What Are Your Customers Saying About You?

We talk a lot about creating profiles on our site visitors and how we can use this data to target prospects, but we forget that these people are also profiling us at the same time. Every time someone interacts with a company, he or she is forming an opinion of the company, its products, and its people.

Potential customers are comparing us to the competition and telling stories about us according to their experiences. In the offline world it’s hard to track what individuals say about a company, but on the web we can monitor this profiling and we can target messages into these interactions.

It’s well known to marketers that customers who purchase innovative products have a different personality than customers who buy the same product later. The highest growth rate for innovative products in the technology adoption life-cycle occurs when “early adopters” gather information, build a profile of the new product, make a purchase… and then tell others about their experience.

While it’s well known that this process occurs, it’s been hard to fully understand what’s being said in the market about a product at any particular time in the product cycle. Prior to the popularity of Internet, consumers had to search for people who had purchased products in which they had an interest, but today there are many places on the Internet where people record their experiences with products.

The oldest is the collection of several thousand Usenet newsgroups where people post opinions on practically everything. Unfortunately, the open, unmoderated atmosphere of Usenet allows spammers to fill discussion groups with posts trying to sell every product imaginable.

The relatively new services that combine web postings with email discussion lists, such as Topica and eGroups, make it easier to monitor such discussions. And since these services have a list owner, many of these discussions are moderated well enough to keep out the spam.

At times, the discussions in these communities will touch on a particular product or company, and occasionally there is so much discussion both positive and negative that it becomes easy for prospective customers to develop a profile of the company.

For instance, a relative of mine considered doing business with a travel network in Florida that offered attractively priced vacation packages. When we used search engines to research the company, it quickly became apparent that many consumers had had bad experiences with the company, and several states had sued it. Since the discussion areas didn’t have any comments from company representatives, and nothing on the company web site indicated they had taken steps to solve these problems, we concluded it would be best not to deal with that company.

Monitoring customer comments about a company on the web can be a full-time job in itself, or marketers can monitor these discussions with a variety of services such as eWatch, MarkWatch, NewGate, and WebClipping.

Another way to be aware of what profiles are being drawn of you is to track the bookmarks of your site. When a user of Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 5.0 bookmarks your site, you have an opportunity to brand your site with a graphic that identifies you. This graphic icon, called a “favicon,” is saved on the user’s computer in the Favorites menu. Then, when a person views that bookmark (okay, Microsoft calls it a “favorite”), the favicon graphic is displayed rather than the default graphic.

Like a bold listing in a directory, the favicon graphic helps you stand out in a crowded list of bookmarked sites so visitors can easily find their way back to your site.

Some sites also track the number of times each person returns to the site by updating a cookie that contains only the number of visits each person has made. While this technique alone doesn’t help personalize the site, tracking the number of visits can help you understand the content needs of your audience.

You can use a variety of techniques to learn when and how you’re being profiled, then supply prospects with the information to tip the scales in your favor.

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