From Foe to Friend: Turning online critics into brand ambassadors

Social MediaI’ve often thought about how social media is blurring the lines between public relations and customer service. Everyone with a laptop or online device now has a powerful publishing platform at their fingertips.

As I listened today to the speakers on PRWeek’s Webcast “From Foe to Friend: Turning online critics into brand ambassadors,” I was surprised to hear how much time and effort well-known brands such as McDonalds, Kimpton Hotels and Quicken Loans put into responding to negative Tweets and blog posts from ordinary folks like you and me. They don’t just focus on the biggest blogs and those with the most Twitter followers either. McDonald’s PR director said that those with fewer than 200 followers are important too, but you have to make some choices about which skeptics to engage with.

It was the Webcast’s description that lured me in: “With myriad ways for consumers to share their opinion about brands online, there is more opportunity than ever for a single critic to have an amplified voice in the conversation-and a detrimental effect on a brand. But these critics can represent an opportunity to change perception and therefore influence important segments of consumers.”

The speakers were from non-tech companies, and seemed a good cross-section of American commerce:

  • Stacey Ellis, director of public relations, Kimpton Hotels
  • Kelly LaVaute, social media manager, Quicken Loans
  • Molly McKenna Jandrain, external communications manager, McDonald’s USA
  • Jennifer Houston, SVP, global lead, Waggener Edstrom’s WE Studio D 
  • Moderator: Erica Iacono, executive editor, PRWeek

Each shared social media tips and case studies to show how social media had helped convert their online critics into brand ambassadors (or at least silenced their rants).

Molly McKenna Jandrain, external communications manager, McDonald’s USA

McDonald’s engages consumers through Twitter and blogger. Molly shared five key take-aways from her experiences:

1) Listen and Learn First. Don’t barge in and insert your opinion before listening to what consumers are saying about your brand online. Consumers offer insights into what is most important to them.

2) Personality is Key. Molly noted that Twitter lets McDonald’s personality shine online.  She gave an example of a skeptical customer who questioned whether anyone “really” wins the McDonald’s monopoly sweepstakes game. A McDonald’s “Tweet” (whose job it is to engage in Twitter conversations) eventually convinced the skeptic that yes, real people do win. How did the Tweet do it? Simply, by talking to him like he would a friend.

3) Tried & True Tactics Reign Supreme. Molly noted that Snail Mail is now almost an endangered species so hand written cards add a personal touch to correspondence.  The @ symbol 13

4) Embrace Your Skeptics. When a blogger posted that the “Mac snack wrap sounds nauseating.” McDonald’s sent him a coupon to try one. Apparently he liked it, though I couldn’t find a blog to that effect. Perhaps he Tweeted?

5) Engage vs. Promote. Strike a balance and create a two-way dialogue.

6) Let Them Experience Your Brand — First Hand. McDonald’s PR arranged for a group of Mommy bloggers to tour McDonald’s.

Stacey Ellis, director of public relations, Kimpton Hotels

This boutique hotel chain launched a social media program focusing on Facebook and Twitter in April 2009.  Their objective was to build relationships with guests, and not to use these social media tools for marketing purposes. Today about 80 percent of Kimpton’s hotels and restaurants are on Facebook, and a blog is under development.

Stacey shared three case studies that showed how Kimpton was able to effectively address adverse situations using social media. They are all good examples of how PR folks can get pulled into a customer service role and turn a public complaint into a PR opportunity.

Case Study 1: The first case study is dubbed “The Great Coffee Fix.” The story goes like this. A guest posted what StaceyPEOPLE DRINKING COFFEE 3 described as “a great deal of displeasure” over the fact that there was no in-room coffee maker.  He was never going to come back to this hotel and so on and so forth went the rant.  Aware that many people are more comfortable expressing their displeasure through social media channels rather than contacting the manager on-staff, Stacey scours the Web daily for what she describes as opportunities to turn things around. One Friday evening she came across this particular guest’s very public complaint and she quickly replied that he could call down to the front desk to have a coffee maker sent up to his room. Quite pleased with her deft handling of this situation, she was a little thrown off when he posted shortly thereafter that he had just called the front desk and they didn’t have a coffeemaker!

So what happened next was interesting. Someone figured out that this disgruntled guest was a Twitter executive. Needless, to say a member of the front desk staff was dispatched pronto to procure a coffee maker. Later in the evening this guest set about posting again, but this time he was full of praise for the hotel. No one is sure if what followed some time later is related to this incident, but it is ironic that this same hotel received a sponsorship from Twitter for several million dollars.

Case Study 2.  Kimpton “botched up” a surprise weekend getaway that a man was planning for his family. He had asked Kimpton reservations to reply using a separate email address so that his family wouldn’t find out about his “great surprise” for the weekend. The confirmation was sent to the email address that his family was privy to, and he vented his frustrations online, and even sent an email to the chief operating officer. Kimpton immediately reached out asking how can we help. In the end, Kimpton gave him an upgrade to a suite with many amenities. He jumped back on Twitter and espoused his renewed faith in Kimpton.

Case Study 3: Kimpton posted a broadcast clip of a new cocktail offering with food ingredients that had been created by one of its chefs. A follower posted “that’s the most disgusting thing I’ve ever heard.” The follower happened to mention in her post that she was going to be staying at a Kimpton hotel in Seattle, so Kimpton invited her to the restaurant to try it. She actually ended up liking it and she posted her personal review.

Stacey offered the following tips for social media:

1) Embrace the narrowing gap between customer service and public relations. 

2) Be accessible

3) Be transparent and trustworthy

4) Connect with care and compassion

5) Admit mistakes publicly; problem solve privately

6) Follow through to resolution.

Kelly LaVaute, social media manager, Quicken Loans

Kelly uses multiple free tools to “dig into the conversations in social media” for Quicken Loans, a top mortgage lender in the US. Her monitoring tools include Facebook, YouTube, Flickr, Boardreader, Socialmention, BoardTracker, TwitterAnalyzer, twazzup, Google Reader, and more.

Kelly provided a case study to illustrate how Twitter alerted her to a real estate agent who was frustrated that Quicken Loans was not being responsive to her buyer.  Jody Zink tweeted “Just say no to Quicken Loans. There’s nothing QUICK about it.” Kelly contacted Jody to offer help, and she ran it up the chain of command so that Jody’s client got the loan before time ran out. Jody isn’t sure if she will use Quicken Loans again, but she was clearly impressed with the quick response from Quicken Loans and she posted about her experience on JudyZink’s Weblog

Quicken Loans places a high value on reviews and actively seeks them out. Kelly said “Our goal is to respond to all negative reviews with urgency.”

Jennifer Houston, SVP, global lead, WE Studio D.

Waggener Edstrom’s WE Studio D’s focus is digital influence, and Jennifer commended the speakers on their well-defined social media processes. Process is key to how you respond to your critics without letting it ruin your day, she said. And “you can’t bolt on social media to your existing business and expect any kind of scalable results.” Analysis, Development and Process are fundamentals of a sound social media strategy. She added that you must also be clear on content, identify the channels where you can reach your audience and campaign to sustain these ongoing relationships.

So the irony is that while social media enables us to market our brands to the masses with a couple of key strokes, it requires much more time-consuming one-on-one customer care to sustain those brands. Everyone must be in the customer service business now.

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