Brands Heed Social Media. They’re Advised Not to Forget Word of Mouth.

Brands Heed Social Media. They’re Advised Not to Forget Word of Mouth.


“The danger is you can make some pretty big mistakes if you assume the conversations happening online are also happening offline,” said Brad Fay, chief research officer at Engagement Labs and a co-author of the study. “Very often, they’re heading in different directions.”

The most negative and most outrageous comments often get the most traction on social media. And sometimes, people post comments about a topic just to get a reaction or to reflect an “image” or appear “cool” to their social media followers, when their actual views may be the opposite.

Social media is a valuable tool for detecting early signs of trouble. “It’s a wake-up call, a warning that something is afoot and there is a negative force there,” said Elissa Moses, chief executive of neuroscience and behavioral science for Ipsos, a market research company. But a brand then needs to dig deeper to see if offline chatter matches it and if not, why not.

Ms. Moses recalled being angry when Ann Curry was forced off NBC’s “Today” five years ago. “I took to social media to voice my outrage, and I vowed to not watch the show anymore,” she said. “But after years of watching the ‘Today’ show and my liking of their format and familiarity, I found myself gradually coming back to be a regular watcher.”

With Nordstrom, the social media crusaders were loud, but couldn’t shake the loyalty that shoppers felt toward the brand.

Photo

A Chick-fil-A restaurant at the corner of 37th Street and Sixth Avenue in New York.

Credit
Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

“The Nordstrom customer is rock solid, with a very loyal customer base, and that’s more important than any idiot social comment,” said Howard Davidowitz, chairman of Davidowitz & Associates, a retail consulting and investment banking services firm.

So, how do companies track offline conversations? Focus groups, online questionnaires, in-store survey cards, home visits and even a chat between a manager and a customer in the store can all track consumer sentiment. Retailers like Bloomingdale’s and Saks Fifth Avenue often invite loyal customers to meetings to quiz them on everything from the latest promotional campaign to the store’s mannequins.

A facial expression, a tone of voice or even a pause can reveal concerns that a social media post or tweet will not, Ms. Moses said.

Robin Hafitz, the founder and chief executive of Open Mind Strategy, sometimes hooks up focus group participants to diodes and heat sensors to detect emotional reactions.

“While they’re saying they don’t like this sexy or negative commercial, their galvanic responses may actually indicate they’re excited by it or have a positive response,” she said.

When Craig Schmeizer co-founded the mattress company Nectar, he underestimated initial demand and quickly ran out of inventory when sales began in January. That meant long waits and a mountain of negative complaints on social media. He feared his new business might be finished before it ever really started.

But when he reached out to customers through online and phone surveys, he discovered they had no interest in canceling their orders. The more candid he was about the inventory debacle and shipping delays, the more customers seemed to respond.

“Every time we told them the wait would get longer, our sales would go up,” said Mr. Schmeizer, whose company has more than $40 million in sales since January.

When Wendy’s started its “fresh, never frozen beef” campaign, it generated positive buzz but failed to stimulate sales. When offline surveys were done, the company found “most people just didn’t care because they freeze their own beef,” Ms. Hafitz said

And when Chick-fil-A’s chief executive, Dan Cathy, made comments opposing same-sex marriage in 2012, a social media campaign urged a boycott of the fast food chain. Instead, sales surged 12 percent to $4.6 billion that year.

“The running joke is they’ll still eat a Chick-fil-A, even though they feel bad about it,” Mr. York said. “Will they post a picture of themselves eating a Chick-fil-A? Probably not.”

All of this shows why it’s critical that brands track all conversations, online and off.

“It’s not an either/or question; it’s important to look at both,” Mr. Fay said. “Brands need to look at the total picture if they’re going to be successful.”



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