Consumer Wrath… And How to Avoid It

I frequently write about the importance of respecting consumers. It’s not hard to understand why; they are, after all, the reason I have a job. They control the media, not me or my clients. Consumers are even gaining power over programmers and editors. Without consumers, we have nothing: no one to talk to; no one to sell stuff to; and no one to persuade. I suspect my clients won’t pay me to talk to no one.

The Internet’s raw power, both as a marketing vehicle and a P2P (define) communications medium, magnifies respect’s importance. Show users too many pop-up windows, and they’ll download pop-up blockers. Get in their face with an ad that’s too intrusive, and they’ll let your client (and, in all likelihood, the publisher hosting your ad, too) know how they feel. They may even write a blog entry, and, before you know it, the whole online community is up in arms and boycotting your company — or worse.

Scared? Think I’m being melodramatic? Just ask PriceRitePhoto.

Briefly, Thomas Hawk was shopping for a camera, found what seemed like a great deal, and tried to place an order. The company pulled some nasty stuff on him. Rather than just take it, Hawk wrote a detailed post to his blog. The post got picked up by a few other blogs and community and Internet news sites, and the whole thing absolutely erupted. There were reports people were constantly calling PriceRitePhoto to tie up their phones in support of Hawk. Hackers attacked the site. Consumers rallied and went on a rampage. They ultimately got PriceRitePhoto removed from PriceGrabber, CNET, and Yahoo Shopping.

Then, PriceRitePhoto tried to change their name. Hawk busted them again by posting the new name to his blog. The story was picked up by “New York Post,” Forbes.com, and “The New York Times.” Hawk had email exchanges with the Better Business Bureau and the New York Attorney General’s office. The whole thing has been going on since at least last November, with regular updates (24 total as of last week) posted to Hawk’s blog.

PriceRitePhotophoto.com doesn’t seem to be live any more. Seems this whole thing chased the company into oblivion, or at least away from that domain name.

That, my friends, is why respect for consumers is so important.

True, this is an extreme case. It’s really not a result of overly intrusive or offensive advertising. If everything Hawk has written about PriceRitePhoto is true, it probably deserves whatever fate befell it. More reputable companies with valuable brand names may be better positioned to defend against this kind of thing. But it’s now so easy for consumers to voice their opinions to the entire world that it’s flat-out dangerous to disrespect them. Advanced ad technologies offer incredible promise, but they also walk a fine line between getting people’s attention in a positive way and just plain ticking them off.

I’m not suggesting you walk away from anything intrusive or rich. Just be careful. Use common sense. Respect the consumer’s time. Understand the context of the site and placement your ads will run in and where the consumer’s head is at when your ad comes up. Checking a bank statement or doing some detailed research around mortgage rates is probably not the best time for much beyond a basic Flash ad, if that. Make sure you’re not the first advertiser to run rich media (especially the more intrusive varieties) with a publisher. Savvy audiences that have been exposed to rich media more often have a tendency to understand the tradeoffs of free content and advertising. Ensure the publisher (and/or your rich media partner) enables proper frequency controls so you and your fellow advertisers don’t overwhelm an individual user.

Include a close button on anything interruptive. Give consumers full control over audio and video. And if you have any doubts, conduct testing with a small group before going live with an entire campaign. Make sure there’s some kind of plan in place to respond to any upset consumers who email you, just in case. Prep the customer service team with appropriate responses, or at least make sure they know where to route any incoming complaints.

It may sound like a lot of work, but most of it can be carried forward to future efforts. Rest assured, it’s much better than the alternative.

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