Unfortunately, brands aren’t always able to use their online presence to simply spread a brand-building message. At times, they must also harness the power of social media and the Internet to spin a bad situation—a crisis, even—into something positive.
Just look at Taco Bell. In 2011, the company was hit by a class-action lawsuit calling into question the content of its beef, causing even the most avid Taco Bell fans to reconsider their allegiance to the brand. But the chain wasted no time getting back on its feet, relying on its social media resources to do so. Not only did it tweet statements from CEO Greg Creed denying the claims, but it also uploaded a video to YouTube and Facebook of Creed proudly detailing the ingredients in its meat.
“They wanted to move the conversation forward,” Zammuto says of Taco Bell’s post-crisis social media efforts. “They explained, they moved on, they apologized, and then they started working back on building their brand and focusing people on the things that they like about Taco Bell.”
Another Yum! Brands concept, KFC, has dealt with its own PR crisis online more recently after a scandal broke out in China late last year involving chicken that was believed to contain excessive levels of antibiotics. Though the brand stayed relatively mum to begin with, it met the situation head-on earlier this year when it launched “Operation Thunder.” The online mission aims to help KFC China rebound from the blow to its reputation, and includes everything from a website detailing the efforts the brand will take to ensure safe chicken to a poetry contest on social media, which asked fans to pen poems including the phrase, “The chickens are innocent.”
In good times and bad
Not every negative situation has such a happy ending. Even the tale of Taco Bell’s social success during the Cool Ranch Doritos Locos Taco launch has another side to the story. When the chain revealed that its social media fans and followers could gain exclusive access to the new taco a day before it hit stores nationwide, fans went nuts. But as March 6 rolled around and many fans discovered their local restaurant didn’t have the tacos yet, they took to Facebook and Twitter to express their ire for the whole world to see.
This goes to show that even the strongest concepts will occasionally have their failures and weaknesses broadcast online to an audience of millions, whether through a tweet, post, or review. And these bad reviews—especially those on popular review sites like Yelp and UrbanSpoon—can hurt, particularly in terms of the sales they might cause a brand or unit to miss out on.
In a study from the University of California, Berkeley, released last September, a half-star ratings improvement on Yelp was shown to increase a restaurant’s business during peak dining hours by nearly 20 percent. Further, a separate study from Harvard Business School shows that a one-star improvement on Yelp can lead to a 5–9 percent increase in revenue (though it’s important to note that these results may not be as powerful for chain restaurants, which often have an already-established reputation).
This means brands must not only be prepared to face a bad review or complaint every now and then, but they also need a plan in place for how to react when they creep up, says Reputation X’s Campbell. Though the knee-jerk reaction may be to simply ignore the criticism—or worse, respond in anger—he says brands must be able to handle these situations calmly, no matter how scathing or damaging the review.
“That’s why it’s wonderful to be able to have the resources of a third party who can very calmly approach these things and offer a cool, calm viewpoint on the correct way to respond,” Campbell adds.
But responding to complaints and poor reviews can be tricky, at best, and often becomes a catch-22. When brands don’t respond, they’re seen as ambivalent toward and unappreciative of customer concerns and feedback. But when they do respond, it not only extends the conversation—inviting others to react and put in their two cents, too—but also increases the strength of the criticism, Zammuto says. “What you’re inadvertently doing is helping ensure that this controversy will rank up really high in search engine results,” he says.
In cases when a response is unavoidable, Zammuto says, it’s best to offer one out of the public eye, whether through a phone call, e-mail, or private message. “If you don’t respond to a tweet, it very quickly ends up at the bottom of people’s tweet streams,” he says. “But every time you respond, it comes back up to the beginning again.”
It’s also wise to understand that not every complaint or disparaging review holds equal weight in the online sphere. Campbell says important social figures, known as “influencers,” are the most crucial to pay attention to online. “If you’re being hated by somebody in your industry who’s an influencer, you want to jump on that immediately and honestly and deal with that as quickly as possible,” he says.
On the other hand, if the critic is simply a low-impact individual with a complaint against a brand or unit, it’s often best to handle the problem privately. “If there’s a blog out there and it’s sitting on page three of search results and they write something negative about your restaurant, you may not want to comment directly on it,” Campbell says. Responding could refresh the page and invite more commentary from others, and “that activity will trigger a search engine to … probably make that negative [comment] rise in search results,” he says.
A poor review on a high-profile site like Yelp or UrbanSpoon, unfortunately, is difficult to hide from the public view, Campbell says. “It doesn’t matter so much if you go and refresh the page and respond,” he says. “That Yelp page is probably getting refreshed often anyway, and it’s already a strong site that’s going to be high in search results.”
This presents an especially dangerous situation for brands, considering 95 percent of people using search engines spend their time on the first page of search results, Campbell says. The first result, on average, gets clicked on 42–45 percent of the time, he says, while bottom search results on the first page only get clicked on 3 percent of the time.
Regardless of how—or if—a brand chooses to respond, Liu says, it must realize that it “runs the risk of conveying the wrong message or there being miscommunication. You have to understand the nature of how you’re communicating.”
Subway’s Pace says this is one way in which online marketing greatly differs from traditional marketing. “You have to be comfortable with the fact that you’re not going to be able to control how the messaging rolls out,” he says.
“If you’re OK with taking a little bit [of risk] on, knowing that everything’s not going to go exactly the way you want but knowing that there could be big benefits,” he says, “then you take the appropriate steps.”
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