By Andrew Lester, Managing Partner of Carr-Michael Consulting

There is a comment attributed to retailing tycoon John Wanamaker, "I know that half of my advertising doesn't work. The problem is, I don't know which half." That was said in the days before digital media, but the principle still holds true. It is very difficult to know the real impact of marketing communications and advertising in particular. However unlike the days of Wanamaker when marketing was a function that controlled the external communications and customer insight for a company, marketing is now even less predictable for one simple reason: customers have more power to their voice. They have the ability to say what they think to a broad audience, and to be listened to. Unfortunately what gets listened to is often negative as we read in the press, hear on radio and see on TV: good news is boring, bead news sells.

Not only is bad news more impactful, western society has developed a vocabulary of extremes, based on an increasing expectation of immediate gratification. As a result, not only do digital media make it more difficult to retain control of your marketing and communications, the tone and style of customer comments on blogs, comparison sites and in social media, makes management of marketing messages more complex.

We have seen the impact of this very recently in the WikiLeaks coverage. Many of the “leaks” refer to private conversations where a degree of confidentiality is assumed. The tone and style taken out of context is shocking and abrasive. So too with unadulterated customer comments on their product and service experiences of things they have bought. In a world used to increasing levels of exaggeration and hyperbole, customers are likely to overstate their love of or hatred for specific products and services, and so far most of the public has yet to catch up with the need to treat the personal comments of individuals with a degree of scepticism.

So what does this all mean? Obviously we are not as in control of our marketing as we once were. This is no longer a one-way street in which the company tells the market what it wants the market to hear. We are working in a two way street where the impact of customer comments have to be taken seriously and managed appropriately, otherwise they can use the power and reach of social media and negative blogs to inflict damage. But it is not all bad news. In the same way that negative comments can be posted, so also can great experiences. The trouble is that negative comments get remembered far more.

So what can business owners and directors do about it? The first thing is to recognise and respect the power customers have in communicating between themselves and your company. This shouldn’t be a problem for well managed businesses that put customer value at the heart of their thinking and in everything they do. But the vast majority of businesses that fall short of this high bar need to make everyone in the business aware of the power of customer comments in digital media, and make sure that every aspect of the customer value is clearly communicated and demonstrated every time the customer deals with them. In effect there are few, if any, hiding places. Customers can comment on any aspect of their supplier’s business. So it is not just a job for the sales and marketing teams, it is a role all of us have to perform: we are “on stage” at all times with our customers, no matter where we work in the company.

Please feel free to comment by contacting me: andrewlester@carr-michael.com. Andrew Lester is Managing Partner of Carr-Michael Consulting, specialists in growth management and business performance improvement.

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