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Word of Mouth Begins With Consumer Affairs

  |  May 16, 2006   |  Comments

No more boiler-room call centers! Treat consumer affairs as a central part the marketing process.

Word of mouth is all the rage these days, but how can we make headway in this important area if the talking department and the listening department live in completely different silos? Moreover, how we can we enter the conversation without nurturing and listening to our most intimate conversations?

Yes, you've heard this from me before, and I'll keep saying it until my editors boot me from the CMO column. There's a conspicuous, almost-comical division between the marketing and consumer affairs departments, and this makes absolutely no sense in this age of consumer control, media fragmentation, and engagement as a core advertising effectiveness metric.

Talking to the Call-Center Folks

Last week, I gave a speech entitled, "The ROI of Listening," to the Society Of Consumer Affairs Professionals. These folks staff the call centers, read the feedback forms, answer the frequently asked questions, and manage other consumer-voice touch points. Though it was encouraging to hear this group was starting to think about word-of-mouth marketing, there was no question in my mind the group is operationally severed from the marketing folks waving and parading the word-of-mouth banner. This conclusion was fortified after spending several hours visiting a parade of vendors largely serving operational needs of the consumer affairs department.

Competing Incentives

Big brands are vexed by competing incentive structures for managing consumers. These colliding incentives send mixed signals to consumers and ultimately erode shareholder value.

On one hand, marketers are exhausting all resources and paying premiums to reach elusive and fragmented consumers. Word of mouth and consumer generated media (CGM) have become new focus areas for marketers because there's an inherent, almost intuitive efficiency in free media generated by engaged, enthusiastic consumers. This helps explain the rise of the 300-member strong WOMMA and the creation of Procter & Gamble brands like Tremor (targeted to teens) and Vocalpoint (targeted to moms), grounded in unleashing the viral advocacy of social connectors. Agencies, including new divisions of PR firms, are popping faster than I can say "CGM" with promises to help find influencers or build buzz.

The Neglected Stepchild

On the flip side we have the consumer affairs department, the neglected stepchild of the organization. It's usually stereotyped as the non-strategic cost center backwater where rowdy and atypical consumers direct complaints. The name of the game is operational efficiency. This group is rewarded by finding vendors that reduce the need to add more consumers to the database by creating FAQ engines and reducing time spent with each consumer.

Can You Say Disconnect?

Here's the rub: consumer affairs is the most intimate feedback pipe to the same vocal consumers marketers are struggling to reach, understand, and leverage. At a time when marketers, in the name of entering the conversation, keep getting slapped, dogpiled, and embarrassed by clumsily stepping into hostile conversational territory, consumer affairs may well be the most controllable lever to manage today's vocal, active, and influential consumers.

Why? Because the consumers most likely to express their feelings directly to brands are the same folks who create media (opinions, product reviews, blog posts, photos, homemade videos, podcasts) and post them on the Internet for other like-minded consumers to see, read, and share. The gold is actually right under marketers' nose.

Consider the chart below. Everyone's obsessing over initiating relationship with bloggers. Bloggers are precisely the type of folks most likely to provide feedback, send email to companies, and beyond. They are more powerful and, hence, more important.

Question: In the last year, how often haveyou done each of the following? Bloggers
(mean index)
Nonbloggers
(mean index)
Posted original comments or provided feedback on other Web sites 8.24 3.61
Participated in chat rooms, online forums, or discussion groups 6.91 3.55
Sent email to companies or politicians 4.55 3.94
Forwarded something you've found on the Internet to others 6.97 5.91
Been published/quoted in an online newsletter or someone's Web site 4.04 2.02
Source: Nielsen BuzzMetrics 2005 Consumer-Generated Media Engagement Monitor (August 2005 survey of 660 online consumers)

Don't interpret this as a sympathy card for the consumer affairs department. Frankly, most consumer affairs departments have gotten lazy, all too frequently pointing to the legacy of marketing ostracism, indifference, and budget austerity to rationalize complacency. Indeed, with the exception of Unilever's commendable "We're Listening" approach embedded in Dove's Real Beauty campaign, have we really seen any noticeable innovation in the presentation, look, and feel of consumer feedback forms in the past few years?

Key Next Steps

Marketers should immediately start thinking about how to extract more value from consumer relations. They should treat consumer affairs as not only brand radar but also a central part of the marketing process. Some key steps:

  • Reengineer the concept of consumer: Instead of asking only for tried-and-true, traditional information on feedback forms, I'd beef up profiling by asking consumers about online behaviors, such as: Are you active on Internet forums (if yes, which forums? How often? Do you post text, images, video, audio, or all four)? Do you author your own blog?

  • Warm up the Web site interface: I'd run extensive usability studies and focus groups on the Web site feedback interfaces until I was convinced consumers who express their feelings felt valued and important, even if they're sending complaints. Word of mouth emanates from passion. Passion is emotional. Feedback tools, like advertising, should always try to deepen an emotional connection. Most feedback interfaces are insulting.

  • Fast-forward consumers to the feedback pipe: Because consumer affairs is rewarded to reduce contacts, feedback forms are pushed to the unreachable depths of the brand Web site. Yet marketers spend big bucks to externally acquire influencers. Like Unilever's Dove brand, I'd openly invite feedback on the front page, not the last or hardest-to-find one. And I'd demonstrate through smart segmentation modeling that in doing so I can acquire valuable, potentially influential consumers far less expensively than an overpriced agency can.

  • Modernize the feedback pipe: A huge pain point is the fact that consumer affairs is totally out of synch with how consumers express themselves. Online consumers talk with photos, audio, video, links, and more. Companies completely miss the big picture. If consumers want to write, call, email, send a video, forward a URL, or provide a personal podcast, I'll make sure my technology is updated and can accept their feedback, in whatever format they choose to deliver it. This is what 360 listening is all about.

The chart below shows how consumers communicate in ways companies aren't actively absorbing.

Form of Consumer Expression Viral Quotient Is This How Consumers Talk? Is This How Consumer Affairs Listens?
Letters Low Yes Yes
E-mail High Yes Yes
Telephones Low Yes Yes
Instant messages High Yes Yes
Text messages High Yes No
Photos High Yes No
Videos High Yes No
E-mail links High Yes No
Blogs High Yes Maybe
Ratings and reviews Med high Yes No

Final Word

If trusted expression is marketing's new currency, marketers must take full advantage of the outspoken consumers who have real experiences with their products. It's time to break down the silos between consumer affairs and marketing. Right now!

Meet Pete at Online Video Advertising Forum in New York City, June 16, 2006.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Pete Blackshaw

Pete Blackshaw, whose professional background encompasses public policy, interactive marketing, and brand management, is executive vice president of strategic services for Nielsen Online, a combination of Nielsen BuzzMetrics, a firm Pete helped cofound, and Nielsen//NetRatings. One of Pete's key focuses is helping brands interpret, manage, and act on consumer-generated media (CGM). A former interactive marketing leader at P&G and founder of consumer feedback portal PlanetFeedback.com, Pete cofounded the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA). He authors several blogs, including ConsumerGeneratedMedia.com, and is the author of an upcoming book from Random House, "Satisfied Customers Tell Three Friends, Angry Customers Tell 3000: Running a Business in Today's Consumer-Driven World."

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