What's a brand to do when customers can air their grievances and openly discuss, criticize and complain on social media channels?
Managing a brand’s reputation has become a daunting effort as social media channels have proliferated, offering disconnected customers the chance to air their grievances in real time.
Social media has also given consumers a public forum to openly discuss, criticize and complain about brands, and organizations — particularly large brands — must have a community monitoring strategy in place to effectively manage these channels.
“Simply put, social media has enabled every consumer to express his or her opinion in a public forum," said Damian Rollison, director of market insights at SOCi. "More and more, those opinions are trusted at least as much as the voice of the brand itself, as long as the consumer's voice is believed to be authentic.” He pointed out brand reputations are being formed and reformed 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
“For brands managing multiple store locations, the challenge is magnified because reviews and other types of consumer feedback can be left on social profiles at the local store level,” he added.
Social media has also made brands more personified, which consumers attach to more easily. It’s no longer about the business moves a company makes, press releases or spokespeople speaking on behalf of the company — consumers see real personhood in their brands which makes it difficult to strike the right tone with what people see online versus what is actually happening at the company.
As a result, when a brand faces a crisis, consumers take it more personally because of this artificial attachment: As beneficial as social media is in gaining brand loyalty, it makes it just as easy to lose it.
Julianna Sheridan, account director and crisis communications lead for Matter Communications, said brands used to have a “golden hour” to respond in the wake of a crisis. “Now, with social media and the news being ‘always on’ they must think in 15-, 30- and 60-minute windows when crafting a response strategy," she explained, and added everyone within an organization can have an impact on the brand reputation.
“While leaders from the C-Suite and communications team certainly play the biggest role as public faces of the brand, each employee can make a positive and negative impact on brand perception as they attend events, conferences and speak with others about the company,” Sheridan said.
Rollison says he sees reputation management as a shared responsibility between customer service and marketing. “Fundamentally, consumers offering feedback need to be treated with the same respect and attention online as when the same thing happens in person or through other kinds of direct contact with the brand,” he explained.
A strong customer service orientation is also the best defense against damage to brand reputation online. But marketing has a role as well.
Rollison explained every instance of brand feedback is an opportunity to show what the brand is made of, extend the voice of the brand to local audiences and build engagement and loyalty. This means marketing teams need to collaborate with customer support to make sure the right kind of messaging is in place.
“For multilocation brands the situation is a bit more complex,” he added. “They also need to ensure at least some level of involvement from store managers, who are the ones on the front lines when consumers have complaints.”
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Sheridan recommended leveraging the tools that specific platforms give you to connect directly with your audience in the way they want most. “If you’re a consumer brand, this may mean going on Instagram Live to showcase new products,” she said. “If you want to hold a public forum to give your audience a platform to voice concerns, then a Twitter Space might be the direction you go in.”
The challenge is recognizing what works best for the brand and leveraging the tools that meet the audience where they are.
She added brands should consider subscribing to social listening tools to effectively monitor and manage their social communities. “These tools help with competitive and industry monitoring — providing a social manager with the insights they need to shift strategy and respond effectively,” Sheridan noted.
She pointed out the organization’s employees are its No. 1 audience, which means you should speak openly and honestly with them about the company and your mission. “As advocates for the company, they need to have clear communications around who you are, what you’re aiming to do, and what their role is in telling this story,” Sheridan said.
In addition to this, brand authenticity and consistency are key — leaders need to ask “Does this align with our goals and previous actions?”
"A brand that has never had a CSR [corporate social responsibility] policy cannot all of a sudden claim to be sustainability advocates,” she added. “If you are looking to pivot your brand position, break your strategy into actionable steps that reposition the company over time.
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Sheridan said when crisis strikes, the best approach is to respond quickly and take appropriate actions to resolve the situation.
“Crisis situations are often the time when brand reputations come under fire, especially on social media,” she said. “Ensure you are communicating with each of your stakeholder groups, including your social followers, with the right message at the right time.”
From Rollison's perspective, the old adage “the customer is always right” could be updated in the age of social media to “The customer is always heard.”
“Know that consumers have a bigger megaphone than ever and that you can’t cancel out that voice, so you have to do your best to embrace it,” he said. “It’s also worth keeping in mind that most consumers, when they share opinions about a brand, are speaking from a place of sincerity.”
Organizations must have a broad awareness of the conversations occurring around their brands online, whether there’s direct involvement in the form of consumers posting to self-managed profiles. With that awareness comes a responsibility to listen and, where appropriate, to respond, both by thanking and encouraging the organization’s fans and by engaging with, apologizing to and learning from its detractors.
“Reputations are made and reinforced with every online interaction you have with a consumer," Rollison said, "and with everyone else who encounters that conversation when they seek out information about your brand."