In China, that usually means venting online and utilizing internet word-of-mouth (IWOM) to express grievances, which is no surprise, given how popular the internet has become in China. The country has the most internet users, the largest number of bloggers and the most online bulletin board (BBS) users in the world. It also houses the world's largest social network and has the highest level of online participation.
But who controls the internet's megaphone? People who operate social media sites, which can turn Consumer Day into Crisis 2.0 Day, because the internet's largest and most influential communities, mostly on big portals, are becoming very proactive in drawing attention to or soliciting consumer complaints.
The portal Netease is promoting its own brand crisis response evaluation ranking. On Tencent's popular instant messaging service QQ, over 45 million users have typed "/315/" to create a special Consumer Day icon.
At a local level, a Shanghainese BBS gossip forum KDS, has launched a topic post for netizens to post experiences about getting swindled by marketers.
Courting controversy good for traffic
These activities are beyond the typical practices sites use which can amplify or draw attention to consumer discontent. The top three portals, for example, regularly create special "crisis pages" which highlight brands "under scrutiny" of angry consumers.
At a micro level, forum administrators use various buzz-attracting tactics to draw attention to issues, including putting "fixed" topics about brand crises which can remain highly visible for days.
In the end, a key measurement of a portal's performance is traffic, so it is not surprising that at both a macro level (crisis pages) and a micro level, such as forum administrator tactics, Chinese sites court controversy to drive page views.
The fact that IWOM platforms are open to such commercial influence is a key difference between social media in China and in the West. In China, consumers can voice their opinions, but ultimately it is the community owners which control the megaphone's volume and the on and off switch. In western markets, consumers are more in control.
IWOM is reshaping the brand-consumer relationship
That IWOM has become so prominent in impacting the reputation of brands is a testament of how the internet community is reshaping the relationship between brands and consumers.
It is important to realize, however, that this "reshaping" goes well beyond the "scary stuff" related to public relations and reputation management. IWOM can also serve as a marketing communications intelligence platform. For market research for example, IWOM is one giant focus group filled with millions upon millions of conversations about brands, products and services. Even China's top leader, Hu Jintao, tracks consumer opinion by "listening" to the talk on BBS sites.
For ideation and marketing inspiration, IWOM offers the opportunity to track internet culture and trends that can go into communications or even product development. The Chinese sportswear marketer, Anta Sports Products, for example, created a line of four-carat branded shoes inspired by the "net nickname" of its spokesperson, Louis Scola, whose name sounds like "four-carat diamond" in Mandarin.
IWOM is also influencing how consumers receive customer service. In a community based on the Motorola E2 music phone tracked by CIC, we determined that one "answer person" wrote over 1,000 messages in one month mentioning the E2. The vast majority of these messages were answers for "newbie" questions.
IWOM influences purchases
Such active communities with "crowd-sourced" customer service remove a potential purchase barrier for those considering buying the phone. It also provides a window for brands to see the types of problems that plague netizens and new ways to fine-tune their online customer service.
While it is largely agreed that IWOM has a strong influence on purchase decisions, we also see that IWOM can influence how consumers purchase. The practice of "group purchase" is not uncommon in China and can lead to, for example, 55 consumers organizing themselves in a QQ group to purchase the same model car.
Last year, Forrester Research suggested that the agency of the future will be a "connected agency", which should have "a deep understanding of consumer communities, helping brands create and nurture connections, deliver targeted, on-demand messages, and network for talent and insights."
The opportunity in China for agencies to help brand owners connect is more urgent, since its online consumer community landscape is more active, complex and commercialized than the West.
Awareness of China's online communities is just starting to take off. The next step, learning how to meaningfully connect with people in those communities and manage relationships with not only consumers, but also community owners, will be more difficult.
Sam Flemming is the Shanghai-based founder and CEO of CIC, a social media research and consulting firm in China.
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