The art of (online) conversation

Have you ever felt so passionately about a product and shared the love with your friends that you thought you could be an ambassador for the brand? Or conversely, have you ever found yourself openly criticising a brand online and wondered why no one from the retailer had bothered to contact you? We’ve probably all been in at least one, if not both, of those camps before.     

The fact is, there are hundreds – if not thousands – of conversations happening about a multitude of brands every week. We all know about the power of social media with many taking to fan pages to share their praise or criticism. But there are other channels that people choose to share their opinions – and often negative views – that many brands fail to consistently monitor, with many not covering these channels at all.

There are two of note: product review communities and online message boards. And it’s time for brands to get wise on both fronts to help shape the discourse around the business, maintain – or repair – brand reputation in some instances, as well as demonstrate to existing or potential new customers that they are listening and care.

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Both product review sites and message boards can be fairly complex to navigate. But those that take time to absorb how these communities operate and are dedicated to the cause (by engaging on a daily basis) will find themselves in the winning corner in the long term.

Both channels have their nuances, merits and pitfalls to consider. Let’s take a look at them.

Product review sites

Product review sites are fairly black and white when it comes to interpreting what consumers think about brands and their respective products – the name does what it says on the tin, after all. There are, however, a few things to consider when entering the fray on behalf of a brand that will dictate how successful you will be.

Finally, don’t wear your heart on your sleeve. It may be easy to wade in heavy-handed when a consumer criticises your business and act defensively in response. But they are entitled to their own opinion. All you can – and should – do is listen to what they say and think about how to help them fix and/or prevent a similar scenario for other customers in the future.

Secondly, consider these channels as both an extension of your customer service footprint and your PR activity. These are communities where you are engaging with your customer base one-on-one – but others are watching your every move, and that includes media too, ready to unearth a story of a consumer taking on the big guns. Don’t be a statistic of a brand that reacts badly to their customer base, but be considerate, attentive and willing to find a way forward to turn a potential one-star review into a five down the track.

Thirdly, if a consumer is thanking you and openly praising you for your products, you should consider how you utilise this. They are positive advocates who you want to keep on side and keep within your ecosystem the next time you make an announcement or new release. They are invaluable allies who will openly tell others about your brand and products and you want to keep actively engaged. Make these customers feel special, tell them you want to keep them informed and that you recognise their voices. It’s a bit of ego-stroking but it could be a master stroke in the long run, especially if these consumers have large audiences to talk to.

Message boards

Message boards (or forums, as they’re often called) have served as key conversation portals since the internet began. But they’re harder to monitor and engage with, given the speed at which the conversations develop there, as well as the volume of people who actively engage at any time. 

However, with the sheer number of message boards that exist, it’s likely your brand could be talked about daily, weekly or monthly without you even realising, or intervening to steer the conversation towards key facts and messages. So how can you take control? Here are a few considerations.

Consider the state of play

Message boards are just that: open “bulletin boards” for people to talk and chat with peers to share their opinions or get involved in a debate. Unlike product review sites which are highly “transactional” and where a person goes on purely to leave a review, message boards are platforms which facilitate ongoing conversations and debates that everyone can watch and join in on. The majority of people who participate on message boards are active users who understand there is a “community dynamic” that others must observe before they stick out like a sore thumb and leave themselves open to widespread criticism. If you find your brand being spoken about, enter carefully, observing rules of conversation. People will respect that you have taken time to engage and enter into the discourse. It shows a good, targeted level of customer service and care.

Be open

Disclose who you are within the community and make yourself known to the board administrator so they know you are responding from a brand. Anything other than honesty about your role and agenda will be met with cynicism. Show you are willing to enter the space and have a presence. More people may open up to you and ask questions and they could either be existing or new customers. But, either way, it’s a valuable environment for you to be involved in. 

Don’t stick to a script

You can’t just send one message and leave. Once you enter, you are in it for the long haul. This is a new customer service line for you, and it could end in building strong brand advocacy through sensible and open two-way conversations which will provide a strong impression for those looking in from the outside. Being personal makes individuals feel at ease and will put your brand top-of-mind for a wider group of new customers on the hunt for a new product in your category.

A final point to make is: be human. Don’t litter digital platforms with corporate-speak or jargon. Be real, be humble and be relevant. These channels enable you to bring your brand closer to your audience. This will help to build trust and uphold brand and company reputation accordingly.

Ultimately, when going into product review sites and message board arenas, you need to be savvy and open-minded. Even if they start on a negative note, these environments are a great gateway for having positive conversations, building your brand advocacy and, cumulatively, your overall brand equity – if you play your cards right. Just respect your audience and show willingness to participate and you will be rewarded.

Adam Freedman is head of consumer at Red Havas and has consulted numerous brands and retailers across Australia and the UK on their marketing and communications strategies.

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