A Marketing Equation:

Marketing Effort + Effects of Positive Opinion - Effects of Negative Opinion = Marketing Effectiveness

In business communications, there is little recognition that, typically, a significant percent of the market doesn't think well of you and may even hate you. Many will do anything they can to drag you down.

In Net Promoter terminology, that percent comprises the detractors. If your organization were a sailboat, your marketing attempts would be slowed by dragging an anchor of negative opinion.

If 20% of your market has a negative opinion of your brand and each person shares that negative opinion with five others while the 80% with a positive opinion each tells only one other person, within a short time the market will be more negative than positive.

New prospects coming to the market will more likely hear negative things about your brand. Current customers, even those with a positive opinion, will either shift to defending you or just shut up. Negative opinion poisons your market and your ability to clean it up.

The effectiveness of the most brilliant integrated marketing-communications campaign will be reduced by the effects of negative opinion. Since few companies recognize the extent of those negative effects, the poison spreads, sometimes undetected or worse: It's detected but ignored.

Meanwhile, your ability to effectively communicate and influence your market is being eroded as relationships go bad. Fixing negative opinion will result in far more effective results from your marketing and communications as the anchor of negative opinion is hauled in.

Here are the four most important steps to finding and fixing negative opinion.

1. Open yourself up to finding and fixing negative opinion

Since most organizations are built to "talk at" markets, telling them only good things (not unlike Disneyland), and your Voice of the Customer and Customer Satisfaction programs are too often ignored.

Look at this as an opportunity to greatly increase the effectiveness of the entire organization. Senior management must encourage the hunt for and elimination of things being done that make customers value the brand less.

Start by asking customers for real feedback (e.g., What is your opinion of us? What are we doing wrong, and how should we fix it?), and pay attention to it. On surveys and in Web conversations, ask those questions. Don't fear talking about it.

Do that a little, such as responding to online criticism; then, as you get use to it and better at it, prepare to get strategic.

2. Obtain and track measures of negative opinion levels and the feelings that go with them

Find the level of negative opinion in the market about your brand, company name, or product and services. That can be done via surveys, customer satisfaction, listening to Web conversations, etc.

The important thing is to quantify it but also to let the emotion come through. A statistic that merely says people wait 4.5 minutes on the phone for customer service is not sufficient to convey the customer's experience, and it's easily ignored. Instead, ask customers how they felt about the delay. The type of measure you use provides the likely value to your efforts to find and fix negative opinion.

Customers' words carry the richness of what your negative policy or behavior is causing for customers. Make sure their exact words, preferably in audio or video, about any negative experience get fed through the organization.

Pump those words into the organization's internal social network, and show the leadership's reaction and execs' challenge to the organization to help fix the problem. That greatly improves the chances the organization will respond, rather than smother or ignore the problems.

3. Stop the causes

Determine whether the causes of the negative opinion are still in place and, if so, stop them. Look for policies, practices, products, or services that promise and don't deliver or those that disappoint.

Moreover, look next at the "solutions" you provide to fix problems when they occur (e.g., call center, online do-it-yourself). Do they work?

Further failure of those "solutions" leads to the next level of negative opinion: frustration. That's where negative opinions really ramp up. Stopping the cause is an art, because the idea of a "root cause" is not very realistic.

Most often, numerous failures contribute to a customer's negative experience. Use adequate tools to analyze and understand how what you're doing is affecting customers.

4. Clean up the mess

People have memories. A bad experience with your company or product, especially if it was associated with an unresolved emotional reaction, can be remembered and acted on for years after the problem is ostensibly resolved, depending on how many people were affected, how emotional the reaction was (memories associated with emotion last far longer), and how deeply they perceive the problem to be.

Was it perceived as a simple error or a nefarious scheme? Are you like a friend who simply made a mistake, or is your character in question?

Analyze the negative opinion, and find out what contributed to the problem. If you have offended customers, the first thing you must do is apologize. Without an apology, nothing else is heard.

Then do something that proves you are really sorry. Ask what happened and get back to customers with why it happened and what you are doing about it. In the case of simple error, that is easy. Above all, do it publicly, via social media. It's the only way to get ahead of the spreading negative wave!

* * *

Although addressing online negative comments is a start, it's a patch—not a strategic approach to eliminating the problem and its aftermath. Once the causes of negative opinion have been removed and the past effects cleaned up, your marketing, communications, and sales efforts will achieve greater effectiveness.

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Four Critical Steps to Finding and Fixing Negative Opinion

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Michael F. Kelly is the CEO of Techtel Corporation (www.techtel.com), which tracks brand opinion and addresses issues of corporate reputation. Reach him at mkelly@techtel.com or via LinkedIn.