Mark Pack, Mandate - Turn negative into positive

One of the latest big shifts in digital is to embrace customers with strong views, for or against.

A few months ago I went to see the musical Jersey Boys. I went because a friend mentioned the show. We were passing a poster advertising the show, which reminded him of an advertising email he had been sent - and then the online reviews and ratings I checked were positive.

So, to what do I credit my attendance: word of mouth, e-marketing, outdoor advertising, PR or social media? Or the quality of the show itself?

It is this melding of different specialisms into one overall impact on the potential customer ('yes, let's go see it') that those seeking to use the online world have to manage. Different specialisms may fit neatly into different slots on your organisational chart or roster of suppliers, but unless seen as different parts of an integrated whole, the whole will be less than the sum of the parts.

That is the big challenge in making the most of digital. Getting technology right should not be taken for granted, but if you cast your mind over the mistakes that catch the headlines these days, relatively few are caused by technology failures. Technology being used badly or inappropriately is the cause of far more problems - and consumers increasingly judge brands not only by their products but also by their online behaviour.

Two other big shifts have been the growth of the online population, with 73 per cent of the UK population now online (Netview UK, May 2009), and the increasing overlap between online and offline time. For example, more than a third of UK broadband users aged 16 to 55 have both the TV and internet on at the same time and in the same room every day (TNS/YouTube, December 2008).

But there is a fourth big shift that is still a work in progress: embracing customers with strongly held views - negative and positive.

If I had visited a bookstore's head office 20 years ago and said, 'I have a great idea for boosting book sales - let customers write comments on how much they disliked particular titles and pin them on the shelves', I would have been viewed as mad.

Yet letting people put their reviews online - whether good, bad or indifferent - is a huge part of the success of Amazon, eBay and other sites. As CNN Money put it in September 2009: 'Even bad reviews boost sales.' The growing importance of reviews and ratings is partly about technology - it is now much easier to collect and republish such information - but it is primarily about mindset. After all, bookshops could have stuck paper reviews from customers on shelves decades ago.

Criticism tells you where products are not up to scratch, where communications have gone wrong - and where opportunities lie. In that cacophony of voices, the idea of simply imposing the official corporate voice on all discussions is no longer tenable, but that is a plus, not a minus. For if everyone else is saying things about you that differ from what you want to say about yourself, that is a warning and a sign of deeper problems. Welcome the warning and learn to act on it. Don't curse it.

With those who have positive views, there is a similar opportunity - to turn them into advocates who bring in more customers. Everyone in the theatre enjoyed Jersey Boys, but afterwards a theatre full of happy, energised customers was allowed to simply dissipate into the night, an over-priced CD sale or two in the foyer aside. (What could have been done? See Mandate's 'starter for ten' at www.yourmandate.com/customers-to-advocates).

Off-message and unhappy people are no longer just headaches; they can be transformed into opportunities. Now, how long have marketing directors been waiting to hear those words?

- Mark Pack is associate director, digital at Mandate.

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