AD:TECH: Advertisers face harsh lessons at the hands of powerful consumers

AD:TECH: Advertisers face harsh lessons at the hands of powerful consumers

CHICAGO – People are more skeptical of advertising than ever before, experts at AD:TECH Chicago agreed, and the growing presence of the Internet allows them to quickly sink a product or company’s reputation. The result? More power in the hands of customers, and a greater need for companies to watch their brands—and their backs.
Several presentations at the conference, held June 12, and 13, suggested companies need to focus more on maintaining their online presence or risk losing big when a negative review spreads through popular discussion sites, chat rooms and e-mail. Very few companies track their reputation online, said Ronald Alsop, Wall Street Journal news director, even though experienced computer users, numbering around 10 million, can pass on information quickly and easily to the hundreds of millions more who browse.

Catching a virus

When two travelers with reserved rooms at a DoubleTree hotel were turned away—the hotel was full—they produced a PowerPoint presentation that is now found all over the Web. It’s the same principle as that behind viral marketing, only in reverse.
New technologies such as camera phones are making it even easier to document problems such as dirty restaurants or hotel rooms, said Stuart Meyler, director of marketing strategy at Modem Media. And once pictures or stories are online, they stick around and can potentially reach millions of people. So a single compelling story of woe can tarnish a company’s reputation, and because it can be mirrored on so many sites, getting it removed is a massive, if not impossible, effort.
Furthermore, doing so through legal means is rarely easy. Deborah Wilcox, an IP litigation expert and partner at law firm Baker & Hosteler, said defamation and product disparagement lawsuits are expensive and uncertain, because there is no clear definition. It’s up to a judge to decide whether someone intentionally and maliciously tried to harm a
brand’s reputation.
Another sticky point, of course, is that no defamation lawsuit can succeed if the statements involved are true. That, said Peter Blackshaw, founder of Intelliseek’s PlanetFeedback, is why companies should consider fixing problems before going after people who report them.
At PlanetFeedback, Blackshaw monitors enough customer opinions to make a corporate executive’s head spin. He said even people who are predisposed to believe advertising still go online to check reviews before they buy products, and consumers are increasingly suspicious of advertising claims.
But negative feedback isn’t of use only to customers looking to avoid bad deals. “Consumers that complain and give feedback are the best intelligence gatherers,” Blackshaw said. In aggregate, a bevy of complaints can be just the thing to convince a CEO that change is in order.
The kicker? On some of the pages that host the PowerPoint presentation, Meyler said, Google AdSense displays ads for DoubleTree. That’s another aspect of protecting a brand online, he said: If you can’t erase a blot on your record, at least use negative keywords to shield yourself from more negative exposure.

More wired than ever, too

If some companies ignore their Web presence now, they won’t be able to for long. Geoffrey Ramsey, chief executive officer of eMarketer, expects the Internet to surpass the penetration of cable television sometime in 2005. He agreed that consumers don’t tolerate as much advertising as they used to, citing a Yankelovich study that found 65 percent of people say they feel bombarded by too many messages. Too many, he said, means up to 3,500 daily for the average American.
So, while a Web advertising campaign could reach 80 percent of users, he said, building interest much more quickly than traditional mediums, overdoing it can be costly—not in money but in reputation. Many Web users, Ramsey said, say their opinion of a company is lowered when its ad appears on a page that is cluttered with many ads.
Ramsey repeated the message that consumers are more in control than ever, and targeted advertising is going to work better than general advertising in the future. That’s not just an Internet trend, either. Some billboard manufacturers, he said, are developing digital boards that can display different messages in different conditions – in the morning, for example, a highway sign might advertise a breakfast diner; in the evening, a restaurant serving dinner.

Power to the people

And that’s the rub: Companies who want to make effective use of new technologies to market themselves, experts agree, need to give consumers more of what they want, not more of what the companies think they should want.
Company Web sites should be “more than a digitized collection of annual reports and press releases,” Alsop said. He cited a Nike site (produced in 2001 and archived for only 90 days) that let viewers take a virtual tour of a Vietnamese factory, in an attempt to quell rumors that it uses sweatshop labor. Not everyone was convinced, of course, some even
saying the presentation was faked, but it probably worked better than a written statement.
And as recent viral marketing spots such as the Seinfeld and Superman ads or Subservient Chicken have shown, people are willing to spend more time watching published messages than a typical TV spot takes – if they’re entertained.