In a world where peer recommendations are a highly effective and influential form of marketing, businesses are feeling the pressure to keep pace—and taking some drastic measures to do it. According to an Aug. 19 New York Times article, businesses are increasingly hiring external partners and freelancers to post positive online reviews as if they were coming from real customers. Otherwise-honest companies “cheat” the review system to avoid losing the online race for positive mentions. While ethics are not in their favor, the data certainly supports them: 87% of consumers trust a friend’s recommendation over a critic’s review (Marketing Sherpa).
This practice of paying for positive reviews may soon erode the trust in the peer review system so much that no one trusts them anymore. And where will consumers then turn to inform their opinions about a company or product?
A company’s employees provide another option. As Advertising Age reported in August 2011, Cargill turned to employees to help address its turkey recall. Employees provide a connection between the consumer and the company. An employee is a real human being who has a job, a mortgage and a life that is a lot like that of the average customer. This provides a sense of transparency and authenticity that a standard company press release or response statement cannot. APCO’s social media research study found that dialogue was the No. 1 factor driving a company’s social media reputation, and that dialogue was expected to involve employees at all levels of the company.
When communicating a company’s vision or an official crisis response, dialogue was expected to be with the top levels of the company. But perhaps more revealing was that, when it came to products, corporate culture or company initiatives, respondents expected to engage with front-line employees whom they perceived to be more connected to the everyday business. The ability to converse with those employees could result in a big shift in audience perceptions of a company.
However, employee engagement with the public is not just for crises. In fact, buried at the end of the Times article is a gem: the idea that actually responding to a negative review can be quite powerful in bolstering opinion, changing customers’ “reviews from two to three or four stars.” By responding to negative comments in social media, several companies have changed their corporate reputation for the better. It’s a scary thing to do, but the companies that do it well come out on top.
And, if you think about it, employees are a natural asset as companies struggle with a loss of control in the face of the modern consumer who is heavily influenced by social media. In the struggle to uncover authenticity in peer reviews, crisis response and everyday corporate communications, connecting front-line employees with customers provides not only the credibility that an anonymous peer review lacks, but also gives the consumer an ally in the organization—someone who is trying to connect with them.
The notion of using employees to respond online and in social media has numerous applications. Coca-Cola engages select employees to respond to product mentions (both positive and negative). Other companies such as Amazon use them as a customer service platform.
Whatever the application, as peer reviews become more scrutinized and suspect, companies should be looking to their employees as a credible means for reaching their consumers and engaging them in the dialogue that their own customers say is important. Here are a few tips for doing so:
• Think about employees at all levels of the company. From senior managers to engineers to the people that staff a help line, your customers want to connect with and have insight into the way a company works at all levels.
• Train assigned staff in how to respond. Although dialogue is expected, mishaps can still have a negative impact on your reputation.
• Do not be overly prescriptive. While employees will need talking points, approvals and training, this should feel like a conversation, not a recorded message.
• Set up a clear process for handling complaints, responding to criticism and providing feedback to your audience. This should be an exercise partly in improved customer relations, and the engaged employees will need the tools and ability to help.
So by all means, don’t pay people to write reviews for you, and use your employees to create positive shifts in perception. It can only enhance your organization’s standing.
Matt Bostrom, senior VP at APCO Worldwide, directs APCO Online’s efforts in EMEA and Asia. He can be reached at email@example.com.