In the age of Yelp, Twitter, and Facebook, few companies can avoid dealing with online customer feedback. A one-star boost can translate into dramatically higher revenue; at the same time, a single tweet of discontent could become a public relations disaster. Given that many consumers say they rarely make a purchase without—at the very least—a Google search, managing online reputation has quickly become a key aspect of proper brand management.
So what should companies do to leverage online feedback and protect their reputations? For Derek Rucker, a professor of marketing at the Kellogg School, there are steps companies can take to ensure that their product or service is fairly judged—and reaches as many consumers as possible.
“Of course, it always starts with the product. Brands that want to survive need to create quality products and services that fill a genuine consumer need,” Rucker says. That is always the first step.” Consumers have access to more information than ever before, making it more difficult for companies to churn out mediocre products without customers catching on—word will eventually get around, and often much quicker than in the past.
Seek customer endorsements. “If you have a great product, ask how you can give customers the opportunity to showcase those products.” The cosmetics company L’Oreal incorporated this concept into part of its marketing strategy in Europe by making sure that its beauty products were in the hands of people who could promote them.
Encouraging online customer feedback can help companies build their brands by tapping into existing digital networks. Rucker points to the rise of services like BzzAgent, a Boston-based social marketing and brand advocacy company, as evidence that “word of mouth” campaigns are becoming a larger part of the conversation. The company invites consumers to test new products for several weeks at a time, then passes customer feedback along to the companies that supplied the products. “Strong products will benefit from this attention, especially when customers promote them across their online networks,” Rucker says.
Be authentic. Important as it is to generate buzz, companies also need to maintain the authenticity of their brands. “Consumers are much more likely to trust information from other consumers than from brands,” Rucker says. “When brands do speak, they have to speak to their brand equity—what they can deliver on—and not try to be something they are not. The clear communications across consumers makes it all too easy for consumers to catch an inauthentic brand.” This also means that brands leveraging consumers’ voice must be sure that it is clear those voices are authentic and not biased or co-opted by the brand. When Dominos launched its Pizza Turnaround campaign, the company invited food bloggers who had criticized the original recipe to review the new pizzas, which came across as authentic.
If a product or service becomes the target of heavy criticism, Rucker says, companies now have the opportunity to respond in real time. “If someone stays at a hotel and tweets a photo of their messy room, hotels monitoring social media are in a position to respond immediately—whether it be an upgrade or a personal apology.” Given that negative reviews can have more impact than positive ones, companies that are in a position to address criticism immediately and effectively should consider doing so.
Pick your battles. Of course, companies—especially larger ones—may not wish to address every minor negative review that comes their way. In fact, companies that respond too quickly might fan the flames of an otherwise negligible issue. Brands have to consider picking their battles. “One consideration is that companies should ask whether they can aptly speak to a concern,” Rucker says. “If someone writes a negative review of a product on Amazon, but the person’s complaint is that the color of the product does not match their own personal taste—that’s not a concern a brand necessarily needs to address. It is a fixed feature of the product that might be idiosyncratic to the consumer and probably is less likely to cause stir online.” In other cases, brands may not want to rush into a conversation, but allow it to develop online. In some cases, brand advocates might refute an irate consumer’s criticism, leaving no lifting to be done for the brand.
Deal with facts. “It’s easier to respond to a negative review when you are dealing with facts as opposed to opinions,” Rucker says. If, for example, a customer complains that a new software product is incompatible with his or her current operating system when it actually is compatible, “the company can point out—politely, of course—that the customer is incorrect.”
“In the end, savvy customers should not be swayed by a single and poorly informed negative review. If you have a genuinely good product, and you put it in the hands of customers who are able to tell people why it is good, the online feedback you get will reflect that.”