All over the internet, people are talking about your brand, your products and the category in which you operate. Some of the comments end up sharing the spotlight with mainstream news items, as was the case last summer when comments and audio detailing an AOL customer's quest to cancel his account ended up all over the web and were picked up by the major news media. In other cases, comments occupy only the darkest corners of the internet.
But in both cases, customer testimonials and comments on your brand or product serve as guideposts for people in various stages of the purchase funnel. In the era of the market as conversation, it's important to listen to these comments and bring them to bear on your business.
On the interactive media landscape, brands consistently see evidence that the web has a high degree of influence on purchase behavior, particularly when prospects want to learn more about a product. But there are many ways in which people use the web, and it's important to understand what elements of a web presence have the most influence on purchase decisions. A good deal of evidence suggests that not only are customers influenced by push media -- like advertising -- but also by the contributions of their peers. In short, customers are not only turning to information provided by companies, they're also turning to one another.
It's important to understand that a key characteristic of online commentary is that it tends to be persistent. That is, when customers post their opinions to online forums like blogs, message boards, discussion groups and the like, those opinions stick around and can influence future purchase decisions made by others. If your job description includes stewardship of your brand, the opportunity in seeking out brand commentary online is the ability to influence points of view. Joining the conversation is the most compelling way to do that.
Obviously, before you can join the conversation, you need to find out where it's happening.
Previous: Seek out brand commentary
One critical mistake that companies make when embarking on conversational initiatives is overestimating the importance of their own company blog. There are a few ways in which this mistake can be made.
The first way involves assuming that people will go out of their way to post comments about your brand to your company's blog. Nothing could be further from the truth. Most posters prefer to make their comments on their own turf, either in online communities of which they are members, or on their own blogs or discussion forums. A simple declaration that your company blog is the focal point for comments about your brand will not be enough to convince people to post everything they have to say about your brand there. You can assume right off the bat that the vast majority of comments will remain in places other than your blog, even if you go to great lengths to promote it.
The second way involves attributing value only to comments left on the company blog. Companies working on conversational marketing campaigns may even go so far as to ascribe value to the campaign based on how many people post to the company blog or online community. Encouraging conversation, however, involves doing so all over the internet.
People will comment where they feel most comfortable, and a conscious choice to keep those comments on personal blogs or online forums outside your company's domain shouldn't be construed as a shortcoming. Don't spend too much time worrying about where comments surface. Instead, concentrate on their substance and what those comments tell you.
Previous: Your blog is just the beginning
My first weekly column on iMedia Connection outlined the different ways in which relevant conversations can be identified, from the basic (setting up relevant search feeds in an RSS reader) to the advanced (working with services from companies like Cymfony and Nielsen Buzzmetrics). I recommend that you first take a sampling of what might be out there by looking to blog search engines like Technorati or Google Blog Search. Querying some category-specific search terms or brand names will give you an idea of what is being said in your category within the blogosphere.
Online opinions aren't limited to what's being expressed on blogs, however. You could also plug those relevant search terms into engines like Google Groups to get an idea of what's being said within USENET groups.
You might also comb through searches to locate message board postings, but be aware that many public message boards aren't indexed by popular search engines. Getting a comprehensive view of brand conversations in this way is tedious and not in any way comprehensive, but a series of targeted searches will at least give you an idea of what some people are saying.
Getting a more comprehensive review involves working with one of the companies I mentioned earlier. Not only do Cymfony and Buzzmetrics tap into venues that might be off your radar, but they'll also be able to add a good deal more intelligence to the conversation data. For instance, if your well-known hotel brand happens to share a name with a well-known young socialite, a simple search won't be able to easily distinguish between the two, and instead of gathering intelligence about the impressions your customers have of their hotel stays, you might be distracted by a deluge of information about outings with Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan. A company like Cymfony or Buzzmetrics will help sort the wheat from the chaff.
Information gathered from search feeds will also not be able to provide substantive benchmarking intelligence, whereas a more comprehensive view of online venues will be more valuable in that regard.
Next: Next steps
Previous: Identify relevant conversations
You might be asking what to do with all this information and intelligence once you have it. Some marketers elect to simply monitor online buzz with the aim of using it as a metric to gauge the success of other marketing programs. Others choose to act on the information. The ones that want to get the most value out of conversational marketing programs will talk back in a direct fashion, using their human voice (and not marketing-ese).
If you want to dabble in responding to some of the praise and criticism of your brand, you might want to consider prioritizing. After all, the broad reach of most national marketing campaigns and the products on which they focus will certainly provoke a lot of online commentary. It might be overwhelming to attack all of it at once. Instead, prioritize your participation by looking at the concerns that led to the comment in the first place.
First and foremost, was the comment the result of the commenter having incorrect or incomplete information? Most online communities would welcome input right from the source, particularly if the point of view represented didn't incorporate all the relevant facts. In terms of where you can make a difference with your responses to online comments, setting the record straight is an easy way to change minds about a product or brand.
You may also want to place comments that ask questions about your approach to the market near the top of your priority list. People often wonder what corporations do with their feedback about products, and a great way to show you're listening and that you're committed to customer satisfaction is by showing people their input matters. Tell people how you're using their feedback internally. It will help generate good will toward your brand.
AccuQuote did this last October on its blog, following up each case posted to comments in a thread about customer service. One benefit of showing customers that they took feedback seriously was the signing of a number of incremental policies.
On the bottom of the priority list are comments where people insist adamantly that they won't change their mind, based on emotional factors. It's much easier to change minds when the facts are in dispute, but when people rely solely on emotion and how they "feel" about a brand, the task becomes much more difficult.
Previous: Next steps
A good conversational marketing plan relies not solely on data but also on intelligence. You'll need to rely on both to help identify the places where people are talking about your brand, product and category. Depending on your level of commitment, you may find it beneficial to contract with a market intelligence company that tracks online forums.
Don't place too much value on your own presence within the social media landscape. While it's an important focal point for your brand's outreach to the marketplace, not everyone who uses the internet views it in the same way. Encouraging conversation involves using the whole internet, and not just your blog or online community.
Once you do identify the hot spots where people are discussing your brand, focus your efforts in the areas where they're most likely to make a difference. Make your point of view heard but realize that actions speak louder than words. Show people the depth of your commitment by taking their feedback seriously, and you will reap the rewards through increased loyalty.