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More effective marketing through blog monitoring.

Web logs--so called after the manner of ship logs and now affectionately shortened to "blogs"--first appeared in the mid-1990s in the form of online diaries. Social scientists questioned what type of people would post intimate details of their lives for all the World Wide Web to see, but they may have wondered more about the folks who actually read them. It seemed like an unusual fad for the flashy and voyeuristic that would surely fade in time.

Fast forward to 2010 and blogging is now a mainstream phenomenon that's here to stay. More than 75% of Internet users read blogs, according to market research firm Universal McCann. The Nielsen Co. said this translates into 10% of all Internet time being spent on blogs spent on blogs and social media sites. Data from 2007 from the research firms of Synovate and Marketing Daily reported that 8% of Americans write their own blogs, but that percentage has surely increased to well more than 10% by now. Web experts point out that blogging has evolved over the years to become much more interactive, with many blogs now featuring chat rooms and vast online communities. The din of all this chatter has reached corporate America, and companies are increasingly jumping onto the blogging bandwagon.

Companies want to learn what customers are saying about them online, they want to join the conversation--and this isn't just for the Fortune 500. "No matter what the size of the business is, it's of absolute importance to know what customers and prospects are saying about you in the online space," said James Burnes, senior digital strategist for MediaSauce, an Internet strategy and interactive agency.

Lauren Vargas--community manager for Radian6, a blog monitoring and analyzing company--pointed out that blogging not only provides insight and information about individual companies but also industry buzz and what competitors are doing or not doing. "From 2007 to 2009, there was a misconception that this was just a fad, that bloggers sat around in their pajamas and couldn't harm a company. That was never the case," she said. "Going into 2010, the question is no longer: 'Why social media?' but 'How do we integrate this into our business?'"

What do you do when your company is the source of negative comments? How do you address such feedback, and do you do it publicly or privately? Social-media experts say such incidents happen--but maybe not as often as you think.

Isn't It all Negative?

Monitoring online feedback is essential to keep track of what's being said about a company in the blogosphere. Indeed, more effective advertising and marketing efforts is one of the most lucrative outcomes of online monitoring.

"There are real cost efficiencies to doing this," Vargas said. "Companies get wrapped up into thinking their lingo is the message that their customers want to hear, but it's usually not the case. By listening to blogs, companies can pick up the key words and lingo that their customers are using, and that can really help the bottom line when it comes to marketing and advertising."

Janelle Barlow--president of TMI, a training and consulting organization, as well as the author of the book, "A Complaint Is a Gift"--also said that tuning into blogs saves money. "You don't have to invest in focus groups and research. Just listen to your customers," she said.

Who wants to spend time and/or money listening to a lot of criticism? This is one of the biggest misconceptions out there, according to the blogging experts. "Many companies are scared to enter this realm, fearing it will be all negative," Radian6's Vargas said. "It's not. There's a lot of positive feedback--about your products and services, about your brand, about what your competitors are doing. The same conversations that people are having at preschools and day cares, at church, at the market--these are what are occurring online. The negativity is minimal."

MediaSauce's Burnes agreed. "In the digital and social media spaces, people are very happy to share good experiences," he said. "They're happy to blog or tweet or post an update to Facebook about a good experience with a product or service. It's dramatically different from traditional outlets like customer call centers or even mail. People like to spread the word: 'This widget is fantastic.'"

As great as it is to have positive feedback, the negative information is still good to know. "You need to understand the issues; and if there is a problem, you need to get customers on your side," Vargas said.

Author Barlow said she truly believes that customer complaints are gifts. "Number one, they're still talking to you. Many customers won't complain, but they will leave," she said. "Number two, you're going to learn something from them."

Barlow also pointed out that resolving disputes is one of the surest ways to create customer loyalty. "Business people often make the mistake of thinking that loyalty is created when everything goes smoothly, but that's not the case," she said. "Loyalty is created when problems are fixed. It's just like people in relationships--everything's going well and that's fine, but a couple typically grows stronger when they face challenges together."

When a company does come across a negative blogger (see sidebar for more step-by-step directions), it's tempting to get defensive and go on the attack, Barlow said. "When engaging with complainers, thank them for their feedback," she advised. "Ask them questions like: 'How could we have explained this better?' Take them inside the company and make them a partner. Partners are less likely to condemn, especially when they see you taking responsibility and fixing the problem."

Start With "Passive Listening"

For those who view blogging as intimidating, Radian6's Vargas said it's crucial to keep an open mind. "You don't have to jump in with both feet," she said. "Start out with passive listening--find out what is being said about you, about the industry and about the competition. Once you're comfortable with that, you can progress to active listening [meaning you can participate in the online conversations]. It doesn't have to be all or nothing."

MediaSauce's Burnes said two excellent starting points are establishing presences on Facebook and Twitter, two of the foremost social media networks. "Go to where your customers are already," he explained. "Those help businesses make connections on social platforms." Next, Burnes recommended using the three biggest Internet search engines--Google, Bing and Yahoo--to look for blogs with references to your company. "Go out to Google and type in 'blog' and your company name and see what pops up. Look at what appears in the first 15 to 20 pages," he said, adding that it's also possible to sign up for Google Alert. "This is a free notification service that lets you select key words--company name, executives' names, phone service--that will e-mail you when these [words or phrases] surface in blogs. There are a lot of good tools out there."

Vargas echoed that sentiment, adding that other free blogging tools include Social Mention and Twitter alerts, but she said the downside to using the free tools is the time it takes to sift through and analyze all the information streaming in. For companies that want to bring in the big guns, they can retain blog monitoring companies such as Radian6, Autonomy Interwoven and Visible Technologies. "To really harness listening tools, you need to determine which tool best meshes with your organization's culture and what measurable objectives do you want to achieve," Vargas said.

Reports From the Trenches

Nemont Telephone Cooperative (Scobey, Mont.) has had a Facebook page since last May. "We want to demonstrate that we know how it works and understand how it impacts your life," explained Sabrina Ramey, marketing specialist at the telco. "We think it's much more friendly to do a blog rather than write a press release and hope the newspaper picks it up."

Ramey explained that the telco has mainly used its Facebook presence to post pictures of public relations events, run announcements and post local photos, such as homecoming pictures of students. "That was popular and really targeted the demographic that we were after, so we were pleased," she said. "Some telcos have used their Facebook pages to put up demo videos--like how to program your new cable modem. We haven't done that yet, but we might in the future."

Once a company has more than 100 customers on Facebook, its name appears in the location bar of the browser after www.facebook.com. "This is your own personalized address," Ramey said. "That's a real benefit."

Overall, Ramey said she's been pleased with the response. "So far, all of the comments have been good. We'll keep targeting the younger generation because they're our next generation of customers.

Nathan Collier, product manager of Internet and systems engineer for Ellijay Telephone Co. (Ellijay Ga.), set up his telco's Facebook page last August. "We view it as a relationship-building tool," he said. "You must have employees who can interact in a professional yet casual way. It's not the typical marketing propaganda."

The biggest surprise has been the demographics. "We expected to find teenagers and younger people using it," he said. "Instead, we find 40 and above, and it tends to slant toward more females than males."

Like at Nemont, the response has been positive. "We'll post questions on there to keep it current and interactive: 'Do you like the cover on our new directory? What TV shows are you watching? How long have you had broadband service?'" Collier explained. "We're getting set to line up new programming for our cable TV offering, and this is one means for us to gather information."

Collier admitted that it's hard to measure the return on investment on something like this, but he said it helps give a face to the organization. "Customers know they can come to us for solutions, and we'll be there for them," he said. "It builds trust and goodwill and differentiates us from our competitors. It's an opportunity."

RELATED ARTICLE: Defining "Blog"

In 2004, the dictionary publisher Merriam-Webster declared "blog" its "Word of the Year."

Here's the official definition:

* Main Entry: blog

* Pronunciation: <'blog, 'blag>

* Function: noun

* Etymology: short for Weblog

* Date: 1999

* A Web site that contains an online personal journal with reflections, comments, and often hyperlinks provided by the writer; also: the contents of such a site

RELATED ARTICLE: Complaint?

If a customer complains about your company online, James Burnes--senior digital strategist for Media-Sauce, an Internet strategy and interactive agency--recommended taking these steps:

1. Acknowledge the complaint and say that you want to do something. "It's critical as a business to convey: 'We heard you; we're surprised; we want to rectify this,'" Burnes said.

2. Realize that you must deal with the complaint in the place where it was registered. "Just like if we were at a party and someone said something bad about you, if you left the room people would think it was true and that you weren't taking responsibility," Burnes explained. "The online space is no different."

3. Understand that you may not want to do the actual rectifying in the public space. "This could be inviting confrontation," Burnes said. "Instead, say: 'Here's how to contact us directly,' or ask for the person's contact information. I always recommend that you get on the phone with people."

4. Provide follow-up in the public forum so that the other readers can see that you took responsibility and took action. "Obviously, you're not doing this for the person who complained. He or she already knows what the resolution was. It's for the rest of the community to see how you handled the situation," Burnes said.

5. Encourage the complainer to post his or her own resolution. "That speaks volumes," Burnes said. "You want to leave a trail of bread crumbs to let everyone know you're a good player in the marketplace."

6. Recognize that some people do not want a resolution. "These are unhappy people. They want to rant, they want their soapbox. No matter what you do; they will not be satisfied," he said. "Be careful with these people. In the public space, note that you took the call and did X, Y and Z to resolve the problem. Others will see this and realize that clearly the company has done all it could and that this person is being a bozo."

RELATED ARTICLE: Getting Burned in the Blogosphere

The Information Superhighway is blazingly fast--so fast that a company's reputation, one that may have taken decades to develop, can be trashed in five minutes. Think it can't happen? Ask Toyota and Apple.

In November, when Toyota issued its first recall on millions of its cars because of accidental acceleration, bloggers started talking, with posts spiking two-and-a-half weeks after the recall. Additional and expanded recalls in January soon led to even more online discussions centered around the phrases "Toyota recall" and "Toyota safety." Soon this degenerated to "Toyota sucks."

Digital media expert Tom Lyons said Toyota's biggest misstep in handling the recall was its attempt to delay, deny and downplay. "Admit the problem, apologize, focus on the fix, and move on," he said. "Little kids learn this stuff the first time they get caught with their hands in the cookie jar."

Earlier this year when Apple Computer unveiled its newest device, the iPad, the blogosphere lit up with complaints. It didn't have enough features, it was too big, it cost too much. Many marketing professionals pointed out that Apple inspired its own backlash by overhyping the iPad in the first place. "In essence, the iPad needed to be all things to all people--and there was no margin of error," said Jason Ankemy, an electronics device expert.

In both situations, these companies must explain and defend their brands and constantly work to keep consumers updated and in the loop. "In cases like these, companies that remain silent or dole out information in irregular or tiny portions are viewed as hostile and uncaring," said Gene Grabowski, senior vice president of crisis and litigation at Levick Strategic Communications, a crisis communications firm. "And if they don't tell their story (i.e., explain what's happening), their adversaries will."

Rachel Brown is a freelance writer. She can be reached at rachelsb@aol.com
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Author:Brown, Rachel
Publication:Rural Telecommunications
Date:May 1, 2010
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