Everyone’s a potential critic online. So how can you harness their views for the good of your brand? Joanna Perry investigates

Carphone Warehouse chief executive Charles Dunstone is adamant that honesty is the best policy. When word of mouth spreads like wildfire on the web, he believes that it is the only way to retain credibility with his customers.

At the Retail Week Conference earlier this month, Dunstone explained his “radical transparency” strategy. He believes in telling customers everything that is happening in the business because, in the internet age, a company can no longer control what is written about it. He explained: “In about the past nine months, I have been trying to force the business into this. The rule is: if we know it, we tell our customers about it.”

This tenet has been adopted in the TalkTalk fixed-line telecoms business initially. Dunstone admitted that this was the area of the business that was “most broken and where customers had lost trust”. He now plans to implement the idea across the whole business, believing that the efforts of the necessary cultural shift will be paid back with customers’ trust and, ultimately, loyalty.

TalkTalk was chosen to adopt the idea first because of the well-publicised problems that occurred when its free broadband offer created an overwhelming response. Dunstone said: “We decided that, having done such terrible things to customers, we owed it to them to be completely straight.”

In addition, Dunstone knew that other sites were writing about the company – such as TalkTalk Hell – and, while about half of what was written by others was correct, half was inaccurate.

So the company started its own site, Talktalkmembers.com, which anyone can view. However, only customers can leave comments on the forum. The site is monitored – but not edited – by Carphone Warehouse and it also provides links to competitors’ sites and sites that, in Dunstone’s words, “hate us”.

The members’ site gives details of any faults in the network at any one time, reviews products and allows consumers to review them, too. Customers can also run a speed test on their internet connection using a tool on the site, rather than having to look elsewhere on the internet for it.

Most important though, according to Dunstone, is the forum. TalkTalk staff jump in when they think they can help customers with problems and customers also solve each other’s problems.

He adds that customers don’t use the site to badmouth the company in general. “We never get people arguing about whether we make too much money – it is personal things about the way that they use the service,” he says.

In the next few days, a service dashboard page will be introduced to the site, which Dunstone admits has troubled people at his company most. It will offer real-time data on the queue times at the company’s call centres, as well as past metrics on how quickly customers are dealt with. He said: “We shouldn’t hide from that. It keeps us all honest.”

However, other companies are not so keen on this new-found honesty. Dunstone said that, in particular, BT was not happy that the site had admitted to customers in a certain area whose phone lines were down that the delay in getting their service resumed was down to BT. More specifically, it said that BT had run out of temporary traffic lights, so it could not close the road it needed to dig up in order to resolve the problem.

Ready for action

Not every retailer will be ready for the radical strategy that Dunstone is taking, but that does not mean that online comments should go unchecked. Carphone Warehouse is certainly not the only retailer to receive negative publicity online and how you respond to such unwanted attention is crucial. While a poorly thought-through pay-per-click union campaign against Marks & Spencer was thwarted by Google, web-savvy, angry consumers have been more successful.

One example is an affiliate marketer and blogger who goes by the online moniker Affiliate Widow. After an unsatisfactory customer experience with PC World Business technical support, she embarked on a pay-per-click campaign on Google, which pointed to her blog. When the retailer was made aware of her case, she was eventually offered a new laptop.

Katie Howell, managing director at online PR agency Immediate Future, says that once you start to listen to what your customers are saying, you can think about how to start a conversation with them.

She believes in acting quickly. She often responds within 40 to 50 minutes to blogs, but says that this is usually best done through offline media. “Guard against posting a message back and contact them via a private e-mail address if possible,” she warns. Another option is to put up a response on your web site or put up a crisis blog, which will start to feature in the search rankings.

TNS Media Intelligence/Cymfony chief strategy and marketing officer Jim Nail adds that advocates will come out of the woodwork online to stick up for a brand that they believe in if they feel criticism of it has no basis. The company did a project with one retailer to analyse the online buzz surrounding a competitor launching an aggressive price promotion on a new video game. Nail says: “There was a lot of discussion online, but people who seemed familiar with our client said to go to them still, because they have a price-match guarantee.”

Online public relations does not always need to be in response to negative content, though. Nail believes that the positive power of social media outweighs the negative. “What can one person with a blog or a page on a social network really do?” he asks. “The technology is not about one single person – it is the enabling technology to get hundreds of thousands of people together to create a market-moving force.”

Immediate Future has worked with Hotel Chocolat to build relationships with bloggers and turn them into advocates of its brand. In particular, the retailer sent them samples of its products prior to launching an online competition last Easter and generated masses of free publicity through them writing about it.

Hotel Chocolat online marketing manager Chris Bishop says that the best way to deal with negative online comments is to drown them out with positive ones. He says: “We do have some negative comments, but, a year later, we still see links on Google referring to our Easter campaign.”

Helpful feedback

This is the experience of retailers that have set up product ratings and reviews on their web sites. Bazaarvoice chief executive Brett Hurt, whose company provides a ratings and reviews service to retailers such as Figleaves, Boden and QVC, says people write reviews for altruistic reasons. He points to the 700 reviews written by customers of US chain Petco about its number-one selling dog treat. He says: “Petco stands for a place where people are fanatical about their pets.”

In the US, Wal-Mart is also getting in on the social media act. The retail giant has its own Checkout blog, run by a team of staff who, according to the site, “have really cool jobs, working with gadgets, games, sustainability and more”. Most commented-on posts include one on sustainable, industrialised food and another on Wal-Mart’s decision to stock Blu-ray as its HD TV format. In addition, the blog talks about Wal-Mart’s products and strategies.

Nail admits that much of the experimentation with social media that is going on in US companies is down to individuals. He explains: “They tend to have one guy or girl who is enthusiastic and does these projects as an experiment. It’s only once they have done this that they take it up to board level to try to get support.”

Part of the problem, Nail believes is that not many PR agencies are geared up for this change in communication channel yet. Although they are positive about the medium, they regard it as just another place to push out the same messages as they do through press releases and advertising. Nail adds: “The agencies can talk a good game, but they are not good at designing and implementing programmes yet and they have a reliance on mass-market techniques.”

At Carphone Warehouse, Dunstone is already thinking ahead to what the hot topics will be among customers of its core retail proposition once the transparent approach is extended to that part of the business. He thinks there will be a lot of debate about going green and mobile phone recycling.

He concluded: “When I first started this programme, I found that the IT department had prohibited anyone going to sites that were nasty about TalkTalk. I think you have to reach out and embrace that.”

Nail agrees, saying that it is a common misconception among companies that you own your brand. “The brand is what your consumer thinks it is. That’s what is great about social media. Your brand research is all right there on the internet,” he says.

It is all too easy to view negative online comments about your brand as a threat, when, in fact, your customers have always been communicating these things by word of mouth. More public communication online will at least give retailers the chance to respond to this criticism.