What's the relationship between search and brand reputation?
In the age of consumer control and CGM (define), you'd better know the answer to that question before writing your next memo to senior management on the latest cool new thing in the digital space. Trust me, the reputation question is far more important.
Indeed, search and brand reputation share an inseparable, symbiotic relationship, and CGM is the dominant, if not final, arbiter of that marriage. That puts the exercise of managing brand equity on the thin, precarious line between control and capitulation.
I recently started a strategic consulting unit within my company and now commence virtually every major client engagement with the online equivalent of a category management exercise. A core assumption here is the awareness, consideration, trial, and purchase cycle of new products and services consistently starts with what consumers see on the shelf, whether on Google, MSN, Yahoo, or Wikipedia.
Nothing fancy or sexy here, this is all about the fundamentals. At Procter & Gamble, they call this the first moment of truth. I'm convinced that same mindset must pervade how we think about brand assortment and presence online.
By "assortment," I mean search results' composition, tone, and texture. I mean search or shelf results that affirm rather than distract and interfere. I mean reflecting as hard on whether consumers engage or precipitate a click-through as on whether they run for the hills after staring at the shelf.
Most important, I pay incredibly close attention to the placement and density of CGM on the shelf. If a hostile YouTube video rises to the top of a search on a brand- and category-specific query, I factor in certain assumptions draw from my TV-copy training about the persuasiveness and viral nature of sight, sound, and motion. I even overlay assumptions about the net impact if the consumer only sees the video headline (e.g., "Watch X Product Break in Five Seconds") but doesn't click or engage. Fragments, half-views, and bits all matter.
Then there's a deeper level of shelf analysis. If Wikipedia owns the first result when I type "sprint," "verizon," or even "tide" into Google, I devour the structure of Wikipedia's shelf, looking for reputation residue that indicts or anoints the brand. Remember, Wikipedia entries are masterfully constructed by a collective of search-obsessed passionistas who hyperlink to relevant content with the intensity of A-list bloggers.
You Are What You Search
In both pleasant and unsettling ways, companies are quickly learning their brand equity and credibility is the sum total, and composition of their search results. They're also beginning to internalize (usually the hard way) that CGM is now the fastest-growing source of indexed content in search results.
Consumer content powers today's Web. At the end of the day, that content -- particularly that which ignites conversation, memes, or link love -- is resurrecting itself smack in the middle of the consumer's purchase or consideration cycle.
That means, in essence, we're all hostage to the conversation. Good, engaging conversation gets lots of link love, and most major search engines open their page-one, A-list invite to the link-love magnets.
The only real hedge against crowd wisdom is that which we're willing to buy in the paid-shelf periphery. But in that situation, as they say, you gotta pay to play.
Reputation and the First Moment of Truth
Organic search has a different type of investment strategy, usually bordering on long term and often operational. Sustainable shelf optimization requires going back to the root cause of what influences CGM and figuring out how to set the conversation in the right direction. The solution here may have less to do with paid media than with such foundations as customer service, employee training, product quality, Web infrastructure, and corporate mission and philosophy (e.g., social responsibility, commitment to sustainability).
If brands think they can drive favorable shelf presence with gimmickry, manipulation, or next-day PageRank, they'd better think twice. And the corporate or brand blog, while promising in setting a better context for dialogue, will only go so far if there's isn't a compelling, credible message, one bloggers can't pick apart by juxtaposing (via hyperlinks) disconnects between what the brand says and what consumers actually experience:
|Shelf Impact on Brand Reputation|
|Example||Role of CGM||Reputation/Shelf Impact|
|Product rant||Link love, echo||Cannibalizes brand's shelf; more eyeballs exposed to negative|
|Site video||Link love (well timed)||Dominant shelf position; free, positive advertising impact|
|Diaper complaint||Affirmation, echo, link love||Highly targeted in long-tail queries, dialing up impact|
|Wikipedia definition||Link love, reference||#1 or #2 placement on search results; dominant voice in reputation|
A favorable shelf takes time. It requires meaningful conversation and a new attitude beyond traditional media models to nurture the right shelf.
Remember, your brand standing is your shelf landing.
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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."