> Why consumer-generated media matters

2004 Forrester/Intelliseek research shows that more than 60% of consumers trust other consumers' online postings about products and brands. In comparison, pop-ads are only trusted by roughly 5%, search ads by less than 40%, branded ads by less than 50%. So an individual consumer post may have far greater impact than the online ad campaign you paid for.

Plus, Blackshaw says roughly 70% of consumers who give feedback to companies are active on discussion boards. Which is his diplomatic way of saying 70% of consumers who call or email in complaints to your service center are extremely likely also to express their dissatisfaction publicly online.

Before the Internet, marketers used the average metric of "each unhappy customer will tell eight people." Now unhappy customers are telling the entire world.

Even if a customer is happy, they may be talking about something that's not part of your main branding message, which could throw marketplace positioning out of whack. "Marketers have less control and that creates a lot more uncertainty in the overall branding proposition," Blackshaw says.

Last but not least, reporters are increasingly influenced by online buzz. "They use it as a starting point for commentary on a brand. It often serves as a counterpoint to company information," says Blackshaw.

For example, reporters may decide to ignore a movie because of what Internet users are saying prior to its release. In fact, Blackshaw believes that's just what happened with the recent release of The Hulk.

-> How should you track consumer generated media?

o Step 1. Determine how big your potential fire is

First, check out your own customer service/complaint department to help you figure out how many consumers may post publicly and who they are. Blackshaw explains, "These are consumers with relevant experience with your products and services, and hence carry a high degree of credibility," he says. And if they're taking time to write to you, they are likely to be influencing consumers in other forums, as well.

o Step 2. Decide who will track the key sites identified for CGM.

These might include an internal marketing, PR, and corporate communications teams, a PR agency or investor relations personnel.

Put all parties on a distribution list so information is shared regularly and completely.

o Step 3. Create a targeted Top 10 list of sites to check frequently

These might include: usenet postings on portals such as MSN, Yahoo, AOL, and Google, industry related vertical sites, clubs and microcommunities where fans and enthusiasts hang out, blogs and moblogs, eretailers such as eBags who solicit customer reviews, and review sites where small (but active) groups of consumers gather to complain, such as complaints.com, or review or rate products, such as epinions.com.

o Step 4. Track buzz by type: positive, negative buzz

Classifications might be entirely neutral, or they might be positive or negative, Blackshaw says. It's important to be fully aware of all components of a single comment. "Break up a single comment into multiple parts. Like: I love Toyota in part because I hate Chevrolet."

o Step 5. Look at "believability"

If a user who's talking about your product has actually had experience with the product, "that means a lot more than if they mention the brand but show no evidence they actually used it." Another test of believability is to check other posts surrounding the user's comment. Do other users seem to resonate with what has been said?

o Step 6. Identify key issues

To identify key issues being discussed about your products or services online, ask yourself:

--Which issues inspire the most emotional discussions?
--Which issues spread from one forum to another (for example: do hostile rumors go from a Usenet to blogs to third-party sites)?
--Which issues spread faster than others?

-> Influencing CGM

Once you have a system in place for identifying and tracking CGM related to your company or product, you can slowly begin to influence it in your favor.

The best place to begin influencing CGM is on your own Web site. "It's the perfect place to empower them," Blackshaw says. "Do you respect their feedback? Do you act like you care? We're beginning to see brands who are capitalizing on listening as a marketing capability. It creates greater advocacy that drives word of mouth."

Blackshaw suggests these tactics for interacting with a brand's own "influencers":

--Include simple website feedback forms, without making the consumer answer too many questions. "Imagine if you went to a hotel and wanted to know where Times Square was and the concierge asked a million questions," Blackshaw says.

--In the event of a rumor or other crisis, immediately retool the FAQ and the feedback section. Include a question that asks if consumers heard about the rumor, and if so, where.

--With surveys and other dialogues with consumers, ask specific questions on their Internet use. Questions might include: How active are you on Internet message boards? Do you have a blog?

--Reward viral consumers. The consumers who are already customers may be disproportionately more valuable from a viral perspective, says Blackshaw. "So if you're a CPG and you're doing sampling, make sure you give the influencers samples first. Give them credit for spreading the word."

You can also influence consumer-generated media beyond your own site/customers. Here are some examples of ways to react to positive and negative online buzz:

--Example 1. Track leaked information

Activity: Car manufacturer identified photos published online of early car prototypes not intended for public view for 12 months.

Action: Early heads-up to PR, to help them better prepare for media questions. Dialed up security considerations.

--Example 2. Help pinpoint origins of negative buzz

Activity: Identify a supplier advising consumers in forum not to purchase product due to quality cuts in plants.

Action: Ask supplier to modify the negative posting, if appropriate.

--Example 3. Detect product definition issues

Activity: Identify key outstanding questions/issues raised on boards, blogs, and forums about a particular brand.

Action: Significantly upgrade brand's website, particularly FAQ and help content.

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