Your best customers participate in online forums—so should you—a case study

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Here is another fascinating case study that will appear in my upcoming book The New Rules of Marketing and PR.

On the Web, customers, stakeholders, and the media can immediately see what's on people’s minds. There’s never been as good of an opportunity to monitor what’s being said about you and your products than the one we have now. The Internet is like a massive focus group with uninhibited customers offering up their thoughts for free!

Tapping this resource is simple: You've got to monitor what’s being said. And when an organization is the subject of heated discussions, particularly negative ones, it just feels weird if a representative of that organization doesn’t jump in with a response. If the company is dark, not saying a thing online, participants start wondering, "What are they hiding?" Just having a presence on the blogs, forums, and chat rooms that your customers frequent shows that you care about the people who spend money with your organization. It is best not to wait for a crisis. You should participate as appropriate all the time. How can you afford not to become closer to your most vocal constituents?

Let's look at another example, but one with a much different outcome than the Sony BMG case that I wrote about a few days ago. In late 2005, Nikon introduced a new "prosumer" digital camera, the D200 model, which appeals to very advanced amateur photographers and professionals alike. Nikon launched the new model globally through specialty distributors and high-end camera stores frequented by experienced hobbyists and professionals. But Nikon also offered the D200 outside of the normal distribution channels by selling the model in "big box" stores such as Circuit City and Best Buy. The camera was a hot commodity when launched just prior to the holidays, and supply was constrained when it first hit the stores.


"The places where camera guys like me normally get Nikon gear were caught out because of a lack of supply," says Alan Scott, an experienced photographer and long-time Nikon customer. "People who preordered the D200 or who were waiting for camera retailer sites to go live with an announcement of availability were gnashing their teeth wanting to get the camera."

Like many other photographers, Scott frequents popular online digital photography forums, including Nikonians: The Nikon User Community and DPR: Digital Photography Review. "The forums were active with lots of people complaining that they couldn’t get the camera from their normal long-term suppliers but that the big box stores had them," Scott says. "Then a thread was started on Nikonians and later picked up on DPR that discussed how popular New York City photography supplier B&H, a trusted source with a knowledgeable staff that many professionals and high-end hobbyists go to, had taken orders but then were canceling them."

The first post, from ceo1939, said, "I ordered a D200 from B & H this afternoon about 4:30 mountain time. The charge was made against my credit card. A hour later I got an E Mail that said they had a technical problem and the camera was actually not in stock, but they would hold my order and charge for when they actually get in stock. I tried cancelling the charge, and got an e mail back on how to handle a disputed charge. I will see what happens when I call them in the morning."

Many camera enthusiasts and customers of B&H were monitoring the thread at this point. "Within a few hours, several dozen posts appeared on the thread and the tone had become critical of B&H, with people complaining that the company was purposely screwing them," Scott says. "Forum participants said that e-mail notifications from B&H did not work and people who called in were getting cameras in front of those who had signed up for an alert system."

The B&H situation sounds a bit like the Sony BMG incident, doesn’t it? In both cases, avid participants in specialty online forums sounded off about a company, its products, and its business practices. Both sets of threads occurred in little-known nooks of the Web, far outside mainstream media channels and other typical places that PR people monitor for what’s being said about their company and its products. But the B&H case is very different because a B&H employee was an active participant on the boards.

"Unfortunately as everyone who frequents this site knows, Nikon USA has been remarkably reluctant (diplomatic, eh?) to put this camera in retailers' hands," wrote Henry Posner of B&H Photo-Video, Inc on the DPR thread. "The result in this particular case is that had we left the order open, we'd still be sitting on your money and would have been unable to fulfill the D200 order and it's reasonable to presume you'd be chafing to get your camera, which we'd have been (and are) unable to supply due to circumstances beyond our control… We regret and apologize for having vexed you."


Unlike in the Sony BMG example, people at B&H had been monitoring the messages and were prepared to participate. "So in steps Henry Posner, who is with B&H," Scott says. "He came into the forum and said, basically, 'you’re right, we screwed you,' but then explained what happened, apologized, and said that B&H will make it right. By acknowledging the issue, one guy with one post changed the whole tone of the thread and the reputation of B&H. After that, the posts changed to become incredibly positive."

Indeed they were. "Henry's participation in various web forums is something I respect greatly," wrote BJNicholls on one thread. "I can't think of someone of power with any other business who engages in public discussion of store issues and products."

"I also admire his forthrightness," added N80. "He admits there have been some mistakes and that the situation has been hard to handle. However, he firmly denies the charges of lying and deceitfulness that have been flying around. And I absolutely believe him."

Don't you wish your customers had been this understanding the last time your company screwed up? If you participate in an active way in the online communities that they do, you will gain more sympathy.