Google Sidewiki – you can’t ignore your customers anymore!
I, along with many others, have been shouting the customer engagement mantra for a while now as online business continues to evolve. The upswing in social networking use, greater transparency through word of mouth and the ability for consumers to find virtually any information quickly and easily has meant businesses have had to begin communicating more openly with consumers if they wish to stave off negative publicity.
Google's new Sidewiki project, recently launched in Beta, has removed any last doubt (official Google post). Sidewiki is potentially the biggest development in word of mouth marketing since instant messaging started, and a failure to take it seriously could be very costly indeed for some businesses. Sidewiki gives everyone the ability to leave comments - positive or negative - against every single webpage.
Whether you want people to, or not.
And you can't stop them, delete them or moderate them. Got a particularly unpopular product? Expect people to say so, right next to your page for everyone else with Sidewiki enabled to see. Of course, this can work for or against a business website. Some strong positive posts could represent your brand well and encourage others to take up your offer. However, criticisms will be more visible. Instead of these conversations taking place elsewhere on the web where only some of your audience may come across them, every visitor to your site with the Google toolbar installed will be able to see them.
Already, some websites are seeing how the Sidewiki can turn against them. In the following example, Apple - a brand notorious for avoiding direct conversation with customers - receives critical comments in the Sidewiki attacking the markup on their products and also raising the recent FCC controversy. The image is a detail from a screenshot of their homepage, with the Sidewiki open.
Closer to home, the Sydney Morning Herald website is now adorned with numerous Sidewiki posts criticising the site for the number of advertising popups and other distractions.
The website visitors have now been given a voice. What remains to be seen is whether brands will respond to engage with these comments.
There is plenty of evidence available that demonstrates how a failure to respond to negative comments in social media can result in terrible press, lost sales and brand damage. Recently, Cotton On had a very expensive day (Case study) after a failure to respond to an online outcry resulted in negative press in the mainstream media and the recall of an entire line of t-shirts. When this negative criticism happens right there on the brand website, some businesses are going to need to adopt new and rapid policies to manage an appropriate response if they wish to avoid a financial impact.
In these early stages, the most vulnerable websites are those with a technical or IT audience as they are most likely to use Google toolbar and Sidewiki. But if the Sidewiki moves beyond Beta testing and becomes a mainstream tool like other social commenting services, the ramifications are potentially huge. It would place the consumer conversation right at the heart of any online marketing strategy.
Exactly what some of us have been predicting for so long.
Word of mouth buzz would no longer be the fortunate side benefit to a campaign or an adjunct to the traditional broadcast advertising way of doing business. The word of mouth could become so loud that it requires constant monitoring and response - a necessary customer service activity in itself.
Of course, Sidewiki doesn't have to be bad. If your customers like your brand or have little to complain about, Sidewiki may actually bring endorsements. But the arrival of Sidewiki does signal that businesses now, more than ever, have to place their customers right at the centre of their business model. And I mean genuinely so - not just saying it. No more making business decisions based on what is more convenient for you instead of the customer. No more dictating rigid terms and demanding respect. What consumers say about your business now has more power than it has ever held before. Even if Sidewiki fades away, there is no doubt that each new technology will continue to bring us closer to an open, transparent web where hypocrisy is exposed, poor service criticised and genuine comparisons drive competition.