Over on iMedia Connection, Tom Hespos has a good article entitled "What to do when customers attack." It's pretty high level, but it's certainly worth all marketers giving it a look. (Just in case.)
Tom points out the importance of being proactive in figuring out just what's being said out there in-the-world-where-you-have-no-control. For starters, he advocates setting up relevant search terms in an RSS feeder and doing blog- and group-searches (see Tom for more detail).
Tom then provides some high-level advice for responding to whatever it is you find out there.
First, he wisely cautions that if you do talk back, that you avoid "marketing-ese". I am quite sure that we have all seen this in action. Someone from marketing hops on to a blog or board and puts up brochure ware. Even if they don't identify themselves as shilling, errrr working, for the company under attack, they completely give themselves away. Sometimes the copy is ripped right off of the web site. It doesn't take much to figure that out now, does, it?
By all means, if there are misconceptions or flat-out errors floating around about your products, you should correct them. Just avoid the marketing hyperbole, claims, rhetoric and stick to the facts.
Tom then goes on to advise that you prioritize where you're going to respond - and avoiding getting into any he-say-she-say online shouting matches with those who are clearly emotionally wound up and unlikely to really listen to (let alone hear) anything that contradicts their feelings. So pick your battles.
The bottom line: sticking your head in the sand and ignoring the chatter is unwise, but conserving your energy in terms of responding is quite wise, and never, ever fight back with cheesy, unconvincing marketing-speak.
Or, as Tom put it:
Once you do identify the hot spots where people are discussing your brand, focus your efforts in the areas where they're most likely to make a difference. Make your point of view heard but realize that actions speak louder than words. Show people the depth of your commitment by taking their feedback seriously, and you will reap the rewards through increased loyalty.
What Tom doesn't really get into is the point that there are some situations in which it may be advisable to get your most passionate advocates (outside your company) in on the conversation. DO NOT, of course, put words in their mouths, since if you put them there they're likely to come out as marketing speak, but if you have trusted, passionate customers - and you don't mind risking their seeing what might be some unpleasant comments - I would not hesitate to encouraging them doing the talking back for you. (This may not be relevant for big-name brands where the pro folks and the con folks are likely to be going at it already. But I'm thinking about lower-down-the-brand chain B2B technology products where someone or two folks may be out there kvetching....)
To relate an at least tangentially relevant personal incident:
As an online grouser, I had an interesting experience last December with none other than the Boston Red Sox.
After spending an inordinate amount of time trying to order tickets online, I posted about my experience (over on Pink Slip). This is when I realized for the first time the power of RSS feeds, Google Alerts, and blog searches. A few days after my post, I heard from a Red Sox VP of all things (which, of course, I also chronicled).
The upshot was that the Red Sox responded to my complaints and, while I don't know whether they've done anything to improve their systems - they haven't yet taken me up on my offer to be part of a focus group - they did help me avoid their systems all together and purchase tickets from an actual human being. The other upshot is that, embarrassed to admit I'm perfectly happy as a bleacher creature, I ended up paying a lot more for tickets than I would have normally. Of course, so far the real upshot this season is that The Home Towne Team is (despite losing this weekend's series to the Yankees) playing pretty darned good ball. Let's hope they're still smokin' when my first game comes up in July.
The point here is that here was a business - the Red Sox - with a very strong brand. They're also, after 4-plus years of sell-out games, in an over the top seller's market. And THEY were paying attention to what one annoyed fan had to say about the customer experience. If they can do it, how much more motivation do those of us need who are working less glowing brands, with products that are in highly competitive, distinctly buyer's markets? As marketers, we really need to be paying attention to what the folks out there are saying about us. Blinders off!