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Different kinds of consumer voice January 28, 2011

Posted by Antti Ainamo in Blogroll.
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I agree with an argument in an earlier blog by Salla Laaksonen (The voice of the consumer is out and online January 20, 2011) that consumers’ social media and corporate reputations are an interesting development from the perspective of research and practice of corporate reputations. Such modern peer-to-peer and Internet-based social media of consumers in Finland, for example, include Huonekalureklamaatio.com (furniture retail experiences), Eat.fi (restaurant reviews) and Vapaa-aikavirasto (reviews of not only restaurants but also bars).

However, I disagree with Salla when she argues that such social media are made interesting because they help to create and circulate stories about corporate reputation and, hence, importantly construct corporate reputations. Such stories in peer-to-peer social media do construct corporate reputations but not in ways that are very important or significant as such, in my view.

True, modern consumers’ peer-to-peer media on the Internet in the instance of the above kinds of review are one modern equivalent of the consumer ombudsman in the public sector.  In contrast to the consumer ombudsman, it is also true that these social media appear to “represent consumers” at large rather than the public sector because they involve not only complaints from consumers that need to be addressed by public sector civil servants but also direct analysis of consumers’ understandings of “good” enterprise. However,  it should be remembered that also the above modern social media are skewed in terms of the reputations they help create and disseminate, just as is the consumer ombudsman system pioneered in Sweden and Finland in the 1960s. And, modern consumers’ peer-to-peer media on the Internet carry less weight than do decisions by consumer ombudsman, at least in Finland.

No consumers’ social media site for reviews in the digital era, just as no reputation mechanism, will represent the voice or voices of all consumers.  In practice, any particular case or story in consumers’ peer-to-peer review systems tends to be based on one case study on a small incident with a human interest component importantly attached. A corporate reputations may be changed a little bit but by one incident, but it is seldom created from scratch or dramatically changed by a story or a set of stories about small incidents with a human interest component.

Any analysis that is focused on some social-media discussion forum about a minor incident or a set of minor incidents discounts how consumers can take part in development of corporarate reputations by other means as well. Other kinds of reputational stories and mechanisms than peer-to-peer reviews on the Internet need to be analysed, also.  Consumers may still go the consumer ombudsman to complain. Or, in a dramatic instance and move, they may go to court. Finally, most obviously, in the case of business corporate, they simply may not buy the offering of the business corporation, or will refuse to pay full price.

In the long run, paths for future work should include the gathering of variegated empirical data, and cross-tabulation of voice, sales, and ombudsman data, for example. The fact that different kinds of intermediaries and mediators “representing the consumers” exist and ought to exist should be highlighted and remembered. Through empirical insights from consumers, others users, the market and the public sector we can develop a more refined and directly useful conceptualisation and understanding of consumer voice and exit. Thus, by including consideration of consumer entry and exit out of the corporate system of communication, marketing and sales, we can address the currently weakly empirically explored cross-roads of consumer voice, on the one hand, and corporate reputation and brand, on the other hand. These are research gaps and issues that ought to interest also practitioners of reputation management.

The above points about corporate strategy aside,  I admit that in the immediate and operationalized presen, consumers’s stories (or stories of users who portray themselves as consumers)  in social media on the Internet are not without significance. Such stories provide feedback to corporations as to the richness of the kinds of representations of their reputations that may be “out there”. Thus, I would argue that such stories are weak signals or a range of possible directions in which they reputation of a corporation may develop. Yet, again, I underline that I do not believe that they are a useful means of either measurement or understanding of reputation as such. Where I find stories that written by consumers signicant in a minor but important way is that they help to address how to enable consumers and users to provide more feedback to corporations, to the consumers, to society, and preferably to all of the above, than has been the case so far. By accessing a diversity of expressions of private and public opinion, for example a corporation can then more successfully master the challenges and potentials of reputation management than on the basis of a “wild goose chase” for a killer application that may work once but not consistently. Stories, facts, deckisions and judgments. These are elements of a dynamic complex. Reputations are created and changed in a rich ecosystem of cognition and communication.