A Little More Conversation

Ivan%20RisticSocial media is exposing brands to new threats and opportunities when it comes to reputation management. So what’s the best approach to monitoring online conversations? By Ivan Ristic.

In October 2008, Virgin Atlantic sacked 13 crew members who posted messages on a Facebook group that mocked passengers, called their planes “old bangers”, revealed details of cockroach infestations and alleged engine maintenance issues.

Just this month, British Airways faced a similar online threat to its reputation as Gatwick Airport ground staff branded the £4bn Terminal 5 at Heathrow a disaster.

More damaging still, they also described BA passengers as “smelly and annoying” and mocked US passengers’ accents. The net effect in both cases was localised, online embarrassment, triggering widespread mainstream media coverage and significant reputational damage.

What is being said about a brand online can have an even more immediate and direct impact on a company’s bottom line too. In September, a mix-up on Google sent the share price of United Airlines plummeting by 76% when a nearly six-year-old story detailing the airline’s bankruptcy filing in 2002 found its way back into Google’s news cycle. This triggered a massive sell-off of the company’s stock as inaccurate information and innuendo propagated itself online.

What’s clear in hindsight is that damage caused by such incidents could have been prevented or mitigated, in most cases, if effective online monitoring had been in place.

What remains unclear is that with so many examples of brands having had their fingers burned, why are so many organisations not listening properly to what is being said about them online?

The power of peer-to-peer
Traditionally, a brand’s reputation has been shaped by customers, employees, suppliers, the media, regulators and other key stakeholders. This is still true today, but what has changed is that these audiences are increasingly communicating online.

Previously hidden conversations held around the office water-cooler, at conferences, in the pub and across the garden fence are now available online for millions to see and participate in.

As consumers continue to place more trust in word-of-mouth recommendation from peers, the role that these conversations are playing in how brands are perceived has never been more powerful or profound.

We believe that online conversations are a huge opportunity for brand and communications managers who are willing to listen and act on them. In the past we had to pay huge sums to conduct surveys and focus-groups to get areal understanding of what the public thought of our products and services and those of our competitors. Today that intelligence and so much more is out there in blogs and forums, social networks and numerous other digital platforms.

Yes, online monitoring needs to act as an early warning system, but it also holds real value in generating insight which can power thinking across an entire organisation.

What’s your digital footprint?
So how should your organisation be approaching online monitoring? The first step is to conduct a comprehensive Online Audit to identify where, when and how your brand is being discussed online. This process should begin with Google, the gateway to the internet, and where the “first impressions” of your brand online are formed. Look closely at the first page of Google to identify negative results which could be damaging.

To get a complete picture, it’s essential to look beyond just blogs. Look across social networks at platforms like YouTube and Flickr, which hold multimedia content. Don’t jump to conclusions and exclude particular digital platforms – you’ll be surprised how far and wide conversations about your brand can go.

A thorough online audit should also benchmark the quantity, quality, frequency and tone of mentions against key competitors. This can be a big exercise and should be carried out by experts who know where and how to look and listen online.

Audits generate huge amounts of brand intelligence which usually result in a sense of excitement and an urge to start responding to what has been found. That enthusiasm is brilliant, but don’t make the mistake of rushing in.

An audit is very much a snap shot of activity, and it is only through ongoing monitoring that you can identify which blogs, groups or forums are actually the most influential and identify how they connect to each other and to the mainstream media.

It’s the process of identifying and tracking those connections over time which gives on-line monitoring its ability to authoritatively help shape communication and marketingstrategy.

A.I. versus human intelligence
Even for relatively small brands, the volume of online conversations being generated on a daily or weekly basis can be staggering. It’s both virtually impossible and hugely inefficient to manually identify and monitor hundreds or thousands of digital platforms for mentions of your brand.

Effective online monitoring requires the use of automated software tools. The past 12 months have seen the emergence of competing online “buzz monitoring” services, many of which promise the earth and have a price tag to match.

These solutions all have their strengths and weaknesses, but too many companies are making the error of signing up to these services in isolation. It’s a fact that the complexities and subtleties of human conversations can’t be fully analysed by pieces of software, however clever they claim to be. There is simply no solution which can effectively conduct online monitoring and offer actionable insight in an automated way.

Having found where your brand is being mentioned online, you need expert analysis by communications professionals to accurately assess tone, identify and flag potential issues early and, above all, extract real business intelligence.

VirginFrom passive to active listening
Online monitoring should not be seen as a passive process. The end goal is not producing thick weekly reports full of pretty graphs, but real understanding about how stakeholders interact with your brand online. As both the Virgin and BA examples demonstrated, speed is essential when it comes to responding to online threats.

Online monitoring can give you those vital few hours to avert a potential crisis, but equally it can identify more slow-burning threats to your organisation, such as employee dissatisfaction or poor customer service. In the end, consumers want to buy from brands thatreally understand them – and really understanding people without listening to them is next to impossible.

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