Written by Master's Student
Social media sites have become one of the component parts of hundreds of millions of Internet users’ everyday lives all over the world. In 2013, more than 1.15 billion users were active on Facebook, and about 500 million used Twitter and Google (socialmediatoday, 2013). Meanwhile, marketers have discovered the power of social media and have begun to understand it as a component in their marketing strategies to reach out to the consumer (Akar & Topçu, 2013). Social media platforms are changing the marketing landscape, offering vast changes in information sources and connectivity. The widespread use of social media among society gives businesses the opportunity to increase brand awareness, and to communicate and transcend with customers to improve service or products (Varadarajan & Yadav, 2009).
But what is going on that businesses are struggling in the online environment? Why are they not making full use of their social media presence? Is it that technology is not advanced enough yet? That the online consumer is too powerful? No, it is not about the consumer, neither about the lack of technology. It is the company itself that has to learn how to deal with the new challenges in the online environment, and make an effort to really understand the benefits it can get from being online. Getting involved in social media is for free, however, the challenge is following a systematic approach to use this powerful tool effectively, as it also imposes many challenges. Social media platforms are often treated as stand-alone elements rather than part of an integrated system (Hanna, Rohm & Crittenden, 2011), which highlights the lack of executives’ knowledge, or reluctance, to develop strategies and correctly allocate resources to effectively engage in social media. As a result of the Internet and the advent of consumer-empowering technologies, the consumer is provided with an excess of online venues to exchange negative experiences with products and brands, and share them with a multitude of other consumers (van Noort & Willemsen, 2011). The empowered consumer gets the opportunity to voice their complaints to a broader public, which poses new challenges for brands and magnifies brand weakness (Hanna, Rohm, Crittenden, 2011). Negative online interactions between consumers have detrimental effects on brand evaluation, brand choice, purchase behaviour and loyalty (van Noort & Willemsen, 2011). If companies are not applying webcare, the new branding landscape seems complex and challenging, and perhaps not as inviting as many critiques suggest (Fournier & Avery, 2011). The challenge as a marketer is to understand how to respond best.
To be successful in the online environment, companies have to know how to use social media. They have to learn to understand the challenges that it brings but also the possibilities that it offers. This article will explain the new social media environment, the empowered consumer, and the new forms of online communities. The online consumer is not a wild animal that can’t be tamed. Advice will be given on how to build relationships with consumers and how to communicate with them to handle and avoid negative word-of-mouth. The key is to apply webcare, which will be explained in more detail throughout the article.
Social Media Today
Traditional marketing used to be a one-way, push-based and interrupt-driven environment where the companies controlled marketing activities. Nowadays, the brand sphere has changed dramatically into one where online branding exemplifies participation and co-creation of meaning (Christodoulides, 2009), and is comprised of new features such as multi directional dialogs (Akar & Topçu, 2013). These features have to be used to gain customer insights, capitalize on the media’s speed and reach while protecting a company’s brand reputation. Additionally they have to carefully follow the unwritten rules of online customer engagement through webcare (Barwise & Meehan, 2010). A lack of webcare imposes various challenges for a brand’s social presence and causes brand weakness mainly through the following three drivers: Online transparency, the empowered consumer and the effects of negative word-of-mouth, and finally the social collective.
Online Transparency – The Constant Visibility of a Brand’s Action
In today’s online environment, the availability of and convenient access to information gives the consumer power and revolutionary forces on the Internet. In fact, through the domination of a 24h media, modern corporations cannot be invisible anymore and have no influence on the often uncensored comments that consumers post on blogs, forums, etc., often with a clear link to a brand name (Roper & Fill, 2012, p. 24). What does this mean for companies? Will the marketers lose control of their brands completely at some point? Not necessarily. Individuals took over the power from those in marketing by creating and sharing blogs, tweets, Facebook entries, movies etc. (Kietzmann et al., 2011), exposing companies’ weaknesses and shortcomings (Fournier & Avery, 2011). Tools such as the “Like” button on Facebook and “re-tweet” possibilities on Twitter facilitate the process of indicating ones support and raising attention among other consumers, hence facilitate the option to criticize (Fournier & Avery, 2011). Following this loss of control, consumers may even interfere with a brand’s values, stressing the importance of a company’s action to facilitate the sharing of information, since controlling it is impossible (Christodoulides, 2009).
How can companies deal with this increasing transparency? The answer is easy: Apply webcare! The key to manage transparency is authenticity. An authentic brand is open and honest, hence it has nothing to hide. Its claimed position, messaging, and statements are supportive and aligned (Fournier & Avery, 2011). Compare it to a relationship that you have with your customers. Lies are inacceptable, and to avoid being perceived as someone who is hiding a secret that could break the relationship, share as much information as possible with your customers to give them the feeling that you care about them and that they mean the world to you.
The Empowered Consumer and the Effects of Negative Word- of- Mouth
The new interactive Web 2.0. has become one where consumers are dictating the nature, range and content of marketing exchanges and became active in the co-creation of products. Social media is not only used to research products and services, but also to engage companies and consumers to give valuable insights. This is where you as a company come into the game! Markets are not about messages anymore, but rather about creating conversations (Hanna, Rohm & Crittenden, 2011). The Internet gave the consumer the power to impose market sanctions through voice and exit, based on the increased information access and choice (Labrecque et al., 2013).
This said, a good example of this is when Dr. Pepper launched their chocolate milk “Ranging Cow” in 2003 and underestimated the consequences of empowered consumers. To enhance positive word-of-mouth on the company’s blog, the company asked six teenagers to publish good reviews and offered them free samples and T-shirts in return. Consequently, the customers became suspicious and revealed that the company was behind it, which led to heavy attacks against the company in the blog sphere and finally to a boycott of this product (Hoffman & Fodor, 2010).
What do we learn from this? Mainly that the opportunity for consumers to use the online environment to voice their complaints to users around the world poses new challenges for brands. Negative electronic word-of-mouth are found to have detrimental effects on brand power (van Noort & Willemsen, 2011). A way of handling these situations is, again, adequate webcare. This can be achieved, for example, by responding to online complaints in a timely manner to resolve the issue and thus stop unnecessary follow-up attacks from other consumers. Webcare also increases consumer loyalty and satisfaction (van Noort & Willemsen, 2011). Consumers complain, appropriate and transform, as well as fight and negotiate - thereby creating situations to which companies can, or must, respond. The empowered consumer exerts control over marketing variables and thus affects the way in which others perceive a company’s brand, product and service (Cova & Dalli, 2009). Social media provides a supreme platform for consumers to publicize their personal opinions and thus facilitate Negative electronic word-of-mouth (Chen et al., 2011). As a company you cannot ignore this and need to react by focussing on webcare.
The Social Collective - The Next Level of Empowered Consumers
Traditionally, the Internet was used to gather information and to buy products and services. However, social platforms are created increasingly to modify and discuss content that is published online, which highly impacts a firm’s reputation and sales and magnifies brand weakness, expressing the greater need for companies to engage in webcare. What is the main problem in this matter? Why is not everyone aware of the need for webcare? The main reason for this is the ignorance that many executives give this phenomenon due to little understanding of what it is, the forms it can take, and most importantly how to involve in it and learn from it (Kietzmann et al., 2011). The possibilities that webcare can offer to “control” the online environment need to be explained to many of them.
Social networks enable sharing of personal information and media content through status updates, discussions, and events. By linking with other users, a personal network can be established to socially interact with others and communicate with them, including companies (Soares, Pinho & Nobre, 2012). A result of this is the increasing amount of word-of-mouth, which is considered as being more reliable and impartial than any form of paid information, e.g. advertising, which is obviously imposed by companies (Soares, Pinho & Nobre, 2012). Today, more than ever before, it is crucial for companies to find more credible ways to develop two-way brand relationships with their customers. How does this work? One way to do this is to create brand communities such as brand fan pages or social networking sites to facilitate the interaction between consumers and the company by liking and commenting on brand posts (de Vries, Gensler & Leeflang, 2012).
A great example of a company that failed but then succeeded in the end is the “My Nutella The Community” case of the Ferrero group. In late 1999, the Ferrero group sued all sites using the Nutella name, logo or signs without prior permission, believing that this form of webcare is appropriate. This even affected fan sites, where positive comments were shared about the brand, giving consumers a place to share their thoughts, which finally led to a lot of frustration among Nutella consumers and weakened the brand image. Yes, you are definitely not the only one who nowadays thinks, “How can they do this? What were they thinking?” Finally, in 2003, Ferrero changed their strategy and decided to create a community for all those who identify with the product’s values. Fans can create their own pages, personalize it and get in touch with other consumers. Some hard-core fans even share comments like “She’s always been there to reassure and help me without asking for anything in return. She’s made me so very happy, and I’ve never had any fights or disagreed with here. She’s my oldest friend. Thank you for being there, NUTELLA!” (Cova & Pace, 2006, p.1096), expressing their deepest desire for the product. The Ferrero Company realized that the approach of using webcare by creating this community is beneficial in a way to help them understand their consumers, get new product inspirations and increase customer satisfaction. They learned their lesson, and hopefully you did as well.
The challenge in online communities is to control the extend of consumer empowerment to avoid brand hijack, meaning that the company can lose part of their control over a brand, which is then replaced by a consumer tribe trying to re-appropriate it (Cova & Pace, 2006). To avoid this, webcare seems to be the most appropriate response to the above-mentioned challenges.
The Active Use of Webcare
In today’s world, marketing is less a matter of domination and control, but rather a matter of fitting in and building relationships and conversations with consumers (Fournier & Avery, 2011). Most importantly here is to have a clear brand identity that is linked to the business’s vision and its organizational culture (Joachimsthaler & Aaker, 2009). Webcare is an approach of dealing with the empowered consumer, by offering a platform for exchanging information and conversation with other consumers but also with the company itself. When engaging in those conversations, a company should react in a direct, casual and personal way since customers embrace and appreciate this and finally become more receptive towards the brand (Papasolomou & Melanthio, 2012). It is critical to be honest and upfront about everything that concerns the company, to apologize for mistakes and do everything possible to correct it (Seraj, 2012). Moreover, content quality and a playful interactivity help building social ties and will facilitate intellectual, social and cultural formation in online communities to finally increase the amount of feedback that the company will receive. The aim for successful webcare is to use social media to generate connections among members, to facilitate a more natural electronic word-of-mouth and to increase brand awareness (Seraj, 2012). Hence, webcare is beneficial in leveraging the power of the empowered consumer, especially in a social collective to build brand equity.
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