Don’t shy from the human touch

The ability of the internet to generate positive or negative reaction is undisputed, but too many companies are slow to realise the value of talking consumers’ own language

Used correctly, the internet is the best way to humanise your company – much more so than any amount of brand building through conventional media. Thanks to its 24/7 nature, the internet is almost a cross between a reference library and a shop.

The results of online communication are becoming too obvious to ignore – witness the case study opposite, in which boring old bricks and mortar are zapped into the 21st century. And it really isn’t rocket science. All that’s required is a bit of ingenuity and a willingness to be open and up front with consumers.

Another example of the power of communication was in evidence this month. Soon-to-be-floated Google, which has generated controversial headlines for its anticipated move into e-mail, found itself further out of favour. Consumer activists searching on the word “jew” discovered to their horror that the first listed site was a notoriously anti-Semitic, Holocaust-denying site.

Google was slow to respond to complaints. But after an online petition garnered more than 100,000 signatures in a matter of days the company was forced to do something. The unpleasant site stayed in the top spot, or thereabouts, but Google placed a notice on the search results page explaining its position. This boiled down to the fact that although it too was repelled by the site’s content, Google’s editorially neutral policy meant it was unable to interfere with its search engine rankings.

This may not have satisfied everyone, but at least it showed Google was willing to have a dialogue and was listening to criticism. In the event, the offending website was subsequently removed, thanks to action from the internet service provider on whose servers it was located.

What impressed most about Google’s message to its users was that it went beyond paying mere lip-service. It spoke the language of today’s internet generation: casual, intimate, direct. That kind of tone is still something which is alien to far too many companies, accustomed to arrogant disdain or knee-jerk defensiveness.

But the real hero in this little saga was of course the consumer.

The internet has made it so much easier to be an “activist”. Tens of thousands of signatures are collected in days or even hours. Online petitions sprout out of nowhere. Blogs (Web logs – personal online publishing) are producing a generation of consumers accustomed to instant action and instant results.

Companies have so much to gain from embracing this new mentality, and so much to lose by ignoring it.

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