Forging a truly interactive dialog between marketers and consumers has been the central premise and promise of online media. Yet, as Blake Cahill, vice president of marketing at Visible Technologies, explains below, faced with a new reality in which thousands, even millions of consumers are engaged in active, often passionate conversations and communities about products, most brands remain tone deaf and tongue-tied in their response.
Behavioral Insider: How serious are marketers about online conversations and how they relate to branding?
Blake Cahill: There are four distinct stages marketers are in when it comes to understanding social media. First... [is the] 'educational' phase. These are companies that basically have no idea what social media is. Then there are clients who've made the leap and are really listening. They are turning on the tools and are participating but are still experimenting. The next group, 'the learners,' are saying, 'Hey this channel really matters. There are now 10 thousand people out there talking about my brand. I need to find out what's being said about us and why.' And then finally there are 'the engaged,' who know they need to go beyond listening and actually engage with the conversation. What we've done is build a platform that makes it possible to do that serious engagement.
BI: Once a brand moves beyond or is ready to move beyond education or more passive 'listening,' how does engagement develop?
Cahill: The first thing brands are doing is determining the relevancy of conversations. That entails, to start with, looking at the volume of conversation generated by particular brand-related topics or issues, and then digging into the level of seriousness about comments and the commenters. To do that, brands need to distinguish, for instance, between "drive-by" comments and comments that identify serious advocacy, or, conversely, serious criticism. So, the first challenge is to get a clear measure of sentiment out there. Beyond that, brands want to determine who really matters in the conversation, who the influencers [are] that have the most to say and are most listened to in the conversation.
BI: What's the role of technology in all this?
Cahill: In theory, a brand could do that by reading every single remark and following every single post about their brand that appears anywhere online, but when you're dealing with literally thousands or tens of thousands of different conversations going on every single day, that becomes impossible. You'd have to have people manually poring all day and night through Technorati or Google Alerts. What we do is automate what we call sentiment scoring by having a scoring engine cull all the different conversations that are going on and identifying the key issues and influencers.
This process needs automation but it can't be just technology-driven. Brands have to define the parameters of the engine's search. They need also to teach the engine what is important for it to be listening for and what isn't, as well as what kinds of expression and sentiment are relevant. As a basic example, if you have a mobile wireless client looking to reach teens the engine has to understand that if a user says something is 'wicked,' that's a good thing, not a bad thing.
BI: What are the benefits of using automated scoring versus human scoring?
Cahill: We go out and collect conversations against specific keywords and sentiment parameters that brands provide and identify where and with whom brands can enter the conversation. This gives them an opportunity to respond in a meaningful, compelling and creative way to advocates, or potential advocates, as well as detractors.
BI: Can you cite an example of how a sentiment-based campaign works?
Cahill: An example of how that works was a program Microsoft put in place to promote an event they had coming up to launch new software. They wanted to increase interest in both the event and the software adoption among developers. What we did was target key influencers in the development community through locating conversations going on online. By directly engaging with these conversations in social media, Microsoft generated three times the pay-out they did via paid search ads.
BI: You've talked about larger or established brands. Is this kind of targeting relevant to smaller or start-up firms, say?
Cahill: As important as it is for established brands to engage in conversations, targeting conversations is also a critical and efficient way for start-ups or early-stage companies to build awareness by developing a reputation as an expert in the space. Even for a big well-known brand, conversations are not only an opportunity to promote existing products but also a key venue to establish thought-leadership, which in many ways is even more important for brand positioning. Panasonic, for instance, has not only monitored discussions about itself, but all discussions related to the topic of LCD versus Plasma screens, not necessarily to push their brand but to engage the community of passionate consumer electronics influencers as a technology resource.
BI: How do you see your approach as relating to a wider mix of marketing options?
Cahill: Targeted engagement in social media can yield great benefits on its own -- but increasingly, it's also being used with advertising as part of the overall media mix. For a car launch, for instance, engagement can be used to help seed the marketplace by identifying influential advocates. Going forward, our goal is to see our platform become far more integrated into customer relationship management, business intelligence measurement, and media targeting. Also on the horizon are innovations in the number of ways clients can measure influence and the further deployment of languages to support our expanding roster of multinational customers.