In the era of user-generated reviews and users wanting a voice in everything, brands face numerous challenges in reputation management, according to marketing experts, who advise that customer reviews and social media should be embraced, and stress the importance of listening, engaging and being sincere.
User-generated content and reviews online have become the singular driving force in influencing word-of-mouth marketing, and have become the most trusted channel of information about brands, companies, their products, Zaheer Nooruddin, digital chief marketing officer at Burson-Marsteller Asia-Pacific, pointed out in an e-mail.
China-based Nooruddin's observations were backed up by consumers ZDNet Asia spoke to, who stressed the importance of independent reviews in their decision to commit to a brand.
Jeannie Wong, a consultant, said that she always reads reviews before deciding to purchase items and appreciated that they--including negative ones--"pre-empted" her on what to expect. Alvin Lai, marketing manager, shared that the one time he did not read online reviews prior a product purchase, he bought "the worst camera [of] my life".
Student Robin Tan added: "I prefer making my decision through user reviews because [they have] an air of objectivity, as compared to the somewhat deceiving promotional materials which are forced upon us."
Brands not coping well with phenomenon
In a GigaOM article last month, the ability of user reviews and ratings to influence behavior was described as the "TripAdvisor effect". Ratings sites in particular, it said, are threatening to make brands irrelevant.
According to Nooruddin, with the rise of social media, brands are no longer in control of content available, broadcasted and shared about their products. "This loss of control in brand and product messaging poses a formidable new and unprecedented range of challenges for brand marketers," he explained.
As a result, brands are facing serious challenges with the popularity of user-generated reviews, which affect a brand's immediate and long-term prospects for brand reputation, product sales and customer loyalty, he said.
Jon Chin, vice president of digital integration at Fleishman-Hillard Southeast Asia, noted that most brands are averse to negativity and fixated on ensuring that online channels "capture the brand's essence" or any positive association--instead of focusing on whether the brand messages are communicated through to the target audience.
Concurring, Nikolaus Ong, digital strategist of engagement planning and analytics at MRM Worldwide, observed that many organizations are afraid of not knowing how to handle negative responses appropriately. Some brands, Ong said in an e-mail, do not even want digital marketing as it can potentially "attract negative responses that remain unanswered", kicking up more issues for them to deal with.
In addition, brands are not skilled or resourceful to open up their content or marketing activities to include user-generated reviews, he pointed out.
"The online [world] is beyond just a reputation management system, from a brand perspective," Chin said. "It is also a place where it can gather insights based on the conversations out there which in turn inspire strategy and tactic making."
Reviews and social media as opportunities
Brands that wish to make user reviews work for them will need to "re-calibrate" their approaches to communications, marketing and customer service, Burson-Marsteller's Nooruddin noted.
He explained that user-generated reviews often deal with both positive and adverse customer service issues, experienced by consumers, and brands need to integrate their efforts internally to better succeed at sales. "The activities of a marketing department can no longer be viewed and considered in a silo, since the activities of sales, after-sales, and customer service plays an equally powerful role in determining positive or negative product and brand experiences had by customers," he said.
Kelvin Quee, head of partnerships at JamiQ, added that a brand should "play social media to its advantage". Citing Dell as an example, Quee said the hardware giant has over 5,000 employees engaging customers using social media--generating US$3 million in sales in 2009. Social media returns on investment (ROI) "can't get better than this", he pointed out in an e-mail.
Dell's achievement marked a turnaround from a "major social disaster in 2005", when well-known journalist and blogger Jeff Jarvis complained in a blog post about "awful after-sales service" from the company . The incident eventually escalated and even gave rise to the phrase "Dell Hell". What followed was a re-examination of its new media strategy, Quee explained.
Chin of Fleishman-Hillard agreed that brands should view social media as opportunities to further engage with its targeted audience and "humanize" themselves. Social media did not "invite criticism", he explained, and it allows brands to even better engage their audiences and "make them advocates".
"It helps in brand recognition, recall and favorability," he said. "Brands will be able to stimulate dialogue with customers and build relationships with useful content, regardless positive or negative, to help create meaningful discussion."
At the same time, Chin noted that organizations do not need to worry unnecessarily about user-generated reviews, which are "authentic" and go a long way online and even offline as trust is built in incremental steps. Contrary to popular belief, online audiences are objective and the online community self moderates, he pointed out.
When users pose a "not so positive" comment or review, brands should instead view it as "I do like you but in this instance, you failed to meet my expectation--I am helping you meet my expectation", he advised.
Listen, engage, be sincere
JamiQ's Quee said at the end of the day, brands must "hear through the noise" to what consumers are really saying. "Everyone needs to listen. Even listening passively lets you know what you are doing right or doing wrong.
"If you do something about what you have heard…that is immensely powerful."
Social media, he added, should not be purely a sales medium. According to Quee, AirAsia and StarHub as some of the "most enlightened organizations" using social media as both an outreach channel and support mechanism.
Staying true to corporate and brand values is also paramount. If a brand is dishonest, no amount of corporate investment or "whitewashing" can save it, Quee warned.
Chin concurred that brands must be genuine and sincere in their approach and "respect the community's rules". Consumer behavior can and should be influenced through compelling content--businesses must not try to "make a sale", he said.
"Give the community a reason to respond, share valuable and useful information which will give them utility and make them go 'wow'," Chin added. "Participate with them, accept your brand weakness and what they have to say, and thank the community for their feedback."
Brands must also be careful not to view social media as a campaign, Chin cautioned. Social media is a commitment and consequence of what they do and brands must think long term and engage users in a timely manner, he said.