These words can be scary to marketers because they signify a profound shift in the nature of their relationship with consumers. Now that consumers are empowered to publish, comment on and contribute online a brand's "story" has gone from being unidirectionally handed down to the public to being a multidirectional collaboration. As frightening as this may sound to some marketers, over the last 15 years, I have seen the ways in which it has created great opportunities for brands and for marketers.
Here are five tips I've learned while helping to guide brands through the thicket of social media, search and reputation management.
1) Listen Before You Speak
Get to know the particular modes of discourse for the online communities you are interested in before you try to engage them. For example MySpace users, Facebook users and LinkedIn users have very different expectations about how people in their communities interact. Think of it as if you were walking into a cocktail party in someone else's house, where everybody else knows each other, and started pitching people your products. If you don't want to be viewed with suspicion (if not outright hostility) sit back, watch and listen. Find out how information is exchanged and who drives opinion in a particular social network.
2) Join the Conversation but Leave the Agenda at Home
To extend the party analogy, when you do begin to venture forth into conversations it should be natural and agenda-free. Really try to engage rather than pitch. It's important to be honest about who you are. This builds up your trust so that when you have something important to say, you're already part of the club.
3) Paid Search Gets You Out in Front
When a crisis breaks out for your company, the official statement you post on your website has to fight for search results space with breaking news stories and blog entries, both of which tend to get preferential treatment. In these situations, Paid search is too often overlooked as a key crisis communications tool. Paid search is easy to control and it's fast and flexible. Paid search gives you the ability to respond and basically guarantee placement in top results immediately, providing short-term response that protects your brand and informs consumers. I used the recent tomato scare in my presentation to show how McDonald's, despite taking proactive steps in their stores to pull tomatoes, still showed up in the headlines of negative news stories that dominated the top search results on Google. Hunt's Ketchup responded swiftly however with a paid search ad that clearly stated the safety of their product and helped turn a crisis into a positive brand defining moment.
4) Create Value
If you want people to spread the word about your brand online text-filled press releases alone won't cut it. Take advantage of the web. Give people things they can easily re-post: Graphs of data that supports your response, infographics, headshots, a list of links to supporting content, even a social media application, anything that will enrich the dialogue and encourage deeper engagement.
5) Integrate Your Approach Across Platforms -- Be Consistent
All of this interactive communication between your brand and your customers cannot exist in a vacuum. The brand values that you espouse offline are the same ones you should be reinforcing online. Use your offline media to funnel consumers to the more personal (and measurable) online experience. Use online to help spur your consumers to be brand advocates for you offline. It all ties together.