Boomers aren’t immune to the branding power of user-generated content

User-generated content (UGC) is a major force in influencing buying behavior among the young and habitually online. That’s irrefutable. But this morning a friend who is neither made the argument that its power ends with that generation. He said that bloggers and such don’t reach people like him – and that’s a serious problem for marketers like me.

He said his generation (the very recently retired) possesses the most disposable income of any age group, and also has plenty of spare time to spend that money. It’s a huge and important audience, and one completely lost to anyone who puts too many eggs in the UGC basket. He almost had me convinced. Then, nearly in the next breath, he completely blew his theory.

This all happened over an early morning coffee. My friend explained that he was recently looking to buy a sailboat. I’ll call this friend “Pete” (although I don’t know why I’m disguising his real first name, since he says he doesn’t read blogs).

Pete loves to sail, and it’s clear he’ll never have a better opportunity to live out a lifelong dream than right now. So he started shopping last month for a 36-to-40-foot used sailboat. The length of a boat dictates a lot about what it has and how you can use it, so every foot or so is an important consideration.

He excitedly told me about his search for, and eventual purchase of, the ideal boat — one that’s reliable, fits his lifestyle and is at a price he can live with. In his explorations, he found a promising model, built by a good manufacturer. It was a 36-footer and seemed to have it all. Then he did what anyone with an internet connection and a favorite search engine would do. He checked the boat out online.

He didn’t go to user groups or blogs. But they came to him. When he typed in the name of the boat along with words like “problems,” he found four or five accounts of a defect that was big enough to be a deal-breaker. Worse, it was a problem that the manufacturer had not yet publicly acknowledged or tried to correct. In fact, when Pete went back to the broker with this knowledge, instead of the broker taking the problem seriously and trying to negotiate a solution that wouldn’t kill the deal, he got defensive and then angry. Naturally, Pete walked.

The story ends happily of course. Pete found his boat, a 39-footer, and it sounds wonderful. I hope to travel down to see him and his wife this fall or winter, and hopefully join them for a sail.

As you might guess, Pete’s new boat wasn’t built by the same manufacturer as that 36-footer, and it wasn’t purchased through that same pugnacious broker. The sale was, however, facilitated by mostly anonymous boat owners who cared enough to share their frustrations with the internet world.

We all know UGC is influential, but we may underestimate its reach, for the following reasons:

  1. Thanks to search engines and the ubiquity of web connectivity, this type of persuasion finds people at pivotal moments in their purchasing activity, regardless of their age or their inclination to regularly read blogs or other UGC.
  2. Conversely, a surprising number of people do regularly read UGC — at least 2 out of every 5 web users. I say at least 2 out of 5 because the latest research on blog readership gives that proportion, and blogs are a subset of total UGC*. And this new statistic is no idle guesswork. According to a recent phone survey by Pew Internet American Life Project, conducted with over 7,000 people, 39% of U.S. internet users read blogs. That’s a really big number.

Those statistics mean that roughly 57 million Americans would say they read blogs if they were surveyed today on the phone.

As for Pete? If he was one of those 7,000 surveyed, he’d have said he never reads that type of content, and never will. But the truth is slightly different. A search engine will likely point him to UGC again. It will happen the next time he’s considering an important purchase.
*I define UGC as the freewheeling “public” content on blogs, discussion groups, folksonomies and wikis (most notably Wikipedia, the site I just used to define folksonomies).

2 Replies to “Boomers aren’t immune to the branding power of user-generated content”

  1. Naturally – UGC can be both a benefit and a curse for any business.

    But what solutions are available to business owners looking to rectify a situation with a dissatisfied customer?

    To complicate things further, you’re probably aware that searchers are Navigational, Informational, or Transactional in nature so the solution must be able to solve these searcher needs.

    so how do you:

    develop an effective strategy to manage/counteract clientele hatesites? Besides the obvious option of creating more content to push the hatesite(s) out of SERPs, I don’t see any other methods to decrease that hatesite’s visibility (heaven help us if they are running their own Search Marketing Campaign ^_^).

    Even if these hate sites were pushed out of the SERPs – it would be for a particular keyword, phrase, or specific content. So then what solution is available?

    Obviously in Pete’s situation UGC proved to be invaluable and saved him from a costy or potentially life threatening mistake – but what about the hatesites that seem to serve no purpose other than to discredit?
    (Calling for a ban on a business for enforcing its intellectual property rights seems pointless)

    Obviously our job as Search Marketers is easier when we don’t have a business that is racked with complaints and hatesites – but all it takes is one disgruntled customer or employee.

  2. Andrew – Your query of “But what solutions are available to business owners looking to rectify a situation with a dissatisfied customer?” in relation to UGC and its influence is very much on the minds of business owners and marketers these days.

    In the case of Pete and his considered purchase, a key element in his decision not to proceed was due to the manner in which the broker responded and in which the manufacturer was not proactive in acknowledging the problem, nor their intentions to correct the problem. In the old days (2 years ago), the sale would have been lost by this same sales rep because he just didn’t handle the matter satisfactorily. Granted, the bloggers brought this matter to light, but it could have been the neighbor at the coffee shop just as easily. So, beyond sales basics…

    This online “stuff” is still a very new for many (can I say old school?) businesses and the bigger and more powerful they are, they harder they fall.

    I go back to Public Relations 101 – create and control your image or it will be controlled for you. Either way, an image will be created for your company, its brands, its CEO, etc. and that image may not be the one you’d create given a clean slate.

    If Pete were able to gain confidence that the company would bend over backward to rectify a deficiency, the outcome could have been different. From the sounds of the original posting, I did not get the sense that this company’s rep had any idea what had hit him, so to write it off was a total turn off and deal breaker!

    Words of advice:
    – Monitor your brand through active review of online chatter
    – Actively participate in this space re: showcasing a commitment to excellence (if you can back it up!) and noting the plans to rectify any problems as identified. Yes, you will need to blog, advertise and gain publicity around your company, product, brand, etc. to level the playing field. Let’s face it…if the product stinks, then focus on product improvements and protect your brand by being honest with yourself, company reps.
    – Create as many positive online impressions as possible (not even Harley Davison—-the company that is tattooed on many bodies – is loved by all) as you will need that to balance off those non-lovers with evidence of the positive. Maybe the initial purchase would have happened if those who loved the product had not experienced such difficulties and would not have been part of the blogospere. So, I would advise development of an owner’s loyalty group (not necessarily calling it such, but an online social community whereby these boaters share stories, itineraries, etc.).

    What I’ve noted by no means will solve this challenge, but these are a few elements of an online strategy. It’s complex and new in the eyes of many, but a solid and strategic public relations and marketing professional can assist with pulling together the right strategy for any company’s particular challenge.

    It’s not a one-shot deal. This will take time, commitment, dollars and foresight. But, it can be done. Even McDonald’s is getting it right these days…they’ve learned from the past as a targeted market leader. Starbucks, too, with their just released blog. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, but watch ‘em over the next year. There will be lessoned learned for all.

    Michelle Love-Johnson
    Business Strategist and PR Executive

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