Welcome to the second issue of Marketing GPS, our bi-monthly online newsletter. In this issue we highlight three areas in which we’re helping clients address the effects of rapidly changing technologies.
Our first article looks at the importance of managing your online brand reputation—which has assumed greater importance as a consequence of Web 2.0/social-media applications. We note how Ford Motor Co. quickly resolved an online PR crisis by adopting a Web 2.0 attitude of openness and two-way communication.
The second article discusses two recent changes in the (ever-evolving) Google search algorithm, and offers practical suggestions for turning these changes to your advantage.
Our final article explores solutions that are helping two clients improve customer support by moving away from inbound-call centers to more efficient online solutions.
We hope you’ll pick up some helpful insights from the examples shared in this issue. We welcome your questions and comments.
Discovering and Maintaining Your Online Reputation
By Rhonda Van Pelt, May 2009
More than ever before, the Internet can make you or break you. With the same ease and speed that spreads positive news, online media can broadcast complaints and falsehoods—with costly consequences. Savvy businesspeople know that user-generated media (UGM)—blogs, forums and social-networking sites—are growing more popular and influential, and are increasing the velocity of Net-borne news. You’ve likely heard one or more gruesome stories of companies being blindsided by online discussions over which they have little control.
Understanding online reputation-management
Thankfully, damage control can happen equally quickly, offering can’t-miss opportunities for managing online reputations. Using what’s called “social media monitoring” or “listening platforms,” businesses are beginning to keep an eye on their online reputations. They may task in-house staff, or outsource reputation-management to a company offering the service, but many have realized that ignoring online discussions is not an option.
NSI Partners offers such a service. ReputationConnect™ monitors sentiment about your important keyword phrases–brands, executives’ names or any other words and phrases–throughout the blogosphere and on social-media platforms like Twitter. ReputationConnect clients can log in to the online dashboard at any time to track recent discussion and positive/negative sentiments expressed in those discussions. Using ReputationConnect data, we provide clients with reports showing how and why awareness of their terms has fluctuated, excerpts of articles and blogs, and our suggestions for follow-up action.
Using a service like ReputationConnect helps you move toward the ultimate goal of reputation management, which is an active management of your online rep—not merely damage control. To paraphrase Internet marketing whiz Glen Allsopp, too many companies see reputation management in this sequence: 1) monitor, 2) repair and 3) manage. Instead, he says, companies should 1) manage, 2) monitor and 3) repair. In other words, control the online image from the get-go, and be prepared to respond effectively to crises.
Organizations must reach the point at which they are actively using the Internet not just to collect information, but also to join daily in the ongoing discussion. This participation includes making positive statements as well as refuting misinformation, on your own properties (blogs, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) and on others.’ And it must be done with a “human voice,” not traditional PR-speak.
Case study: Ford battles an online firestorm
A recent PR crisis for the Ford Motor Company provides a good example of influencing the online discussion. It also highlights areas in which Ford could have improved its pre-crisis planning and monitoring.
Ford’s flap began on Dec. 9, 2008, when the owner of a Ford Ranger fan site received a letter from the automaker, demanding that he surrender his URL and pay the company $5,000.
With 10 years’ experience running his site, the owner felt betrayed by Ford’s demands. He vented on his user forum, which in minutes ignited an online firestorm. The site received 916 angry responses over the next 22 hours, and anti-Ford sentiment spread to other sites.
Enter Scott Monty, Ford’s manager of global digital and multimedia communications. He had already established a Twitter following, which he’d been using effectively to explain Ford’s position regarding the government’s financial-bailout plans. At 5:30 AM on Dec. 10, Monty read an overnight tweet apprising him of the looming brand-disaster.
First, Monty called Ford’s associate general counsel to learn what had occurred to prompt the site owner’s response, and to coordinate his own response to the increasingly hostile Twitter discussion. By 7:30 AM he had responded to the original tweet with appreciation, and promising action. But, as the public began their day, some discovered the online discussions concerning the fan site, and inundated Ford with more than 1,000 angry e-mails.
Monty spent the rest of the morning talking with the legal team and reassuring Twitter followers that he was working on the problem. He also asked his 5,600 Twitter followers to retweet (retransmit) his message to their followers, and 19 complied.
Those 19 people spread Monty’s message to more than 13,400 of their own followers. By early afternoon, Monty followed up with what he’d learned: that the fan site had been selling unlicensed Ford decals, and that Ford’s letter and request for payment had been an attempt to make the owner end these sales.
Ford’s legal team began drafting a new agreement allowing the fan site to continue operation, but stop selling the counterfeit products. Monty spoke by phone with the site owner, who said he’d had no intention of causing trouble for Ford. With Monty’s assistance, the two sides quickly came to an agreement. The news was posted on the fan site along with Ford’s statement. Monty quickly tweeted the URL to his followers; 21 retweeted it to about 21,000 additional Twitter users.
Monty spent the rest of the day answering Twitter questions and directing people to the new site content. At 2:29 AM on Dec. 11, he sent his 138th tweet of the day (“Zzzzzzzzzzzzz”), satisfied the crisis was over.
Reputation-management lessons from Ford’s experience
Due to quick action, Scott Monty helped Ford tamp down what could have turned into a serious PR crisis. We’ve identified several take-away lessons from this situation.
1. Plan ahead for crises: Monty had already built a sizable Twitter following, and knew how to use Twitter as a PR channel. It appears, however, that he was unprepared for the sudden negative activity at the fan site—which leads to point #2:
2. Consider and plan for possible online consequences of your actions: Monty reportedly had a significant role in shaping Ford’s online discussion of financial-bailout news affecting the company. However, he was apparently out of the loop regarding the cease-and-desist letter, and consequently had no plan for monitoring the fan site or responding to trouble emanating from it.
3. Fight fire with water (not fire): Monty reacted quickly and with gratitude to the first Twitter alert he received, and with sympathy for Ford enthusiasts as well as the site owner. Instead of stonewalling, he got the facts from Ford’s attorneys, and shared them online ASAP.
4. Relate online as a person, not an organization: Monty put a human face on a mega-corporation, responding quickly with a friendly tone and occasional humor. His communications made it easier to dial down the emotional content of the discussion.
5. Recruit advocates: He asked the Twitter community for help in spreading updates and links. He also reached out personally to the site owner, using the phone to hear the man’s story and negotiate a quick settlement. Finally, Monty brought respect, traffic and links to the fan site by releasing news of the settlement there (not via the news media), and tweeting the link to his followers.
6. Harness the rapid-response power of the Internet: Monty had the authority, knowledge and expertise to respond in “Internet time.” Though he cleared his actions internally, he had the freedom, and wisdom, to speak plainly with his online community and the site owner.
From available information, it appears Ford precipitated this PR crisis by their attorneys’ heavy-handed demands of the fan-site owner—then compounded the problem by failing to monitor the fan site and related sites after sending their letter. Ford’s legal department likely hadn’t coordinated their letter-writing actions with Monty. In addition, it appears Monty lacked a robust online reputation-management tool to keep tabs on online activities and sentiment.
Given these shortcomings, however, once Monty sprang into action he showed a shrewd understanding of how quickly and openly corporations must respond to an online PR crisis.
Maybe you’ll never face a PR nightmare like Ford’s, but the lessons still apply. You must keep a close eye on your online reputation, and prepare for the possibility of a day like Scott Monty’s—or risk a situation that gets quickly out of hand, with long-lasting damage to your brand.
How to Exploit Recent Google Algorithm Changes
Don Baker, May 2009
Google’s search-ranking algorithm is very complex—reportedly tracking, analyzing and weighing more than 200 web-page variables as its spiders tirelessly roam the Web. The algorithm is constantly being tweaked by Google’s engineers as they attempt to provide increasingly relevant search results while combating spam.
I’d like to highlight a couple of recent changes in the Google algorithm. One offers more information on how the algorithm treats related search phrases, while the other signals an important shift in ranking priorities that will affect many businesses’ search rankings.
“Related searches” information
The first change involves new information Google has added to the bottom of a search page: a list of related search phrases, with links to search results. For instance, at the bottom of a Google search page generated for a search on “scrapbooking supplies,” you’ll find a number of links after the heading, “Searches related to scrapbooking supplies”:
disney scrapbooking supplies
These are phrases the Google algorithm associates with “scrapbooking supplies,” indicating that Google has noticed searchers refining their searches by also searching for phrases in the list. It’s also likely that Google has decided the best-quality pages discussing scrapbooking supplies also include one or another of the listed phrases.
This means that to increase the likelihood of your page ranking well for, say, “scrapbooking supplies,” you should try not only to include your primary phrase in the page’s headline and text, but also to include one or more of the related phrases in your page content. Conversely, if you do not include one of the related phrases within your page, Google is likely to decide your page is less relevant than another page that does include one of them.
You can also use these related phrases in content you place on social-media sites, that include a link back to your primary site (linking, in particular, to the page discussing “scrapbooking supplies”). The additional content will likely be noted by Google, and will also generate additional clicks to your primary site.
Higher Google ranks for recognized brands
Google’s well-publicized mission is to make search results increasingly relevant to users. In the past few years, for instance, Google has tweaked its algorithm to favor educational information in its rankings (such as that found on Wikipedia, .edu and .gov sites) over purely sales-related information.
In January of this year, Google rolled out a similar rankings change. This change involves search rankings for highly competitive, broad product terms such as “airfare” or “mortgages.” The search algorithm has apparently been modified to favor the sites of well-known brands for such competitive, product-related searches.
For instance, a recent search for “health insurance” on Rankpulse.com shows that while ehealthinsurance.com (yellow) had enjoyed a #1 Google ranking for “health insurance” before mid-January 2009, it was suddenly displaced that month by aetna.com (red) which, after some gyrations, has emerged as the clear leader. Cigna.com (green) also appeared in Google’s top ten rankings suddenly in mid-January at about #6, and since then has moved up to the third ranking.
(Rankpulse.com shows similar results for a number of popular search terms: cases of well-known brands’ sites suddenly appearing on the first page of rankings, displacing other, lesser-known brands.)
Google is obviously able to select “top” brands based on data gathered by its growing variety of online platforms. These include the search engine plus various tools and properties such as Google Toolbar, Chrome, FeedBurner, Google Analytics, Google AdWords/AdSense, and YouTube. Together, they collect a massive amount of user data for the Google search algorithm to mine.
This is good news if you’re a “top brand” in your industry, whose traffic and clout (as monitored by Google tools) is considerable. But what if you’re not? How can you crack through the new, “top brand” ranking ceiling?
Right now, the quickest and easiest way to drive more traffic to your site(s) is through viral (“buzz”) and social-media campaigns. Produce interesting—even controversial—content on your site, blog or other content platform; then, attract traffic (and resulting links!) to that content via social-media platforms (such as Facebook, Twitter, Delicious. Digg or YouTube). Google’s search spider and other Google tools will notice the increased traffic, as well as the new inbound links it will generate. Assuming you’ve included relevant and focused keyword phrases in your new content, it shouldn’t take too long before searchers begin to find that content ranked well on Google’s search engine.
Though I’ve focused in this article on ways to cope with changes to Google’s search algorithm, you’re probably aware there’s a major shift underway regarding traffic generation. The growing importance of social-media sites—particularly their user-generated links and product/service reviews—means that an increasing amount of future site traffic will originate not at the Google search engine (or its competitors), but at social-media sites.
For this reason, we’re working with clients to focus more attention on developing social-media content, and on monitoring/managing online discussions that affect brand reputation. (You can bet Domino’s Pizza is working hard on this, as well!)
Going Online to Lower Inbound-Call Costs
Tom McClintock, May 2009
It’s impossible to ignore how quickly technology has transformed the humble phone call. We’ve come a long way—in a very short time—from landlines, phone booths and long-distance calling cards. Today, cell phones, virtual PBXs, VoIP and call routing make calling easier than ever—unless you operate a call center fielding dozens of inbound calls at once. Call centers are struggling to deal with high technology cost and low tangible value (despite high intangible benefits of customer service, reputation management, consumer feedback, etc.). This means much thinner margins, according to Business Week. (Even outsourcing to Asia doesn’t guarantee higher profits, Business Week learned.)
Brother, spare a dime–with interactive wizards Lately, however, teleservicing operations—from large call centers to small customer-service desks—have been getting relief from Web 2.0 applications. Some organizations are even leapfrogging over Web 1.0 interactive help menus, using applications that deliver text information in new, interactive ways.
One organization, the American Registry for Diagnostic Medical Sonography (ARDMS), has turned to a web-based wizard to simplify inbound calling. Inbound-call representatives at ARDMS (an NSI Partners client) deal with complex questions from medical professionals about credentialing requirements needed to pursue their careers in ultrasound technology. To help streamline the process of matching a caller’s background and training with the proper exam, ARDMS decided to transfer the exam-selection process from call reps to an interactive, online wizard called PREP (Prerequisite Eligibility Program).
To use PREP—which was activated in March 2009—applicants visit the ARDMS website and select the exam of interest. They then participate in an automated interview which concludes with either a link to an exam-application page, or to additional information regarding requirements to be met before the applicant can request an exam.
PREP is increasing targeted site traffic, time-on-site, and upsell opportunities. Though it’s too early to determine impact in terms of cost savings and additional product sales, initial results are very encouraging—especially since its cost per exam-applicant interview is negligible.
Hold the phone: try sequential emails Interactive wizards come in handy, but what about callers who don’t visit your website at all? Our client, the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP), regularly receives panicked calls from newly designated National Honor Society advisers, who ask: “My predecessor moved on without leaving me any guidance—can you help?!” Most callers think their situation is unique (which it is not), and also assume the information they need isn’t readily available on the National Honor Society website.
NASSP approached NSI for assistance in making the needed information available to advisers. Our suggestion was to push the needed content to NHS advisers proactively—but not as a white-paper download that may not be read at all. Instead, we proposed sending “bite-sized” email installments, using inexpensive autoresponder technology to deliver a 7-part series at the rate of one email every few days. Each message included strategically placed links to additional site content. When clicked, these specially coded links enabled us to track and report on levels of interest in any particular subtopic.
The NHS campaign achieved high open and response rates—some open rates exceeding 100% (meaning the same subscriber returned to the email multiple times). At the beginning of the 2008-2009 school year, the total clickthrough rate increased significantly (39%), and the link to the Beginner’s Online Orientation Kit continues to receive a strong response. This sequential email campaign successfully reduced call-center burden, while providing customers needed information in a practical, easy to assimilate format.
David Cordts, Associate Director of the National Honor Society, noted the effectiveness of this email campaign in reducing inbound calls from new advisers. He told us “It was a good idea that NSI used the technology in the way it needed to be used, and we certainly appreciate your making the service available.”
New technologies are being introduced almost daily. Sorting through the available options—email campaigns, sequential email campaigns, blogging and social networking—to determine the platform(s) most suitable to your customers’ needs and your organization’s capabilities can be daunting. With the proper choice, however, you can meet the twin objectives of increased customer service and enhanced organizational efficiency.