Want to Be 'Likable'? Start Listening

Bad reviews can be a death sentence for some products. In fact, a recent survey by online marketing firm Lightspeed Research found that 67 percent of consumers wouldn't buy a product if it had as few as three negative reviews.

But bad reviews are only one side of the consumer-driven conversation happening online. For every gripe, there's a whole slew of likes, tweets and blog posts pointing consumers towards praiseworthy products and services. Those poorly reviewed boots in your shopping cart? They can quickly be replaced with a pair that come highly recommended.

This is great news for consumers, but for businesses, it means knowing what's passing through the digital grapevine. Paul Rand — founder and president of Zócalo Group, a social media and digital marketing agency, and author of the new book "Highly Recommended: Harnessing the Power of Word of Mouth and Social Media to Build Your Brand and Your Business" (McGraw Hill) — said that creating a "likable" image for your business is all about listening to what customers are saying.

In an email interview with BusinessNewsDaily, Rand explains how businesses can (and should) become a part of the conversation their customers are having both on and offline.

BusinessNewsDaily: How did recommendations work before the like, retweet, share, etc.?

Paul Rand: Recommendations and word of mouth, of course, have always been important. But in the age of social media, they are essential. Long before full-page magazine spreads and 30-second radio and TV spots, shop clerks were the original gateway to consumer goods and services. Although they still read the product specs and bought the manufacturer’s spiel, they knew also that to survive on the ground, face-to-face with the angry or satisfied public, they had to push their customers toward what worked and away from what didn’t. Through the explosive growth and connectivity of social media, one-to-one communication has become one-to-millions, giving voice to the masses with multiple venues in which to discuss their gripes, air their grievances, and even send their thanks, well-wishes, praise and compliments.

BND: In your book, you have a chapter called "Fixing What Advertising Has Broken." Can you explain what that's all about?

P.R.: It’s a catchy title, isn’t it? For years, advertisers had focused on the one-way communication to consumers without fear of feedback, complaint or retribution. Today, if brands make false or misleading claims, treat consumers poorly or have products that don’t work, there’s an almost immediate backlash. What’s interesting is that, after decades of enjoying a one-way relationship with the consumer public, today’s advertisers are being forced to return to their humble roots as one-on-one communicators. What’s important about the message in this chapter is that for marketers to truly relearn what one-on-one recommendations taught us so many years ago, we’ll have to unlearn how one-way advertising led us astray.

BND: What are some examples of companies or brands that use customer recommendations to their extreme advantage?

P.R.: The Nissan LEAF. As the first fully electric car, the Nissan LEAF represented a breakthrough new product in the automotive world — a zero-emissions vehicle. To help Nissan build awareness, educate consumers, drive interest and stimulate trials, Zocalo Group created an online and offline word-of-mouth campaign with a big idea — give test drives to anyone who connected with Nissan LEAF via social media and talked about the vehicle.

For their influencer program, we of course made sure to identify automobile influencers as one main category of influencers, but we also know full well if you’re too myopic, you’ll miss out on a whole new audience. So we also made sure to identify those eminents who were experts in environmental sustainability and those influential consumers who have chosen to live “green” lives. While cars might not be the first thing on their list, their interest in the environment fits perfectly with the messaging and goals of the LEAF team.

This led to the creation of a 23-city test drive tour executed jointly with a sister agency, Omnicom Agency. Our word-of-mouth campaign solicited “hand raisers” and attracted influencers, including a variety of high-profile celebrities, to help talk about and recommend the Nissan LEAF.

By listening to conversation, we found key celebrities who were talking about green issues. We invited them to try the LEAF — without paying them — and they quickly became advocates for the brand. By creating "talkable" and shareable experiences — both online and offline — for bloggers, brand fans, industry eminents and high-profile celebrities, Nissan was able to reach more than 45,000 consumers via the test drive tour. Additionally, the conversation generated more than 100 million online impressions and grew the Nissan share-of-voice from 10 to 25 percent — surpassing key competitors Chevy Volt and Toyota Prius

One thing every company looks for, particularly in the earned numbers categories of things like social media and word-of-mouth (WOM) marketing, is return on investment (ROI). Most important then, the campaign drove order reservations for the Nissan LEAF. In fact, the program generated 20,000 orders three months ahead of schedule.

BND: What's a "shareable story" and does everybody have one?

P.R.: A shareable story is simply the brand's most important characteristics phrased in a way that people typically talk to explain the benefits that the brand brings to them when sharing and recommending to other consumers. The need for a shareable story seems obvious — the best way to get people to recommend your brand is to know what you want consumers and customers to say, and then help them to do it through your product and/or service offerings and your marketing initiatives. Increasingly, though, there’s a whole new reason to make sure you get your shareable story right. Five of the six top influences on search ranking are directly linked to how people are talking about, recommending and sharing your brand in social channels.

BND: In your opinion, is it better for a business to dabble in Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Tumblr, Instagram, etc., or just put its energy into one or two of these sites?

P.R.: In the age of social media, we are now very fortunate to be able to understand where customers are and aren’t recommending brands, along with where competitors are or aren’t being recommended. Through listening tools, we can determine where a brand's target audience is engaging and then develop strategies to specifically target those consumers on the channels they are engaging regularly.

BND: And speaking of social media, is that the only outlet for marketing nowadays or should businesses be aware of other opportunities as well?

P.R.: Social media should not be considered the only outlet for marketing, but rather a key player in the marketing mix. Whatever gets people talking about a brand among themselves — to friends and family or to random strangers, connections, fans or followers via social media — is the marketing mix that works for that brand. Whatever you do, evolution must be part of the program. Don’t merely throw out traditional advertising simply because everyone is headed in social media’s direction.  We’ve seen how powerful and positive a healthy media mix can be as we grow and evolve into the recommendation age.

BND: Some people are really hard to please. Is it worth it for businesses to react to every bad recommendation?

P.R.: It’s definitely worth it to regularly monitor for and examine each negative recommendation. The damage of negative perception on your brand can be increasingly severe. With so much going on online, the longer a negative perception exists without a strong offense or defense, the more likely people are to (a) see it and (b) believe it. Here are some tips to help protect your brand image by getting proactive.

— Know when, and when not, to get excited: Monitor the traction of the message and understand the reach before engaging with the detractor.

— Have an escalation plan: This allows you to categorically face each challenge in a clear, measured, and proactive way.

— Know what category you’re dealing with: "Hear mes," "reputation terrorists" or "competitive destroyers" all require a different strategy to overcome.

— The best offense is a good defense: Monitoring your online chatter and being aware of your position in the marketplace is always going to be your best line of defense, and offense.

[See also: The Customer Isn't Always Right...And Why It Doesn't Matter]

BND: What makes an employee most likely to recommend his or her workplace?

P.R.: In order for employees to recommend his or her workplace, the company needs to ensure they are a recommendable one. Here are some ideas that companies should consider to be as recommendable by employees as it is by consumers.

— Out with the old, in with the new: Throw out those old, traditional notions that only money and vacation time mean anything to your employees. Understand what your employees want and need, and give it to them, within reason. Then stand back and let them do their jobs.  Employees who feel creative in their work, have ownership of their projects and actually enjoy coming to work will be the first to recommend their workplace to others.

— Make recommendation easy: Don’t put obstacles in front of employees. If you block employees from using social media to talk about your company for fear they may say something bad, then you are also keeping them from saying anything good.

— Give them opportunities to learn: Nearly every company I work with where the employees are consistently “happy” to be there offers opportunities for learning. It’s important to enrich the lives of your employees so that they feel their time with you, no matter how long, was worthwhile.