Using the power of public opinion
Blogs and postings can enhance or ruin a brand’s reputation, but owners should beware of trying to influence online debate, argues David Benady
Social media is changing the rules of brand marketing. No longer can brands simply rely on beautifully crafted advertising campaigns and clever public relations strategies to influence consumer opinion. These days, they have to contend with 24-hour commentary from blogs, vlogs, online forums, review sites and other social media dispensing opinions about the performance and quality of their products.
Unless they engage with these views headon, their reputations can slip beyond their control. But there are pitfalls in trying to influence social media. Attempts to sway the direction of a debate can appear intrusive when the discussion concerns a brand’s own performance. But if the brand covertly contributes to social media under a false identity, for instance by setting up a blog without declaring its interest, it can suffer strong criticism if it is discovered.
Certain brands have little alternative but to engage with social media. In the automotive industry, comments on blogs and forums can strongly influence the way a new car launch is perceived. BMW head of marketing innovation Jo¨rg Reimann says there are about 15 million blogs in the blogosphere and he believes that 35,000 are writing about the BMW 1 Series Coupe, the company’s latest launch.
Speaking before its launch in June, Reimann said: “Already social media have taken notice of it and are writing about it. The demand is there and the users are there, and we have to test which are the right channels to communicate.”
Reimann believes the rapid evolution of different forms of social media means the company has to constantly keep an eye on developments. “There’s a revolution out there due to the fragmentation of media. We have to identify the channels that are most relevant and deliver the right content and information,” he says.
According to Steve Davies, managing part-ner at Experian Integrated Marketing, BMW attempts to influence Web chat among brand enthusiasts to ensure it gets positive coverage. This it achieves, he says, by identifying brand advocates on forums such as m3post.com and contacting them through the forum’s private messaging system to feed them exclusive titbits of information. Offering privileged access to updates on new launches, such as exclusives on new advertising or specifications, is an attempt to increase the advocacy of these enthusiasts. “BMW feeds information into forums, it gives advocates key snippets they can then relay to the community. It is about giving them a sense of esteem and presence that feeds their advocacy,” says Davies.
However, BMW’s Reimann denies the company is involved in this, saying there are far too many blogs and forums around for it to have the resources to attempt to influence them individually, one at a time.
But Davies says there are only about half a dozen key forums concerning BMW launches, and he knows the company tries to influence them. He says: “I’m not surprised they might wish to deny it, as the key thing is not to stand out. They have their own blogger IDs such as Scott 26. They certainly come on forums around new model launches. They are not high-posting users, they just come on and say this is coming soon. BMW deliberately tries not to sound as intelligent as you would expect a marketer to.” Davies argues that brands need to understand the psychology of online forums, where people crave self-esteem and status, both as individuals and for the whole community. By giving advocates exclusive pieces of information that they can then disseminate to a forum, it creates goodwill. Potential brand advocates can be identified on forums from users with the highest post counts or the ones starting the most widely read threads. But Davies says it is important the brand owner doesn’t put any spin on the information it contributes to a discussion. Instead, it should simply give data and information and hope the advocates spin it themselves.
Declaration of interest
Separately, a Moneysupermarket.com spokesman admits that the company tries to influence Web forums, but says that it always declares its interest. “If we do interact with other blogs, chatrooms and forums, we make it evident who we are; members of staff identify themselves and are transparent in their transactions,” he says. There are many examples of what is known as “astro-turfing” or “flogs”, where companies establish blogs promoting their brands without revealing their identity.
But new rules to be introduced as a result of the European Union’s Unfair Commercial Practices Directive could outlaw this fake blogging, as it may be perceived as a misleading commercial practice. A brand that fell foul of accusations of astro-turfing was Wal-Mart in the US, which was criticised last year for using underhand tactics to influence opinion online. Two bloggers travelled across the US in a camper van, staying each night in a different Wal-Mart carpark and blogging about their experiences as they went. They failed to mention, however, that they were being paid for the trip by WalMart in a stunt organised by public relations firm Edelman. This caused considerable consternation when it was revealed.
Edelman was at the centre of another controversy over the launch of Microsoft’s Windows Vista software. The company sent influential bloggers free laptops worth $3,000 (£1,464) with the software already installed. Some believed this was tantamount to bribery, though others criticised bloggers who wrote reviews of the software without acknowledging the company had sent it to them for free.
Even so, many believe that Microsoft is one of the companies that takes social media seriously as it seeks to promote its reputation online. As Tim Gibbon, founder of Elemental Communications, says: “On the whole, the fact that they are looking at this space is positive and they are unlikely to repeat that performance.”
Gibbon also points to Cadbury Gorilla ad as an effective use of social media to quash the negative perceptions of the brand after it was hit by a salmonella outbreak. He calls it a “very simple, brand restoring campaign”. Cadbury has also claimed that its decision to revive its Wispa brand was in response to demands by Facebook users to it bring back years after axing it Another brand commended for its interaction with social media is Dell, which is seen as a convert to the cause. Its customer service had earned a reputation among bloggers for “Dell Hell”, but the company worked hard to take on board criticisms from blogs and forums and some say it has turned around its customer services performance as a result.
However, some brands have become victims of negative comment on social networks and have suffered at the hands of gripe sites and bloggers who have exposed faulty goods or poor customer service. HSBC was forced to abandon plans to scrap interest-free overdrafts for students earlier this year after thousands of undergraduates on Facebook threatened a boycott. Land Rover became a victim of adverse social media comment last year when a disgruntled user launched a blog called haveyoursay.com, where he listed his gripes against the company, which also successfully rose up on the natural rankings.
Meanwhile, Henry Elliss, head of social media at Tamar, points to toy manufacturer Mattel’s recent product recalls over lead in paint as an example of a brand that failed to use Web opinion to defend its reputation. “It is about having a two-way conversation. Mattel didn’t have a conversation with its customers. Its website could have had a blog on it with a human voice instead of a PR voice. The company had plenty of time to act. But many brands dont have a forum for a two-way dialogue,” he says. Despite these arguments, there are still plenty of marketers who remain sceptical about engaging with social media at all. Virgin Atlantic sales and marketing director Paul Dickinson says: “Social media is not the most effective way to get through to our customer base. We’ve got other priorities.
But Mark Tomblin, director of strategy at online agency TBG London, says brand owners are burying their heads in the sand when it comes to social media, he says. “It is easier to find brands that haven’t interacted with social media than those that have. There are quite a few marketing directors who aren’t 25 and don’t find the internet credible. They don’t use it and they don’t understand it.” He believes that social media is turning the established attitude to brand power on its head. “Social media is the control freak’s worst nightmare because you can’t have complete control,” he adds.
Most observers say that brands should use the commentary of social media as feedback about their performance. Rather than trying to influence the debate online, it is better to spend energy getting the product and customer service right. If the brand messes up, admit it and resolve the problem. But whatever you do, don’t try and become a hidden persuader. You will only get found out.
The practical implementation of corporate blogging presents many problems. Adopting an open dialogue and putting a human face on communication are admirable goals, but difficult to guarantee consistently. Internal and external rules get in the way, particularly in heavily regulated industries. What can be done in a crisis, when that “open dialogue” and “human face” become a liability, not an asset? Withdrawing access risks undoing all the goodwill created by a blog, while continuing the same level of accessibility becomes undesirable – or dangerous – due to a lack of control.
So, should corporations blog? As long as they differentiate between the concept of blogging as medium or message, between having a blog and “being a blogger”, then it can be a valuable marketing tool. As a medium, blogs are fast, cheap and easy to use; a relatively small amount of effort is needed to make blog content visible to
a large potential audience. So, if blog audiences have significant overlap with a key market, of course their use should be considered. On the other hand, for the most part corporations should not “be bloggers”.
With exceptions, such as software and technology companies, big businesses have little to gain and much to lose by exposing themselves in this way. The main advantages of the format to the unregulated, personal blogger – speed, ease and immediacy of use; the ability to enter in detailed discussions about posts – are negated by regulatory and internal red tape, and the potential embarrassment of being forced to climb down from open dialogue with stakeholders in the face of a crisis.
In failing to recognise a blog’s role and to use it appropriately, marketing is at fault. Many mainstream marketers seem to have little interest in the medium, leaving it to specialist consultants, who frequently are too heavily invested in the idea of corporate blogging to take a balanced view of its value. Successful blogging is an outcome of good integrated marketing, and it is in the interest of us all to help decision-makers to understand this.
Chris Thomas, head of research, Infonic Media Analysis. firstname.lastname@example.org