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    An area where companies often voice their concerns as we discuss setting up their own blog is that of negative feedback. They worry that people will use the comments section of their blog to express their dissatisfaction with the company and their products or services. Theyre also keen to understand how best to deal with them.

    From a personal point of view, I totally understand this concern. As a rule, we dislike negative comments being made about us thats just natural – and companies and company bloggers are no different. Theres an instinctive reaction when we receive anything other than glowing praise for something we’ve written: for the individual blogger, there’s personal pride at stake; for businesses, there’s the concern that it will reflect badly on their organisation and alienate customers or prospects who see it.

    So, for some, the gut reaction is to suppress it … moderate it out … pretend it never happened. Better still, don’t allow anyone to comment! That will also take away the guilt factor of knowing that the comment was made but that you haven’t approved it!

    Why this really isn’t an option

    The trouble is that this is the digital equivalent of sticking your head in the sand or perhaps jabbing your fingers in your ears and shouting La la la very loudly. Conjures up a faintly ridiculous image? Well, in social media terms, its equally ridiculous, Im afraid. Why? Because the person who wanted to complain on your blog will still do so, they will just go elsewhere … generally somewhere where you won’t have the chance to respond and engage with them.

    So whats the alternative? Well, instead, give people the chance to raise the issue on your blog let them vent their frustration. And, in the process, you’ll be giving yourself the chance to answer their concerns.

    For me, there are three key reasons why I’d want to do that and they’re nothing to do with blogging and everything to do with business:

    • Firstly, it costs much more, both in terms of time and money, to find new clients than it does to keep your current ones.

    • Secondly, customers with negative experiences are more likely to tell people about them than customers with positive experiences. However, customers who have had a negative experience which has been solved tend to be the most vocal;

    • Thirdly, it costs more to fix a problem than to prevent it in the first place.

    By responding and resolving their issues, we have the chance not only to keep them as a customer but possibly turn them into an advocate for your company again. In any case, by openly allowing the criticisms and answering them, you are more likely to gain respect in the eyes of other readers than lose it.

    Feedback has other benefits

    You may also be receiving valuable feedback which could help improve an aspect of your company’s activities and fix a problem which already exists. Without this feedback, you could remain blissfully unaware of an issue which is costing you clients who have decided not to complain but rather “vote with their feet” and look for another supplier.

    Certainly you need to make sure that the comments comply with any guidelines that you have in place – and in a corporate blog, they should exist – but those should cover areas such as abusive or racist language rather than constructive criticism. So rather than suppressing negative comments, you should encourage comments and feedback of all types. While it might sometimes seem a painful process in the short-term, the long-term benefits will prove far more valuable.

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    I was interested to read an article entitled “It takes a Web Village” in a recent edition of BusinessWeek that a number of high profile companies such as GSK, Kraft and Hewlett Packard had been turning their attention to the use of online communities when researching the perception of their brands and development of new products.

    In the particular cases mentioned, they used a bespoke private online community by linking up with Communispace to provide an environment in which they can work with a defined set of respondents to help them in evaluating new product ideas and, in the process develop additional thoughts and ideas.

    There are two aspects to this – firstly the general use of an online environment for this type of research and secondly the selection of the right tools to achieve it. The benefits of using online communities in this way seem clear it is an ideal opportunity for companies to get real feedback from the people that matter most. Their customers. However, the price tag of this type of set up is probably out of reach for many of the companies that would most benefit from it.

    So, would a blog be a good substitute to a custom built environment for small and medium sized companies? I believe so.

    A business blog is already an great way to create networks and communities of people interested in a certain topic, market or area. By then managing the development and use of the blog, you can set-up an ideal community environment in which to test ideas, get feedback and encourage open discussion between your customers.

    You can easily set up a closed blog, just as you might do with an internal blog, or alternatively there is of course the option of a closed area within a current blog set-up. There are already examples of closed or semi-closed environments being used for specific purposes; a product development blog is one such example.

    So, how might they be used and what would you expect to gain from them? Well, they could be used:

    • to test discuss ideas for new products and product concepts

    • to test new marketing ideas in terms of promotions, offers, packaging ideas, advertising etc.

    • for surveys which could either be carried out using a threaded discussion and/or a simple tick the box multiple choice

    • to elicit feedback on products by providing an open forum where people can express opinions and discuss specific questions

    • to get an insight as to how you compare with other products on the market

    • debating offers and the appeal of them

    By incorporating images or video into the blog, concept testing and sampling can be done using full mock-ups or demos, and at all times the discussions can be directed if required simply by participating in the conversations as they happen. Feedback will tend to be almost instantaneous and the insights from the consumer-to-consumer conversations will be there without any filtering or “interpretations”. At the end of the process, you will also have the benefit of a community of product champions who will feel part of the development of the product.

    Are there companies who could not benefit from this? Well, you would need to be interested in hearing what your customers have to say, but thats true of any business blog. Soliciting peoples opinion and then totally ignoring it is never going to be a winning strategy to adopt. Other than that, it seems to me that using the key blog elements of communication and interactivity in this highly focused way to gain insight about your customers, products and marketplace can only be positive.

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    I’ve been reading Naked Conversations again this week – such a good read with so many elements in it that are worthy of comment.

    However, my focus this week has been on product based blogs, whether they are focused on the product development phase or the product management and marketing phase. In both cases, the focus remains steadfastly on customers and there was a set of recommendations quoted which had come from Creating Corporate Evangelists which I found to be particularly relevant. These were:

    • continuously gather customer feedback;

    • make it a point to share knowledge freely;

    • expertly build word of mouth networks;

    • encourage communities of customers to meet and share;

    • devise specialised, smaller offerings to get customers to bite;

    • focus on making the world, or your industry, better.

    Although not specifically focused on blogs, if you can follow these recommendations as you develop your product based blog around your product, then you will create something which will foster the idea of ownership and community. This in turn will develop a buzz around your product and, as the title of the book says, create product evangelists who will be out there promoting your product at any opportunity.

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    Transparency has become very important whether it is in terms of accounting requirements following in the wake of scandals such as Enron or, at the other end of the scale, the ability for customers to know what is going on with an enquiry or order.

    Despite all of the press about how we need to do business in a more transparent way, interestingly it is seemingly this fear of transparency that that I often come up against when talking about the use of blogs within a corporate environment, whatever the size of the business.

    Even when considering internally focused blogs, for example for team communications or as an alternative to an intranet, there is sometimes clearly a fear that the open dissemination of information that the blog will provide will somehow weaken a managers position. A throwback to the old version of the mantra that “knowledge is power”.

    However, when we look at the possibility of using a Business Blog to open a company up and make it better able to interact with clients, suppliers and partners, then you can get a real look of panic crossing their faces. In most cases, it is not that they have anything to hide, it is simply the fear of the unknown but that is just the point! If the opinions and requirements of these important groups are unknown, then that is something to be afraid of as you have no chance of knowing what they really want or, by implication, delivering it.

    I tend to compare going through this process to crossing a rope bridge over a ravine:

      - it’s scary to look at before you cross as all the things that you think could go wrong flashes through your mind;

      - it is quite tense as you are crossing as you take every step with care, but you gain confidence as you cross as you realize your worries were unfounded;

      - and, there is a real sense of release and achievement when you get to the other side and you realise what youve achieved.

    Then of course, you wonder why you were worrying about it at all and generally you want to do it again!

    Gaining trust is critical in today’s business environment and being transparent and open with the people that your company is dealing with is a big step towards achieving that.

    The idea of knowledge is power is changing. No longer is it the knowledge and information that you keep to yourself that provides the power, but rather the knowledge that you share. In the same way, as you open yourself up to receive feedback from your marketplace, the information and the knowledge that this provides is also power, the power to provide them with what they really want rather than what you think they want.

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