Sharleen Hunter, Unleashed Potential: It's important to listen

Embracing consumer feedback can help shape successful communications campaigns.

In the 1990s, the infamous BT ads said it was good to talk. But today, in a world where consumers and the way we communicate with them have changed, it has become more important than ever to listen. While yesterday's consumer was often too polite to complain, modern consumers are far savvier. Social media have given them a powerful voice and they are not afraid to use it. Previously, if they were unhappy, they'd tell 12 friends. Fast forward to 2011 and if their experience does not live up to the perceived brand promise, they can tell a potential audience of millions quicker than you can say 'Twitter'.

This social media explosion means that whether in London or LA, someone somewhere is talking about your brand. If their experience goes beyond their expectations and they rave about you online, the consumer PR opportunities are plentiful. But if it falls short and they do not feel the organisation will listen to their concerns, they know there are plenty of people online who will, spelling a possible PR nightmare.

As communicators, we can either cross our fingers and hope that a 'Dell Hell' day never happens, or take steps to monitor perceptions and help close the gaps between the brand promise and the consumers' brand reality. Here are four of the many ways this can be done:

  • Invite feedback. Monitoring opinions online is important. However, rather than waiting to read whether consumers commend or condemn your products, ask for feedback. What do they think you do well? What could you do better? Although comments will not always be positive, the gains can be great. As well as providing a rich source of information to shape future comms campaigns, inviting opinions makes them feel valued and helps build stronger brand connections.
  • Step outside the office. The rise of social media means consumers' views can be accessed at the click of a mouse. However, try stepping outside the office, head down to where your products are sold or delivered and speak directly with the consumer to hear their thoughts. The feedback gained from a friendly two-minute conversation with a consumer browsing the supermarket shelves will generate much more than a 140-character tweet.
  • Spend time in their shoes. As Unleashed Potential specialises in hair and beauty PR, to ensure we understand our clients' consumer experiences, we organise 'insight sessions' where we personally test products and anonymously visit different beauty businesses to see if brands live up to the pledges professed in their communication. This is where we spot the spas that communicate opulence, then use budget toilet paper and soap in their 'luxury' washrooms, but also the great brands that consistently deliver what they promise and more. Road testing these products and experiences enables us to identify the gaps, pass on recommendations on how to fill them and highlight the winning elements of exceptional brands they could learn from. Our findings are also key for the seminars we deliver to beauty businesses that want to enhance their service and better communicate with customers.
  • Take action. Inviting feedback and seeing experiences through the consumers' eyes is important. However, if nothing is done with the information, their opinions will be wasted. Thus, as well as using findings to identify and remedy issues, look for those nuggets of feedback. Even the smallest observation could play a part in shaping your next comms campaign and help you better speak the consumers' language. And that's sure to be music to any PR professional's ears.

VIEWS IN BRIEF

Which consumer trends (social, economic or political) are having the greatest influence on your current campaigns?

Social trends, particularly social media. Beauty bloggers raving about our clients' services/products and tweets from a celebrity or influential journalist mentioning our clients' brands can have an important impact on our campaigns.

If your agency was an animal, which would it be and why?

A dolphin - we're friendly and great at building relationships with the press and clients. We're intelligent and think creatively. We're elegant, acting professionally and with poise. Finally, we're energetic and enthusiastic.

Sharleen Hunter is the founder of Unleashed Potential

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