Michelle Rodger: Don't be the last to know when your customers complain

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IF YOU'VE been paying attention over the past 12 months you'll know all about brand values, building an online brand, personal branding and the like. But how do you know if it's working? How do you know if you've built a loyal following, that the online feeling towards your brand is as warm and fuzzy as you would like? Do you know how to tell if your brand is being threatened by the competition?

Do you have a comprehensive monitoring strategy in place? If you don't, all the hard work you put into creating, building and sustaining your brand could ultimately be for nothing.

It's all very well understanding your customer and being good enough for them to buy into your brand. But it's not just a two-way dialogue any more, customer relations are now 3D (fortunately, without the specs).

As well as talking to you, your customers are also talking to your other customers - and it's important to know what they're saying.

Good or bad, you need to know. You need to be a part of all those conversations; to hear the product or service improvement suggestions, to be able to react to a bad customer experience before it blows out of control all over the internet, or indeed to be able to do more of what they really like.

David Alston of Radian6, a social media monitoring company, highlights the ten reasons they believe it's crucial to track what's being said online: the complaint, the compliment, the expressed need, the competitor, the crowd, the influencer, the crisis, the ROI (return on investment), the audit and finally, the thread. So now you know where to start.

Mark Jennings, of FreshNetworks, says: "You can't know where you are going unless you know where you are." Monitoring is crucial to this but all too often a monitoring strategy depends on a business's experience; if they have experienced brand issues then monitoring is usually in place, but many are just not aware of the brand degradation taking place online until it is too late.

Jennings insists that identifying sentiment towards your brand online should be a regular part of any marketer's role, even if it is little more than an automated search for "mentions". For larger brands a deeper strategy of monitoring, awareness and issue escalation is critical to ensure disasters are avoided.

The dangers of not monitoring, according to Jennings, are simple: you will be the last to know when your company and product is being slammed, you are not in control of your brand, and customer service issues are not identified early enough to solve and save.

Look at the example of luxury brand Jimmy Choo, which launched a limited edition collection to raise money for the Elton John Aids Foundation. FreshNetworks launched a photo competition entered by thousands of people from 35 countries. The results from the monitoring campaign spoke volumes: those who engaged with the Jimmy Choo community had twice the standard conversion rate; the community generated 20 times the ROI of other advertisers; and compared to Facebook, the community was four times more effective in driving sales of the limited collection.

And the opposite speaks volumes too. In just 11 days, the lack of response to an online complaint cost one company an estimated $10 million (6.5m). There was a complaint posted online which stated that a Bic pen could pick a Kryptonite bike lock. Two days later, 180,000 people watched a video online showing how it was done. By day six the New York Times ran the story and on day eight, an estimated 1.8 million people read the blog. On day 11, Kryptonite announced a free product exchange, costing them $10m.

The challenge is that true monitoring isn't as easy at it appears at first glance. Consider the word "bad" - an automatic tool might pick this word up as a negative sentiment, but what if the tweet or blog post actually say "this product is badass", which, strangely enough, is a positive comment.

It's clear that whether you are a start-up, SME or global brand, monitoring the online chat about your business needs to be a part of your daily routine. Choice may be dictated by cost, but should really be determined by the kind of monitoring you actually need and balanced against the potential cost to your business of an online disaster.