How to Speak Directly to Your Customers

The job of public relations firms is to control the news cycle. PR professionals are supposed to be able to get news out to people via media outlets when and how their clients want. But in this relationship, the media largely holds the upper hand — we ultimately decide when and how we report news fed to us by PR reps. Good reporters can usually cut through the spin and take control of the story away from the PR people. But over the last few years, blogs and social media utilities have allowed companies to get into the conversation and circumvent the media and the PR firms completely.

To see evidence of this in the technology sector, one needs only look at tech news aggregator Techmeme. According to CrunchBase’s BloggerBoard, two of the top 35 sources on the site over the past two years are press release wires — Business Wire at #22, and PR Newswire at #33 — and official corporate blogs from Microsoft and Google are almost among the top 100 sources, as well. When a news story breaks in the tech blogosphere, it is not uncommon for the company’s official blog post or press release to be a top source for the news.

What does that mean? It means that companies are increasingly able to control the news cycle themselves by initiating and taking part in the conversation around their products and news. Here are four tips for how to bypass the press and speak directly to your customers.

Tip #1: Blog

Setting up a blog is easy, figuring out what to blog about is much harder. Unless you’re a big company with rabid fans like Google, Facebook, or Apple, no one is going to want to subscribe to a blog that reads like a list of press releases. So take a cue from 37signals, who write the wildly popular Signal vs. Noise blog, and don’t just write about your company or your products.

Instead, offer insight into your industry, your methods, and your thoughts. Signal vs. Noise is successful because the employees at 37signals, who all contribute to the blog, don’t just write about the company’s products, but rather writer about design and development practices in general. They give business advice, links to things they enjoy, tips on how to manage time, and insight into their personal and professional lives. By doing so, 37signals has been able to foster a connection with their community and turn customers into die-hard fans who evangelize their products for them.

They also control the news cycle. Any time they want to announce something, they can speak directly to their most passionate user base and communicate the story on their terms.

Tip #2: Utilize Social Networks

The Apple Students page on Facebook has almost 450,000 members. The Microsoft page has over 25,000. Social networks offer a huge number of potential customers who can be turned into potential fans. Utilizing social networking services to form or enhance a dialog with your customers is a smart move.

Apple and Microsoft have been able to build large communities on Facebook that the companies use to sell products, recruit, and generally build their brand image. By engaging their communities with exclusive news, information, promotions, and media, and by participating in the conversation surrounding those elements, both companies have built goodwill among their most die-hard fans and spread their brand message.

Adobe, on the other hand, is missing out. Their Photoshop page has 30,000 fans — people who could potentially be turned into vehicles for viral marketing. But it appears that Adobe isn’t in control of their own fan page, or if they are, they’re doing a lousy job engaging their community.

Tip #3: Get in the Conversation

There is a conversation going on about your products or services whether you like it or not. People talk, and they don’t always say things you probably want said. The trick is to keep tabs on what is being said and then jump into the conversation. Respond to both the positive and the negative. Engage the people talking about you, but try to avoid arguing with them (if someone has made up their mind to really dislike your product or service, it is better to let them then to draw attention to their negativity by getting sucked into a shouting match).

Some things you should monitor:

  • Twitter – Use Summize to monitor Twitter. You can set up a search for your company or product name, and then put an RSS feed of the search results into your feed reader.
  • Blogs – Daily searches on Technorati and Google Blog Search will keep you in the loop. If something big happens, hop over to Techmeme to watch the discussion unfold.
  • Comments – Once blogs are talking, keep track of the comments people leave on posts using a service like Co.mments. You can then jump in and respond to thoughts coming directly from users.
  • ForumsBoardTracker can keep tabs on over 37,000 forums and give you a holler when someone posts something about your company or product.
  • Wikipedia – It’s a good idea to occasionally check in on your Wikipedia page (if you’ve got one) and see if anyone has edited in something objectionable that you need to fix, clean up, or respond to.
  • NewsGoogle Alerts can watch mainstream news sources, blogs, videos, and news groups for you.

You can also consider a prepackaged solution like Andy Beal’s Trackur, which will track most of these things for you and alert you when something happens.

Tip #4: Keep Track of Customer Complaints

And while you’re keeping tabs on the conversation taking place about your company or service out on the web, there is one type of thread in that conversation that you should respond to as quickly as possible — customer complaints. Happy customers are the ones that go from being users to being fans to becoming fan boys.

One place you should definitely have a presence, is Get Satisfaction, which is quickly becoming the go to source of crowd sourced customer service for web 2.0 apps. Should Do This is another site to keep an eye on, where customers can give you ideas for how to improve your product or service. In fact, you may consider encouraging your customers to use sites like Get Satisfaction and Should Do This. Showing users that you’re listening will have a huge positive effect.

By utilizing sites like these, you may be able to nip any negative press that’s headed your way in the bud by dealing with problems directly at the source before they become major issues.

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