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How to Spot and Stop Brand Sabotage

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In April, when video of a manhandled United Airlines passenger surfaced, the ensuing dustup seemed familiar to Wayne Hoyer, chair of the Marketing Department at McCombs. The airline’s stonewalling response and the public blowback recalled another viral video from eight years before. It involved the same airline, a manhandled guitar — and a customer determined not just to get mad, but to get even.

Musician Dave Carroll first got upset (justifiably, most would agree) when baggage handlers broke his $3,500 guitar. After nine fruitless months of dealing with customer service, he turned his attention to YouTube. A music video titled “United Breaks Guitars” racked up 15 million views, and the airline’s stock price fell 10 percent the week of its release.

To Hoyer, the two incidents display not just a failure to learn a lesson but also a larger failure on the part of corporate America: to grasp the magnitude of the damage that can now be done by a single disgruntled customer. When a company wrongs that customer, the response can go far beyond nasty letters and bad Yelp reviews. It’s a qualitatively new kind of consumer behavior, he says, and he dubs it “consumer brand sabotage.”

“One negative review is not going to do major damage,” says Hoyer. “In this case, the customer has decided they really want to hurt the brand. The online world gives them the ability to do that.”

The vengeful consumer doesn’t even have to be a customer, he notes. In 2013, David Karber had a beef with upscale clothier Abercrombie & Fitch: Its CEO stated that he didn’t want overweight and other “not-so-cool” kids wearing his company’s fashions. Karber struck back by filming himself as he gave out A&F clothes to the homeless. Over the next 10 days, the company’s BrandIndex score — a measure of positive perceptions among 18-34 year olds — tumbled 20 percent.

The issue, says Hoyer, is not only how companies can keep from fumbling in the first place but also how they can avoid making an already-bad situation much worse.

In the past, he explains, a person could gripe only to small circles of friends. Today, social media can amplify one grievance a million-fold, if it provokes strong enough feelings in viewers. Both United videos generated sympathy and outrage. “For those who trust and like United Airlines, they likely felt betrayed by them, and this motivates them to spread the word,” Hoyer says.

Besides recognizing brand sabotage as a new phenomenon, corporations need to know what motivates lone consumers to launch it, he adds. When a firm makes a customer service mistake, it needs a strategy to control the reputational damage before it gets out of hand.

In new research with colleagues from the University of Bern, Switzerland, Hoyer takes a first step in that direction by trying to understand a saboteur’s motivation.

Dissatisfied Customer vs. Brand Saboteur

What kinds of thoughts drive an unhappy consumer to more extreme tactics? The researchers began by interviewing seven brand saboteurs. For comparison, they also talked with five who retaliated in less aggressive ways, like negative word-of-mouth or boycotts.

The saboteurs weren’t hard to track down. Many identified themselves online, and all were happy to talk about their work.

A key difference, Hoyer found, was in motives. For less-aggressive consumers, the goal was often venting anger: like a shopper who paid for a purchase with 32,052 coins. Others wanted a company to acknowledge their complaints and correct its behavior.

Brand saboteurs, on the other hand, had given up on trying to fix a bad corporate relationship. Confessed one, “There isn’t any benefit to contacting them, because they don’t really care about complaints unless they affect the bottom line.”

Instead, their overriding goal was to inflict public relations pain. Says Hoyer, “They’ve burned their bridges with the brand, and they just want to hurt it.”

The researchers found a similar split when they surveyed 683 consumers. The subjects read scenarios that ranged from negative comments up to brand sabotage. For each behavior, they were asked to imagine what the motivations might be.

For brand sabotage, they rated intent to harm as the strongest motive: 6.34 on a scale of 1 to 7. For less extreme scenarios, the top goal was restoring fairness, at 5.74, followed closely by venting negative emotions at 5.59.

Different Customers Have Different Triggers

Not everyone follows the same road, though. The researchers found two principal paths, depending on what the company originally did to wrong or upset their customers.

For some, the path begins with a performance failure. A customer feels burned by a defective product, inaccurate bills, or delivery snafus — or in musician Carroll’s case, a busted guitar.

A second kind of saboteur gets offended by something less concrete: a company’s values. “If a company does something to damage the rainforest in Brazil, someone might get upset,” Hoyer says.

Performance-based triggers, he found, take longer to escalate to the level of sabotage. Customers hope their initial complaints will get resolved, but they get angrier with each rebuff. Reported one, “I contacted them so many times. If they had reacted or written to me earlier, I would not have gone that far.”

By contrast, consumers distraught over values are more likely to jump straight to more extreme measures. Hoyer presented 263 subjects with scenarios and asked how they would react. While only 17 chose sabotage, 13 of those were reacting to a value-based trigger.

Customers Are Social Media Savvy; Companies Need to Be, Too

The good news is that many potential brand saboteurs show signs ahead of time. “These actions are generally not spontaneous,” says Hoyer. “They’re very thoughtful, and you need to detect problems before something occurs. You need to ask yourself, ‘How can we prevent this from happening?’”

One approach is to monitor mentions of the firm in social media. “Certain keywords are signs that someone intends to damage the brand,” Hoyer says. “They could be using words like ‘hurt’ and ‘harm.’ When these phrases come up, you need to identify individuals and try to restore a positive relationship, to take care of their problems.”

How does a company repair a relationship? If it takes a second look and decides the grievance is justified, a letter of apology might help, along with asking how to make the customer happy — and then acting on it.

If it finds that the anger is based on a false impression, the company can send a counterstatement. “You’re clarifying that this situation wasn’t something you did or was something beyond your control,” says Hoyer.

Value-based sabotage is harder to foresee than performance-based, but he suggests that firms periodically assess the positioning of their brands. It’s fine to focus on specific segments of customers, but if its marketing unintentionally offends other groups, like the “not-so-cool,” the company can make changes before one of them goes rogue.

In either case, firms need to take sabotage seriously and plan ahead for how to prevent simple grievances from growing into something worse. In the case of United, he says, “I think this incident really took them by surprise, and the current CEO didn’t know how to deal with it. Companies need to do a better job to avoid more serious longterm consequences.”

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About the Author

This article was written by Steve Brooks, a writer at Texas Enterprise an organisation created to share the business and public policy knowledge created at The University of Texas at Austin with Texas and with the world. see more.

Startups

The Most Important Tech Job that Doesn’t Exist

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Yesterday I asked a prominent VC a question:

“Why is it that, despite the fact that so many successful startup ideas come from academic research, on the investment side there doesn’t seem to be anyone vetting companies on the basis of whether or not what they’re doing is consistent with the relevant research and best practices from academia?”

His response was that, unlike with startups in other sectors (e.g. biotech, cleantech, etc.), most tech startups don’t come out of academia, but rather are created to fill an unmet need in the marketplace. And that neither he nor many of his colleagues spent much time talking with academics for this reason.

This seems to be the standard thinking across the industry right now. But despite having nothing but respect for this investor, I think the party line here is unequivocally wrong.

Let’s start with the notion that most tech startups don’t come out of academia. While this may be true if you consider only the one-sentence pitch, once you look at the actual design and implementation choices these startups are making there is typically quite a lot to work with.

For example, there is a startup I recently looked at that works to match mentors with mentees. Though one might not be aware of it, there is actually a wealth of research into best practices:

  • What factors should be used when matching mentors with mentees?
  • How should the relationship between the mentor and mentee be structured?
  • What kind of training, if any, should be given to the participants?

That’s not to say that a startup that’s doing something outside the research, or even contraindicated by the research, is in any way suspect. But it does raise some questions: Does the startup have a good reason for what they’re doing? Are they aware of the relevant research? Is there something they know that we don’t?

If the entrepreneurs have good answers to these questions then it’s all the more reason to take them seriously. But if they don’t then this should raise a few red flags. And it’s not only niche startups in wonky areas where this is an issue.

For example, I rarely post to Facebook anymore, but people who follow me can still get a good idea of what I’m up to. Why? Because Facebook leverages the idea of behavioral residue to figure out what I’m doing (and let my friends know) without me having to explicitly post updates. It does this by using both interior behavioral residue, e.g. what I’m reading and clicking on within the site, and exterior behavioral residue, e.g. photos of me taken outside of Facebook.

To understand why leveraging behavioral residue is so important for social networks, consider that of people who visit the typical website only about 10% will make an account. Of those about 10% will make at least one content contribution, and of those about 10% will become core contributors. So if you consider your typical user with a couple hundred friends, this translates into seeing content from only a tiny handful of other people on a regular basis.

In contrast with Facebook, one of the reason why FourSquare has yet to succeed is due to significant problems with their initial design decisions:

  • The only content on the site comes from users who manually check into locations and post updates. This means that of my 150 or so friends, I’m only seeing what one or two of them are actually doing, so what’s the value?
  • The heavy use of extrinsic motivation (e.g. badges) has been shown time and again that extrinsic motivation undermines intrinsic motivation.

The latter especially is a good example of why investing on traction alone is problematic: many startups that leverage extrinsic rewards are able to get a good amount of initial traction, but almost none of them are able to retain users or cross the chasm into the mainstream. Why isn’t it anyone’s job to know this, even though the research is readily available for any who wants to read it? And why is it so hard to go to any major startup event without seeing VCs showering money on these sorts of startups that are so contraindicated by the research that they have almost no realistic chance of succeeding?

This same critique of investors applies equally to the startups themselves. You probably wouldn’t hire an attorney who wasn’t willing to familiarize himself with the relevant case law before going to court. So why is it that the vast majority of people hired as community managers and growth marketers have never read Robert Kraut? And the vast majority of people hired to create mobile apps have never heard of Mizuko Ito?

A lot of people associate the word design with fonts, colors, and graphics, but what the word actually means is fate — in the most existential sense of the word. That is, good design literally makes it inevitable that the user will take certain actions and have certain subjective experiences. While good UX and graphic design are essential, they’re only valuable to the extent that the person doing them knows how to create an authentic connection with the users and elicit specific emotional and social outcomes. So why are we hiring designers mainly on their Photoshop skills and maybe knowing a few tricks for optimizing conversions on landing pages? What a waste.

Of all the social sciences, the following seem to be disproportionately valuable in terms of creating and evaluating startups:

  • Psychology / Social Psychology
  • Internet Psychology / Computer Mediated Communication
  • Cognitive Development / Early Childhood Education
  • Organizational Behavior
  • Sociology
  • Education Research
  • Behavioral Economics

And yet not only is no one hiring for this, but having expertise in these areas likely won’t even get you so much as a nominal bonus. I realize that traction and team will always be the two biggest factors in determining which startups get funded, but have we really become so myopic as to place zero value on knowing whether or not a startup is congruent or contraindicated by the last 80+ years of research?

So should you invest in (or work for) the startup that sends text messages to people reminding them to take their medicine? How about the one that lets you hire temp laborers using cell phones? Or the app for club owners that purports to increase the amount of money spent on drinks? In each of these cases there is a wealth of relevant literature that can be used to help figure out whether or not the founders have done their homework and how likely they are to succeed. And it seems like if you don’t have someone whose willing to invest a few hours to read the literature then you’re playing with a significant handicap.

Investors often wait months before investing in order to let a little more information surface, during which time the valuation can (and often does) increase by literally millions. Given that the cost of doing the extra research for each deal would be nominal in the grand scheme of things, and given the fact that this research can benefit not only the investors but also the portfolio companies themselves, does it really make sense to be so confident that there’s nothing of value here?

What makes the web special is that it’s not just a technology or a place, but a set of values. That’s what we were all originally so excited about. But as startups become more and more prosaic, these values are largely becoming lost. As Howard Rheingold once said, “The ‘killer app’ of tomorrow won’t be software or hardware devices, but the social practices they make possible.” You can’t step in the same river twice, but I think there’s something to be said for startups that make possible truly novel and valuable social practices, and for creating a larger ecosystem that enables them.

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About the Author

This article was written by Alex Krupp. see more.

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Strategy

3 Trends that Define Content Marketing in 2018

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These are the questions every digital business is desperately trying to find answers to today. But as anyone who works in content marketing knows, it’s never that simple. There are no quick tricks or insider shortcuts; to achieve sustained traffic through organic search, you simply need to be in it for the long haul.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to get ahead. Providing you already follow the bible of content marketing — regularly publishing high-quality, valuable content for your readers — then there are more opportunities than ever to break free from the crowd and get noticed.

Successful content marketers keep one eye on the present and one eye on the future. They know there’s never one ‘right’ strategy that will always lead to triumph; just a set of continually changing principles and methods that need to be tested, used, and thrown out, tested again, used again, and thrown out again.

Here are three of the big emerging trends that are already making waves in content marketing and will help place you one step ahead going into 2018.

#1 The Rise of Machine learning

Machine learning, a subset of AI in which algorithms continually learn from inputted data and information, is changing the way we work, and at the same time, putting many folks out of business.

From automatically generating email content to curating content for social media, there’s little machine learning can’t do. And come a few years, when the full potential of the technology is realised and made more affordable, there’s little it won’t be doing.

In fact, by as soon as 2018, it’s predicted 20 percent of all business contentwill be authored by machines. Content like quarterly reports, profit/loss summaries, and real-time stock insights that follow set patterns and structures.

It’ll be a while yet before machines are producing creative content like opinion pieces and niche ebooks, though. In 2018, machine learning will begin its gradual takeover by securing its place as a content marketer’s best friend: helping them to create the right content, for the right audience, at the right time. This is data-driven marketing, and it’s arguably the biggest differentiator between an expert content marketing push and your bog standard everyday strategy.

#2 Co-creating the content world

The days of creating and promoting content as an independent marketer and being successful are dying. To make an impact today, it’s all but essential to forge partnerships and collaborate with others who can offer you and your audience something you don’t have.

More often than not, brands who execute winning content strategies today are working with influencers or bloggers or some person or another outside of their network. It may be to harness expertise and create content that can’t be found anywhere else, to expand reach to a broader segment of their audience, or simply build valuable relationships that strengthen their brand.

Everyone always has something someone else needs, so opportunities for co-creating or co-promoting content are huge. And with double the benefits from half the effort, so are the potential results.

#3 Personalisation is the new quality

Big brands are investing heavily in original content. Google is purchasing original content from media companies to fill gaps in their search algorithms. It’s clearly what the people want; but what exactly does it mean to make something original today?

It’s no longer enough to just put words together in an order they haven’t been before. Original content is content that resonates with a particular audience and is delivered from a place of authority. It offers new insights, preferably based on primary data, is trustworthy, i.e. thoroughly researched and referenced, and above all, is highly personalised for its readers.

Personalisation is becoming most important of all as today, 74 percent of online consumers get frustrated when content appears to have nothing to do with their interests. Expectations are higher than ever, and with many brands embracing dynamic content, if readers don’t get a customised experience from you, they’ll go get it elsewhere.

With advancing technology and growing demand for superior experiences, content marketing is getting smarter by the day. This makes it even more crucial for businesses to keep on top of the latest trends and be the ones to make the first moves. In 2018, it will be the brands that are bold enough to jump first and make the biggest splash who get the greatest results from their content efforts.

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About the Author

This article was produced by Connected, U.K.’s first specialist WordPress development company. see more.

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