July 30, 2007, 12:00 AM

Customers raise their voices

Web 2.0 user-generated content gives consumers a megaphone they never had before. And it provides e-retailers a new way of gaining insights into what customers want and don’t want—without having to ask a single question.

It can take a while to ferret out useful customer feedback from user-generated content in Web 2.0 settings like online forums, blogs and social networks. But it can be worth the time and effort when that feedback can be transformed into strategies that make customers happy. Just ask Ms. Ferret—Kristen Onasch, to those in the know.

Onasch moderates The Ferret Store’s online customer forum at pet supplies e-retailer Drs. Foster and Smith. She is in charge of providing information, engaging customers, monitoring content, and compiling customer insights and feedback on a daily basis. The e-retailer’s management depends on her to keep them informed on whatever ferrets’ adoptive parents have to say.

Drs. Foster and Smith, which plans to add dog and cat forums, acquired The Ferret Store in February and made a public transition beginning May 1. When the news hit, worried customers of the 10-year-old ferret emporium inundated the online forum with questions and requests. “I spent a lot of time in those initial weeks assuaging fears,” Onasch says.

While poring through customer content, Onasch immediately got to work making sure management heard customers’ voices. “People started listing products they use on a daily basis, wanting to make sure Drs. Foster and Smith carried them,” she recalls. “At the end of each day, I compiled their comments and suggestions and sent them to management, which then looked into bringing products onboard. We have since fulfilled a number of the product requests, including Critter Litter, a ferret supplement called Nupro and Fuzzy’s Foamy Fries, an edible chew toy. It really helps having the forum.”

With Web 2.0 user-generated content, e-retailers have a new way of gaining insights into what customers want and don’t want, what they like and don’t like. Customers provide the answers without retailers having to ask a single question.

The fastest growing media on the Internet is that created by consumers, not by institutions or corporations, says Max Kalehoff, vice president of marketing at Nielsen BuzzMetrics, a research firm that specializes in measuring consumer sentiment and desires in user-generated web content. “It’s one thing to have answers from a survey panel of 1,000 people. It’s another thing entirely when you are looking at 3 million people to identify brands and experiences.”

And millions is the word. Consumers are mad about Web 2.0 venues. In June 2007, blogs received 63.1 million unique U.S. visitors and social networks received 115.1 million unique U.S. visitors, according to comScore Networks Inc., a research firm specializing in consumer behavior.

But to successfully gauge customer sentiment, e-retailers still must ask questions. And some are finding culling Web 2.0 content complements the fundamental customer feedback electronic tool, e-mail surveys that guide consumers to an e-commerce site web page that lists questions and typically offers space for additional input. Hand in hand, the two methods can give merchants a full picture of what customers are looking for. Further, e-retailers can toss into the mix feedback-solicited and unsolicited-gained by customer call center staff.

E-retailers must use these methods to gather and delve into all possible information and learn to uncover and track trends before they pick up steam, says Rob Harles, senior vice president of marketing solutions at comScore. “E-retailers must anticipate customer desires,” he says. “Read the chatter online and find the key influencers; then you can build a plan ahead of time.”

The right skills

That’s what Drs. Foster and Smith is trying to do. Like the transition of ownership of The Ferret Store, the recall earlier this year of tainted pet food that originated in China triggered a flood of input via the online forum and customer e-mails and calls. The company took the bad news and turned it into an opportunity to engage customers and gain their input.

An opportunity

“Our foods did not have wheat gluten, so there was not a problem for us. But there were many questions and comments,” says Gordon Magee, Internet marketing and analysis manager at Drs. Foster and Smith, which relies on its online forum and e-mail surveys for opinions. “The web site and our forum provided us an opportunity to respond to customer concerns and feedback so they could get information right away. We posted information on our site and sent e-mails and even made phone calls to customers. The response was excellent; our customers were very positive toward the company and thanked us for contacting them.”

Identifying the right people to monitor online forums and other social sites is critical to ensuring important feedback makes its way from the web to management, Magee adds.

“Staff who monitors Web 2.0 information must be able to do more than simply identify a crabby customer,” he says. “They need to know how your company handles customers and be able to match that philosophy in their own personality and in how they communicate in a forum. They must know how to communicate in writing in a very effective way. And they need some marketing savvy so they can convey the company’s marketing messages. For instance, for us, we’re not just about selling product, we want to educate our customers, we want to be known as the pet care experts.”

Garnering feedback from Web 2.0 venues is so important to executives at Abebooks Inc. that they have designated one employee to monitor the merchant’s online forums full time and another to scan other forums, blogs and social networks part time.

“Today you have exponentially more information with Web 2.0, on top of things like e-mail surveys that collect feedback in a matter of hours. You have to deal with information overload,” says Boris Wertz, COO at Abebooks. “So we place responsibility for collecting customer feedback in people we trust to differentiate important information from unimportant information. They then channel up the important information. This is the key to the whole thing.”

Scanning content

The customer service staff member responsible for monitoring the e-retailer’s booksellers and book buyers forums scans content on an hourly basis, checking for happy and unhappy customers pointing out positive experiences or web site problems. If the monitor spots a problem, the staffer sends the information to customer service, management and marketing teams, which decide how and when to act.

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