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Talk it up
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At the other end of the spectrum are blogs, where marketers exercise no control over what’s posted about them by other parties, and also risk taking lumps close to home if they host a blog on their own site. Consumers have a particular sensitivity to what’s authentic-or not-on a company blog, and if they take issue with what’s presented by the company there, they’ll respond either right on the spot, if it’s a blog that accepts outside posts, or in forums elsewhere in the blogosphere.
Dealing with the truth
The potential upside of blogging is that positive buzz in the blogosphere can boost both brand presence and search engine rankings. And properly handled, company blogging may deepen trust between the company and its audience. Microsoft, for example, had hoped to release its new operating system prior to the holiday season but wasn’t able to do so, to the disappointment of its partners that sell computers. “They distributed the news through their blog as well as other places, but they talked honestly about it, about how much code is involved, and how hard it is to update it,” says Technorati’s Gordon. “No one loved it, but it was the truth. People are better able to deal with the truth than not.”
But what works for Microsoft won’t necessarily work as well for every brand marketer or every retailer, and it would be a mistake to assume they all need to start blogging, industry experts say. “Any brand that misbehaves, is going to be subject to retaliation now, particularly if they have a lot of digital consumers,” says Crump. “If Crest, for example, doesn’t do what Crest is supposed to do, there are 100 blogs where that is going to get out. That doesn’t mean Crest should have a blog. It just means Crest should do the best it can to deliver on the promise of its brand.”
It also means that whether or not brands, marketers and retailers themselves decide to blog or pursue any other vehicles to capture and present the consumer voice, they should use the methods now available to them to understand consumer opinion as it emerges in these new online outlets. The blog-tracking Technorati presents one such opportunity; Nielsen BuzzMetrics, a service that searches the web on behalf of marketer clients for consumer recommendations, opinions and comments, is another. Interactive agencies wrap professional services around their use of such monitoring tools for their clients. For DIYers, blog search tools available at Google offer another means of getting at what consumers are saying to other consumers about a brand, retailer or product.
Looking to each other
As online shopping and marketing goes mainstream, the web presents an enormous number of choices for consumers. “People are overwhelmed with marketing messages so they look to each other for guidance and turn to each other in blogs, in places such as Epinions and BizRate, and increasingly, on web sites,” says Brett Hurt, CEO of BazaarVoice.
The consumer voice on the web supplies what some say is missing from the online shopping experience: the input and influence of other shoppers in the store. So the online consumer buzz around brands and products is in a way, nothing new, but simply another venue for the people-to-people exchange that has existed since the dawn of retail and will go on for as long as people shop-whether merchants are listening or not.
“I think the marketer today has a choice,” says Andy Chen, CEO of PowerReviews. “You can either ignore it and close your ears-or you can actively engage.” l
All the places marketers need to keep an eye on
“Consumers have a range of tools at their disposal today that allow them to let their voice be heard through consumer-generated media,” says Dana VanDen Huevel, director of new business development at Pheedo, an online advertising platform that delivers contextually relevant ads along with subscribed content such as blogs to consumers’ RSS readers. Among the tools he notes:
• Blogs: Customers that write blogs can be evangelists, vigilantes or both. Whatever side of the fence they’re on, it pays to get to know them and read their blogs.
• RSS: Subscriptions to the blogs and web sites of sources that consumers trust give them a constant flow of information on products, services and experiences from across the web.
• Opinion and review sites: Statements about marketers’ products and services are scattered throughout the web. Places like Amazon.com, complaints.com and epinions.com have thousands of customer reviews that are worth mining for insight.
• eBay: Some companies are using eBay as a pricing research tool because the potential consumer data is immense, especially for second-hand and grey-market products.
• Testimonial sites: Web sites and services like KudosWorks are making it easy for customers to offer testimonials on a brand’s or retailer’s products, and those of their competitors.
• Newsgroups: While blogs get most of the attention these days, newsgroups and USENET are still alive and well. Searching groups.google.com can yield insights from engaged customers.
• Flickr and BuzzNet: Online photo sharing sites where customers take pictures of the products they use in their daily lives can yield a treasure trove of data that would never be found in a focus group
• Tagging: The words consumers use to describe or refer to a product or brand may be different from the words used by the brand or product manufacturer itself. Using sites such as Technorati.com to search on a product’s associated keywords can unearth blog posts and photos that customers have tagged in this way.