Brands need to listen before they speak if they want to spark sustainable conversations with consumers and leverage the exchange for all its worth.
As in any conversation, when we talk we're only repeating what we already know. When we listen, we're learning. When brands listen to consumers before beginning to talk to them, they not only discover their customers' concerns, they can also identify new markets and discover different opportunities.
But before brands start talking, they need to know what's being said about them and their competitors, who their brand advocates and opponents are, and why and how consumers respond to the brand and its services. That doesn't mean just skimming the obvious sites, the blogs belonging to well-known influencers, and the review boards. Companies also need to look out on the fringes to find the places where their customers have created real communities online. There they will also find the lesser-known bloggers who are writing with intelligence and passion, the industry groups, and the deeply disgruntled.
All companies already know that this dialogue is occurring online. Smart companies try to aggregate and facilitate the conversations. Not-so-smart companies try to ignore them or control them.
Southwest Airlines does a great job of listening and responding to and connecting with its customers online. The company's blog (www.blogsouthwest.com) humanizes Southwest Airlines and proactively shares information while encouraging a feeling of community. The company uses other conversational tools, such as Twitter (http://twitter.com/SouthwestAir), to engage with consumers, and is looking to hire an emerging media specialist. In contrast American Airlines attempted a blog about a year ago, put up three posts of corporate gibberish, got slammed for it, and responded by closing down the blog.
After a brand has a real feel for the conversation, it can join in. The best way to start is to acknowledge the existing conversation, share honest points of view in a human voice, and ask people to share what they know by telling them what you want to learn.
DirectToDell is a very good blog, but its IdeaStorm section is genius, particularly the way Dell clearly displays its process (Post, Promote, Discuss, See) and tells IdeaStorm participants exactly how the company intends to respond to suggestions/proposals in the forum's "Ideas In Action" section. Those who contribute to the idea bank know Dell is listening and acting.
At recent launch events for Dell's new Latitude laptops held in Austin, San Francisco, and London, speakers repeatedly mentioned that key design changes came from Dell's IdeaStorm community, and the IdeaStorm site details which ideas were implemented and which community members had initially posted each concept.
Conversely, Apple is often heralded as a master communicator. The company does do really well when it is talking to/at people, but consistently fails when consumers are attempting to talk back. The initial silence on the recent MobileMe fiasco on Apple's own forums (eventually, CEO Steve Jobs apologized for launching a product that wasn't ready for prime time) and the continued silence on G3 phone issues are good examples.
Great conversations, like great blogs, have to be fed often with new ideas. Companies should give their customers something to talk about, use what they know about their customers to create online/offline events that are interesting, provocative, or amusing, and act as a conversation starter. As an example, Google's recent introduction of Chrome was promoted partly through a digital comic book, exactly the right vehicle for the audience it needed to reach.
Add Google-affiliated influential bloggers like Matt Cutts into the mix with posts like: "I can't wait to talk more about Google Chrome.... Once people can download Google Chrome, I plan to talk about my experiences using Google Chrome, to lay some truth on you about questions you might ask about Google Chrome, and to give some tips for power browsers," and there you have a great product launch communications strategy.
About the Author: Arthur Ceria, founder and chief creative officer, CreativeFeed