Consumer profiling is always an interesting phase of any branding project. And with social media making consumer voices more transparent than ever before ... I'm starting many projects with RSS keyword alerts across news, twitter and blogs. Combined with several social media tools (compete, social mention, socialseek and whostalkin are just a few favourite starting places) it's a great way to begin getting a clearer brand picture from a customer perspective.
But why scour the dark corners of internet alleys? Well, like any moment in a dark alley, the difference is honesty. People tend to say what they really think in a public forums, untempered by a social surrounding or within earshot of small impressionable children. A focus group creates a different context that can, if not properly moderated, create diluted or steered responses. But you can't argue when a customer posts a comment on Twitter saying 'Your product not only made my problem worse, my shrieks of pain scared the neighbours. My ex-girlfriend finally got it off with baby oil. Length and girth extender ... never again!'. The damage to brand perception and potential customers is almost irreversible.
That said, there's so much potential for real-time monitoring and instant feedback. Having recently stayed at the JIA Hotel in Hong Kong, I'd tweeted a general message about the Philippe Starck association and within five minutes, a JIA representative had replied directly to me asking about the service and overall experience. I was both surprised by the immediacy of the response but appreciative that they appeared to be concerned about my stay (or that customers are promoting a positive public facing message). My stay was genuinely a good and recommended one ... but out of pure curiosity I would have liked to have seen a response to an unhappy client...the true test. It's still a good reminder that marketing divisions should always have brand alerts set up for these scenarios. The ability to put out spotfires quickly before they become rampant is truly a part of any PR and brand perception campaign and assists in promoting a consumer first attitude to the public.
Combining the real-time presence of online monitoring with consumer profiling also changes the areas of brand focus. I've been working at integrating product adoption potential, social/peer influence and consumer brand alignment into our methodology to compliment our other data. "More stats!" can occassionally overwhelm a definitive point (as Mark Twain said 'facts are stubborn, but statistics are pliable') but in the consumer realm, they're king. In conjunction with behavioral patterns and levels of influence, online consumer profiling should be a part of your every project.