6 Strategies to Protect Your Brand in a Multichannel World

Airline baggage handlers break a professional musician's $3,500 guitar—in plain view of passengers on the jet. The airline balks at compensating him—and the episode soon becomes a YouTube video that has logged 13.8 million views to date.

Executives from another airline walk into a meeting with a vendor pitching them on social media monitoring. On the wall before them—in large, bold letters—is a disparaging comment about the brand. Executives demand an answer from the vendor, who responds, "That comment's been on Facebook for three days—and has gotten 750,000 views."

It's the 21st century. Do you know where your customers are? More importantly, do you know what they're saying about your brand—and what they're reading, tweeting, and sharing?

This isn't about airlines; their examples were just convenient and dramatic. These could have been phone companies, hoteliers, restaurants, or any consumer-facing company. This is a look at how companies are ignoring the power of social media—often at their own peril.

Today's customers are not shy about airing and sharing grievances (perceived or real) in real time to their friends and connections. Between chat and text, Facebook and Twitter, Pinterest, Vine, Yelp, and a host of social media services conveniently accessible on their smartphones, compliments and complaints about anything from a restaurant meal to a hotel stay to an experience with an airline are just a click away.

So is the fate of your reputation—not just online, but in the brick-and-mortar world, too, because what happens online often translates immediately and tangibly to the real world. In today's interconnected, multichannel marketplace, brand and customer relationship managers must be prepared not just to react, but to proactively head off negative comments before they hit the mainstream.

Emerging mobile technologies and social media are providing customers with immediate access to product reviews, brand recommendations, and other insights about companies from their trusted social connections. Layer mobile technology atop desktop and laptop accessibility and no matter where customers are, brand managers are faced with multiple and linked communications channels to monitor.

So the question is this: How can your organization effectively engage customers in social media, monitor what's being said about your brand, mitigate negative feedback, and retain their loyalty?

The following six strategies can help protect your brand in the evolving multichannel universe.

1. Know where social media lies. A few years ago, social media fell solely under the purview of the marketing department. Now, while social media is "advertising" to some, it's also a customer service issue and a critical reputation management exercise. If your advertising agency or marketing department manages social media, make sure message management is tightly integrated between marketing and customer service to ensure both masters are served.

2. Know your customer. Who's commenting? A 10-year-old kid with 100 young friends or an influential Baby Boomer with hundreds or thousands of connections, all with a high disposable income and a propensity to take heed of friends' advice? Knowing your customer can help steer the appropriate response.

3. Engage the right partner and tools. Third-party services can monitor online and social communications and help stave off damage to your reputation. Channels include peer-to-peer conversations, blogs or Web site posts, and social media engagement. The solutions can report findings and help create a more robust response.

4. Act now. Don't let bad social media linger. Just as we tell our children, what's posted to social media and the Internet becomes permanent. Don't be afraid to apologize if the customer was wronged; in fact, an apology could elicit a positive response from the customer, which is worth gold when it comes to online reputation management.

5. Weigh the cost of inaction. Some 13.8 million views later, do you think the airline in the first example looks back and thinks, "Thirty-five hundred dollars would have been pocket change to right this wrong"?

6. Be cognizant of the emerging market. If you cannot, hire employees or vendors to do it for you. "I can't" won't save your brand in the event of a negative social media onslaught.

Social media is long past the point where it can make or break a company's reputation. Smart companies know this. Online shoe retailer Zappos is an example of a company that—first and foremost—treats its customers well. When things go wrong (and sometimes they will), the company aggressively works to remedy the situation. Zappos engages the customer, takes responsibility, and works toward a solution.

By building an internal team or working with external partners—or both—your organization can gather, consolidate, and analyze information. It can ascertain what people are saying, why they're saying it, and where it's being said. So instead of being reactive, the organization is proactive. Instead of installing a front-line defense mechanism, you're on the offensive—honing your message, creating a blended marketing/customer service strategy, and getting in front of the issue.

Social media message monitoring is only mysterious to those who haven't invested the time to learn more. Whether building that internal team or working with a vendor that knows the channels—IVR, phones, chat, text, or social media—figuring out how to master this need't be a mystery.

Ken Epstein is the executive vice president of C3/Customer Contact Channels (www.c3connect.com), which helps Fortune 500 corporations maximize customer relationships by providing contact center services across all channels, including voice, the Web, and social media.

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