Why vocal social media customers are good news for PR!

There is an earthquake in Nepal-the worst in decades. A team member from Indian eyewear e-commerce firm, ‘Lenskart’, decides to do some news jacking and sends out a promotional SMS asking people to “shake it off like this earthquake”.

This ill-advised channeling SMS is immediately slammed, resulting in #ShameonLenskart trending nationally. Welcome to the world of the Indian ‘Internet Customer’ who is quick to call out a brand for anything from customer service to brand behavior. While this is a PR pros worst nightmare -  it also represents a growing opportunity for PR to expand its role and relevance for a brand today.

Aniruddha Atul Bhagwat, Founder-Director, Ideosphere Consulting Private Limited advises that, “PR consultancies need to have a larger focus on the implications, and not just the impact, each initiative will have. Communication consultancies need to constantly upgrade their awareness of the platforms available and continuously explore all the mediums through which consumers speak.”

Lessons from the Lenskart episode

Let’s look at a detailed look at what happened with Lenskart.
According to Supriyo Gupta, CEO Torque Communications, thanks to the ability of the consumer to publish their views widely, “Your whole team is now responsible for the brand. Lenskart, the co-founders had to stand up and face the music. Till half a dozen years ago, and even now, the top management of many established brands managed to dodge the bullet by simply not being held accountable for the mind farts or misbehavior of every other employee in his organization. That may no longer be possible.”

Gupta adds that, “The dangerous outcome is that of conventional news platforms starting to chase ‘trending’ stories from Twitter. As more and more journalists get overwhelmed by every story being first written online and every analysis tweeted in 140 characters, platforms such as those which chased the ‘Lenskart’ story try actively to stoke the fire to see if they can continue to grab eyeballs around an issue where THEY can get a lot of people worked up. This is a version of television’s ‘breaking news’ and hectoring anchors. The politicos follow suit if the issue has any aspect that can be worked up. At the end of it, the media platform becomes a machine to encourage censure and create further chaos rather than an objective assessment of the situation.”

Source: Torque Communications

 A Google search of these key days throws up 255 stories –all in the mainstream press, showing the slide of stories from Twitter to mainstream media.

A month later conversation around the story has died down:

Source: Torque Communications

Gupta feels part of the reason this has happened is due to brand behavior, “The co-founders stood up and took it on the chin. There was no attempt to duck the issue, find a scapegoat and pass it on to an external agency. Second, they didn’t try to come up right away with a campaign that was meant to distract. Third, they went all out to play up their apology.”

Another brand was not as quick to realize the dangers of customer reactions online. Swati Bhargava - Co-Founder, CashKaro.com, one of the leading cash back and coupon sites in India says that, “I think the way Mike Jeffries, CEO Abercrombie & Fitch handled the uproar of the brands exclusion of Plus size for women was in bad taste. In 2013, Abercrombie & Fitch announced that the brand wouldn’t stock XL or XXL sizes in women's clothing because they don't want overweight women wearing their brand. This to me was a very dated and destructive brand positioning, but the last coffin on the nail was seeing the CEO not only endorse but justify this move. This polarized and arguably hurt the company’s image and the stock went down by 30%.”

Marketer’s view: CashKaro.com, Scripbox.com and SwiftKey

Given the impact of an activist customer – PR is best positioned to advise brands in a country that has often cared little for customer experience.

Bhargava says that, “Today communication needs to be agile enough to evolve according to consumer sentiment. We also need to let go of the ‘larger than life’ school of thought; today brands need to be ‘human’ so as to connect with the consumer. Owing to the platform, reactions are instantaneous; hence brand communication needs to be very responsive.”

CashKaro has a customer support team that answers questions fro several channels including via WhatsApp. Bhargava says that, “We believe transparency needs to be integrated across the spectrum. What this entails is that a consumer can voice his or her opinion across various channels in our system, from tweeting me directly or writing an email to our team.”

Sanjiv Singhal, CEO, Scripbox.com, a site that plans mutual fund investments for customers says, “ We see this as an opportunity to make ourselves accessible and transparent to our customers who trust us with their hard-earned money. We ensure that we are where they are - on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and Quora. My team and I make a conscious effort to address customer concerns on these platforms and do not shy away from answering tough questions.”

Eric Collins, head of distribution and monetization, SwiftKey points out that, “As the way brands interact with their customers evolve, there is an increasing necessity for brands across genres to shift to a method of communication where content is less about planned, stick-to-the-letter execution and more about responding to real time consumer queries, complaints and feedback.”

Collins adds that, “ At SwiftKey we have a 100,000 strong VIP forum with a team providing cross-time zone support and responses to queries and concerns. The relationship between brand and consumer is increasingly becoming a reciprocal dialogue rather than a one-sided message. It’s important that SwiftKey reflects this change and we place great emphasis on our users’ feedback.”

Solutions such as Akosha have sprung up in the market to help with brand and customer feedback. Akosha-which raised 100 crore rupees in its latest funding round this week, enables customers to directly chat with brands via an Android App. Akosha believes that the quality and channels of consumer’s interactions with businesses are broken and outdated. Vishrut Chalsani, VP Enterprise Sales and Co-Founder, Akosha, says that, “ In this mobile era, consumers want information instantaneously and on their own preferred channel. Instead of providing a reactive customer service: when consumer faces a problem and they contact a company -by phone or mail- to get the problem solved, brands can provide proactive service. Consumers’ are looking for real time ways of connecting with brands and taking their help in pre purchase and post purchase scenario.”

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