Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Andy Sernovitz's Rules on How to Manage Negative Word of Mouth

Andy Sernovitz' "Word of Mouth Marketing" provides some good insight into word of mouth or viral marketing.

If you've been involved in Web 2.0 and social networks, some of the book is not new -- today. But two years after it was published, the book is still relevant -- which is unusual among marketing books, especially those focused on the quickly-evolving social networking world.

A decade ago, prospective clients would ask, "How can we get on Oprah." Today, prospective clients ask about viral marketing, expecting PR itself to deliver the answer.

According to Sernovitz, the key to word of mouth marketing is to give people a reason to talk about your stuff, and making it easier for that conversation to take place. As examples, he cites the elaborate packaging of gifts purchased from RedEnvelope.com (sometimes recipients are more impressed with the packaging than in the gifts, Sernovitz says). Or Zappos free & fast shipping and no-questions-asked returns policy that enables customers to return shoes even 364 days after purchasing without paying for shipping.

Clearly those examples go beyond traditional PR -- and into a company's culture.

But PR can help clients package information to make it easier for talkers -- those customers and employees who serve as informal or formal brand ambassadors.

And PR can certainly help companies manage negative word of mouth.

Here are six key points Sernovitz makes, along with my commentary:
  1. Know what people are saying. Too many companies aren't tracking what people are saying about them online. For one cause-related marketing client, we found that people on Twitter were writing about the initiative -- something that was driving action to the site, but not showing up via Google Alerts or other monitoring services. Doesn't mean it wasn't happening, just that at first we couldn't measure it.
  2. Build credibility before you need it. The time to start engaging people in a conversation is before a crisis or a problem. After writing about how companies are going pro-active about layoff news, I checked out one company that posted a heads' up on its blog, and that the blog had been regularly updated with news and observations. So they had built credibility on the company's blog. But I saw that there were a couple of Web 2.0 sites they had only started working on a few weeks earlier, and so had not had time to build up credibility among these other communities. This company (not a client) will do fine, but it might have helped to make sure it has a presence on key sites to build that credibility.
  3. Show that you are listening. Dell has done a terrific job of monitoring sites and responding appropriately to negative comments, and has turned people who had complained about Dell into evangelists for the company. The Web 2.0/social networking is all about engaging in a conversation, not just talking at audiences.
  4. Enable your hidden supporters. These are people who like and support your company but are not necessarily your Talkers. According to Sernovitz, the best way to engage them is by conducting an open conversation with them about the issue at hand.
  5. Convert critics when you can. Seems basic. Sernovitz says companies should treat critics like valuable customers and to try to win them over with special treatment. It's well known that people who have had negative experiences are more vocal than those who have had positive experiences so it's important to work to try to win over/back critics.
  6. Don't try to win. You can't always win, so try to at least tell your side of the story. I've seen that on eBay feedback, where a buyer says something negative about a seller and the seller responds saying something negative about the buyer. Setting the record straight can at least enables others to make their own more informed decisions.
One other point Sernovitz makes about responding to blogs is worth citing. Don't forget that blogs are upside down, the most recent posts are higher up, and newer posts show up higher in search rankings. So people who come upon your response may see that first before the initial complaint. "How you end the story is what people see first in the permanent record," he writes. So it's important, when responding, to be clear about how you want to frame the situation.

For more, check out "Word of Mouth Marketing."

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