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Qualitatively Speaking: Building relationships with consumers in today's social world

Article ID:
October 2013, page 32
Jennifer Holt

Article Abstract

The author outlines the FRIEND approach, which brands can use to help establish bonds with consumers via social media.

Editor's note: Jennifer W. Holt is director of marketing and business development at Illumination Research, Mason, Ohio.

Today’s world of posting, creeping, crawling, scraping and buzzing can cause many CEOs to become weak in the knees. Gone are the days of stand-alone, scheduled mass-media campaigns with measurable and predictable ROI. We are now on the forefront of complete integrated marketing communications plans, with social media often making up a large piece of the ugly stepchild pie.

Much like the 1990s, when the Internet was evolving from a governmental research platform to a selective mainstream data resource, the 2010 decade has also brought about a wealth of information and reach that was unforeseeable and wide open with possibilities. The phenomenon we’re experiencing goes beyond Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and blogs. Its coverage is larger, its reach is wider and its pace is faster than ever before. A simple statement or phrase that may have previously been dismissed as “mere” word-of-mouth or buzz is now so powerful it can damage a company’s solid reputation and performance. Organizations that spent decades, even centuries, building a trustworthy reputation now fear a viral event that, with a few multiplying clicks, can shatter a solid reputation.

For the first time in history, consumers control a large portion of marketing information and have self-granted, persuasive marketing power that can often dwarf the most expensive and well-planned campaigns. How did this happen? After all, WOM and social relationships have been around for decades, right? One person tells a friend, who tells another, etc. In the old days, perhaps a circle of friends was impacted in small, one-to-one or one-to-few relationships but today, one-to-one can become one-to-one-million within hours.

Friending, following, Liking, linking, posting, commenting, tagging and sharing seem harmless on the surface and even helpful to brands. It’s free publicity, right? But these days, does the phrase “All press is good press” still hold true? The fact is, user-generated content can be good or bad or contain great information or false information or even cold, hard lies.

Whether it’s a worker licking a stack of taco shells at Taco Bell, bathing in the sink where utensils are washed at Burger King or using his mouth as an ice cream cone at Wendy’s, the recent examples of photos and videos of employees gone bad are many. Are consumers really so naïve they would believe one person’s actions speak for an entire company? Unfortunately, the answer is yes and one small comment or picture can put a company at risk of a viral epidemic.

Given the fact that these companies have a solid and trusted social presence, the question isn’t if companies like Wendy’s or Taco Bell will overcome these viral events. They surely will. But the question that still stands is, why do they become newsworthy? Why do we, as members of the virtual society at large, participate in such mindless chatter and why do our “friends” listen?

Ever since the days of school rumor mills, WOM has had quick spreading power. Friends are persuasive, familiar, trusting and trustworthy. And, even in instances where a viral story may not be true, we don’t want to be excluded. Although many theories exist, the reason may go back to basic human needs. Once our physiological and safety needs are met, we have a need to belong.

As it turns out, the social world, even if it’s comprised of “virtual friends” who are “reality strangers,” may fulfill this need when they Like or share our comment. The higher the clicks, shares and likes, the higher our esteem, right? Test this theory on yourself. When you post a picture, doesn’t it make you feel great when your friends Like it? The more likes, the better you feel.

Isn’t always negative

In his book Satisfied Customers Tell Three Friends, Angry Customers Tell 3,000, Pete Blackshaw explored the power of negative news and how it spreads quickly and often in an exaggerated fashion. But what virals and spirals isn’t always negative. Jonah Berger, in Why Things Catch On, and Malcolm Gladwell, in The Tipping Point, explore the social and psychological paradox of infectious information and why one-to-one information, whether positive or negative, has the power to reach tens of millions.

The theories of tipping points, viral epidemics and infectious disease comparisons aside, it all comes back to one simple fact: Consumers have more talking power than ever before. (The world’s largest focus group needs a moderator!) You want them on your side.

Sociologist Scott Feld speaks of the digital reflection of the “friendship paradox” and generally speaking, the more friends someone has, the more likely they are to gain more friends. (The average Facebook user, for example, has over 200 friends.) So companies – let’s get popular! Let’s not just go through the motions but let’s follow a few basic real-world relationship tactics and apply them to the virtual world so we can be a good FRIEND.

Here are the six steps in the FRIEND process:

F = Form a foundation. Companies are defined socially every day, one comment at a time. Although consumers have freedom of speech, companies have marketing dollars that can be used to form a solid social foundational presence that works in combination with traditional advertising. This effort acts as proactive positioning.

R = Refine the position. When company or brand becomes the victim of employee misdeeds, it’s important to react quickly and appropriately. Employ PR and, as Mark Twain so famously stated, “When in doubt, tell the truth.” The truth might hurt at first but in the long run, truth is the reason companies like Johnson & Johnson don’t fall during crises like the Tylenol scare.

I = Interact and communicate. Relationships are a continuous two-way conversation. If consumers don’t know, they’ll assume and we all know what the word “assume” can lead to. Participate by interacting, engaging and communicating. Conversations and chatter are important and even powerful if the information is harnessed, categorized and analyzed. Data is powerful.

E = Evolve and adapt. Be aware of historical successes and failures so lessons can be learned and pitfalls avoided. What got you here, as a company, brand or person likely won’t get you there. Actions need to evolve. Rising to the top is difficult but staying on top requires continuous climbing.

N = Nourish and grow. Relationships are built on growth. Change is good as long as it’s representing forward motion and active thinking. This nourishment comes back to survival of the fittest. It’s a proactive, consumer-centered approach to a marketplace that is moving at warp speed. Companies need to be prepared to listen, act, react and nourish. Keep your consumers involved and engaged. As Henry Ford once said, “Coming together is a beginning, keeping together is a process, working together is a success.”

D = Devote time. We live in a 24/7/365 world so be sure your participation is consistent. We all have friends that come and go but true friends are an ongoing and active presence in our lives. Companies can harness this same behavior and remain top-of-mind. Put in the time to build relationships based on trust and make way for a future that will move quicker than we can predict, one that will be driven by the public.

The virtual social world is here to stay and the next viral lick heard ‘round the world could very well be on one of your company’s plates. Although we can’t control the unknown, we can nurture the FRIENDships we have with consumers. Build a strong foundation so when cracks happen, you might stumble but you won’t fall.

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