Blog: The Importance of Being (Earnest) Online


Our guest blogger this month is Aoife Marron, Associate Director, RED C an IAB Ireland member company who recently published Qualitative Research on whether “Online is the way to go?” for Brands. 

Online is the way to go. Or is it? Everybody is online – some people even admit to creating hashtags for new born babies and Instagram accounts for household pets – but when it comes to brands do we encourage occupation of this all pervasive space because we can or because it’s the right thing to do?

Here in RED C, a team of passionate and experienced qualitative researchers set about answering this question with information generated across a range of qualitative approaches that spanned Whatsapp groups, traditional face to face focus groups, webcam groups, online communities and “confessionals”. Our conversations focussed on a range of topics from social media to shopping, work to play and technology to apps. No stone was left unturned as we sifted through the minute details of online behaviour to decipher what brands could learn in order to best behave in this territory.

In a world of ever greater connectivity, we discovered that a range of barriers still exist which see consumers struggle against migration to an online relationship with brands:

The Wall

However irrespective of all the signals which tell consumers they should be wary of online, we unearthed some clear insights about the platform:

  • Glee outweighs guilt and the joy of doing it for yourself and avoiding unnecessary headache is appreciated;
  • Brands that pull customers online rather than pushing gain way more traction and actually increase consideration of online;
  • Some suspicion always goes with online because it still represents a vast and largely unknown space which is not human.

Another interesting finding was the distinction in priorities and interests highlighted by men and women. The men tend to display a lofty
appetite for data, detailed information, functionality and material relating to sport and hobby obsessions. Women on the other hand are more concerned with connections and social information, forms of entertainment and advice from peers. The old saying stands even in an online environment: men are from Mars and women are from Venus!

venus mars

All in all though, online is really important for brands; it helps deliver better customer service, drives brand building via brand personality creation, allows the active management of reputation, helps increase trust through transparency, provides direct access to customer perspective, assists in keeping customers engaged, allows the benefit of a global village which eradicates geographical distance and is also a wonderful promotion tool.

However serving customers online has its challenges too. Whether brands are facilitating self-serve – whereby customers are provided with the tools to serve themselves – or catered service – whereby brands provide a service online that was previously only available in an offline capacity – key factors are at play to make it work. The greatest barrier faced here is meeting customers’ expectations in an online environment which were previously perfected, honed and set in an offline setting.

Information gathered from our study points to 3 key factors to combat this threat for brands:

  1. Be transparent – it’s vital that brands set realistic expectations about the level of service available.
  2. Resource it well – extensive training and briefing of agents operating online web chats is crucial, with the design of online platforms that permit ease of assistance important so as to avoid frustration.
  3. Do it properly or don’t do it at all – brand absence online is noted but a badly managed presence is criticised and may do more harm than good for the brand.

a connection

While brands can use this logic to deliver on a rational and practical level, there is also potential for brands to use online to connect with their market. This is undoubtedly a tough ask as an Irish adult sees on average 101,812 commercial messages a year*.

Typically marketers push differentiation as a point of breaking through this barrier; presenting the best your brand has to offer that isn’t offered by another brand  – but does this approach work online? Our research indicates not! Sick of interaction with “Fakebook” and their friends’ and connections’ unrivalled concern with achieving model standing online, RED C learned that consumers see the replacement of “best” with “perfection” when it comes to online. In an online world where IDEAL is everywhere, REAL is a genuine differentiator.

A dictionary definition of real throws up references to something admirable, done is a genuine, authentic and true way. A real brand connection online is one that affects the recipient via its focus on people; positioning the brand as something compelling, credible and compatible. And it’s this promotion of compatibility that truly sees the distinction of online and offline connection. Online connection initiatives must be compatible with brand targets as its the consumers’ world you’re invading; you’re in their home, on their phone or tablet, sometimes even in their bed! So when brands are making efforts to connect in a real way, RED C would recommend they do so in two ways; by informing and introducing and affinity building.

Successful informing and introducing ensures the humanisation of brand information that makes it digestible for customers. Some brands have been highly successful in this by using personal endorsement (think David Beckham promoting SkyQ on Instagram) or by customer endorsement (the #lidlsurprises Twitter campaign). These online approaches make brands appear true, legitimate and attractive as a result. They link information with people and make the connection and identification easy for consumers. On the other hand, impactful affinity building prioritises the consumer over the brand and shows the brand doing something for you, people like you or people with whom you can identify. The beauty of this connection strategy is that – when positively executed – it can have an online domino effect via shares and re-tweets. Brands such as Aer Lingus with “Bringing People Home for Christmas since 1936” and AIB with #TheToughestChoice present easily identifiable life moments that allow the people – rather than the brand – to take centre stage. Not only do these brands forge an emotional link with customers but they do it in a way that reflects reality. They address genuine and authentic moments, events and concerns which are personal and relevant to the market while avoiding narcissism.

Brands can fail miserably at attempting connection though; Gap promoting online shopping while their stores shut doors during Hurricane Sandy and Malaysia Airlines with the My Ultimate Bucket List competition following the disappearance of Flight 370 in early 2014 are outstanding examples. When it comes to both informing and introducing or affinity building, brands that de-personalise the personal and forget the importance of compatibility are vulnerable to condemnation.

So the RED C advice? When executed properly, in a way that enhances customer lives either by saving time and hassle or giving a warm fuzzy feeling, online is hugely effective for brands and definitely the right thing to do. Understanding your customer, their expectations and boundaries is pivotal in securing a brand success story online. Or – if you’re gonna do it do it right!

Read the full report by RED C here >>