The Secret to Building Consumer Relationships

General Motors' decision to pull its ads from Facebook shifted focus to another component of its $40 million marketing budget—content creation and content marketing. In a tweet addressed to its Facebook fan base, GM explained its decision: "Just wanted to let our millions of Facebook fans know, we're still here, and we 'like' you back. We may not be advertising on Facebook at the moment, but we'll still be talking with you all daily. If anything, we will be providing more content across our many GM Facebook pages—including Chevrolet, Buick, GMC, and Cadillac—to keep the dialogue going."

GM is focusing on what works best—creating conversations with its customers and prospects on the social network. GM's move is indicative of broader shifts in the marketing industry, as evidenced most recently by what many sponsors of the Olympic Games did—implementing content strategies, versus simple advertising campaigns, to engage with consumers. As an example, 2012 Olympics sponsor BMW created four short documentaries that explore "the parallels between the athletes and BMW and the defining moments that motivate them to deliver the impossible." Each video tells a relevant story of interest to the general consumer, versus focusing on selling points for the automotive brand. These examples support what many in the digital marketing industry have known for years—that a variety of engaging content, in various formats and via multiple channels, is the best, most effective way to build loyal customer relationships.

Engaging Content: Why It's Important

We've heard it millions of times before: Content is king. The phrase has been repeated so often that the words are starting to lose their meaning. But it's a fact that relevant, engaging content—whether it's in the form of a newsletter, a video, a podcast, or even skywriting—positions brands for a relationship with consumers for the long haul.

Establishing and maintaining an effective content marketing program involves getting in front of customers (and potential customers) with timely relevant content on a regular basis. Regardless of the format, consumers are looking for engaging content that's not straight from the marketing department. They don't want to be constantly pitched to—they want to be entertained and informed. The right content—personalized, informative, interesting, engaging—is effective in building personal relationships in ways that big splashy TV ads and repetitive radio spots are not.

It is this content that is also an increasingly important tool in improving reputation management strategies and long-term customer loyalty. Relevant and interesting content helps brands establish credibility and build a reputation with customers as a dependable voice and, ultimately, a likable brand that they can trust. Maintaining this connection with consumers through content gives brands an army of fans who keep the conversations going.

Four Steps for Improving Reputation Management and Customer Loyalty

Across industries, brands want to gain a better understanding of what is being said about them online, but most would prefer to maintain ultimate control over the conversations and relationships with both current and potential customers. Engaging content serves as a strategic tool to help with this process. In fact, effective reputation management requires a disciplined content marketing strategy. Here are four things to keep in mind in order to effectively leverage content as a tool for improving reputation management and customer loyalty:

Authenticity. Content must be authentic. Consumers don't want to be part of a community just to be advertised to. If the content isn't informative, engaging, or entertaining, consumers will think it's just an ad, viewed as disruptive noise that negatively impacts their dialogue with the brand. Zappos is one company that has a reputation for such authenticity. Its blogs contain a variety of content of interest to its consumer base and authentic to its brand, such as a video on how to "achieve a perfectly modern and bold lip for summertime," a post on "National Wear Your Lilly" Day for Lilly Pulitzer fans, and a perspective from a new Zappos intern on what working at the company is like. To be effective, focus on your customer, not your marketing goals, when developing content. Don't focus solely on the sale—focus on the engagement with the customer.

Frequency and Variety. While once-a-month Web site updates or blog posts were once somewhat acceptable, consumers today want more—more relevant content, more frequently. The challenge for brands: finding fresh content that people are interested in on a regular basis in order to maintain their audience. One tip is to mix content types—from text to images to video across topics including new product reviews, lifestyle tips, localized content, quizzes or open questions, and trend articles; as long as there is tangential relevance to the brand, the diversity of content keeps consumers engaged while providing the content creator with more options to fill the editorial pipeline.

Relevance. Social media, email, mobile, and Web sites are all effective tools for heightening interactions with customers. Who are your customers and what are they interested in? Content that speaks to them as individuals and relates to their everyday interests will keep them engaged and encourage them to participate in conversations. A fan of a car brand is likely to be interested in an article on day-trip options in his region and may provide new suggestions. When Ford launched the Ford Fiesta in 2009, it devised a strategy leveraging bloggers, who successfully generated buzz for the car through social media content aimed at its target audience, the Millennials. However, when gas prices began to go up, and Ford redesigned its Focus with comparable mileage estimates to the Fiesta, buyers looked toward the similar but more upscale model, making the Fiesta suddenly less relevant.

Transparency. While positive content and feedback is great, negative comments are inevitable. Brands that seek to cover up or hide those unpleasant realities, in the end only do themselves a disservice. Instead, remaining transparent and showing other consumers how negative feedback and experiences are handled provide a way for the brand to actually increase loyalty and positive sentiments. By understanding that there is an opportunity to turn around negative experiences, savvy brands maintain this level of transparency to garner trust and good faith from customers. For instance, keeping a negative post visible on Facebook, while also displaying the resolution, shows other consumers that the brand is listening—and cares about its customers. In fact, a new study by social media analytics company Socialbakers defines a new standard of "socially devoted" companies, businesses that succeed with open and responsive social communications. The study found that the most "socially devoted" companies are those that respond to feedback quickly and have the highest number of wall posts on Facebook. Brands should have a plan in place that outlines how the company approaches negative feedback and strategies for making transparency work for customer loyalty.

By effectively using content as part of your reputation management practices, you become a trusted voice and resource for your customers, not just another company trying to shill its products.

Nancy Liberman is vice president of marketing at IMN, where she is responsible for the company's branding and positioning, corporate communications, lead generation, sales support, and product marketing initiatives. Prior to joining IMN, she was vice president of marketing at Searchandise Commerce and held senior marketing roles at eStara/ATG.

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