While working for US West in the late 1990s, it became apparent to me that the Internet was growing as a source of information among our customer base. In addition to the ways online publications were beginning to establish themselves alongside traditional press outlets as credible and pervasive sources of news and analysis, the explosion of online discussion groups on UseNet, proprietary services like AOL and an emerging host of free forums provided by companies like Yahoo! was affording disgruntled consumers an ever more powerful platform for the airing of grievances, both real and imagined.
The question was posed to senior leadership: “If we knew that tonight there was going to be a public meeting in downtown Denver where several thousand upset customers were gathering to complain about our service, what would we do?” The answer was obviously that we’d seek to engage it and tell our story. It was then made clear that this hypothetical scenario described what was happening every day on the Net.
In response to this new phenomenon (it’s 1999 at this point) I was charged with conceiving and developing a first-of-its-kind Internet community relations pilot program to monitor and eventually engage these online communities. The program spent several weeks identifying and assessing the online forums where US West, its products and services were being discussed. Of particular concern: how many people were in these communities? How many impressions were being generated? Who were the key opinion leaders driving USW-based discussion?
Strategies were developed for each of several communities and an engagement phase was launched where I entered discussions as a US West representative. This initially sparked a dramatic negative spike, as unhappy customers teed off on the company’s spokesperson. However, over the engagement period a series of negatives were neutralized and neutral issues were promoted to positives. In a couple of cases, virulent negative posters were even converted into mildly positive ones.
At the conclusion of the pilot, the program had generated a 1,400% increase in positive impressions across engaged communities (this number includes the initial negative spike) and improved the negative-to-positive impression ratio from 6:1 to nearly 1:1.
These results were accomplished on minimal budget before there were best practices to guide the process. To call the program a success would be a major understatement – the results exceeded even our wildest dreams and demonstrated conclusively that even the harshest of online environments can be amenable to productive PR efforts if they’re conducted with transparency and within the social rules and contexts governing online community interaction.