“Social media departments still hang on every little detractor event and still focus on posting photos of puppy dogs to get likes. Most do not understand these efforts have little to no impact on the brand.” So said Augie Ray, director of Social Media Strategy at a Fortune 100 financial services firm and a speaker at Wednesday’s Sentiment Analysis Symposium held in New York.

Ray’s talk was titled “Customer Affinity Meets Brand Vectors: Sentiment That Matters.” After the Symposium, we caught up to get his own sentiment on a few questions:

SMT: You mentioned Taco Bell and Progressive as brands that didn't receive as much benefit from positive sentiment around their campaigns, though they were well-received. Do you know of any brands that played similar strategies to success? If so, what might have been an important difference? And are there certain brands (or categories) that do benefit from being "stuck in mind"?

ImageAR: That's a very valid question, and it is tough to give an easy answer. The problem is that brands rarely brag openly about success--they want to keep the lid on successes and repeat them rather than broadcast case studies so that everyone else can repeat the recipe. One example that comes to mind is the well-known Blendtec videos--no one knew who they were, so the company produced funny and edgy videos everyone wanted to see and succeeded in building great awareness. Another one that comes to mind is the "Let Her Jump" campaign by Secret deodorant, which increased purchase intent and consideration.

There's nothing wrong, of course, with a brand wanting to be "stuck in mind," but it is important to remember that awareness is only the first step in the consumer brand journey. Consumers do not jump from awareness to purchase (at least not in any category with reasonable consideration), and my concern is that many brands don't do more to move consumers up the value chain (which is the essence of my brand vector argument in my presentation at the Sentiment Symposium).

SMT: How much do social media departments understand that positive or negative sentiment may not matter as much as one would think? Did data ever suggest that it might, or was it never quite analyzed enough?

AR: To be clear, I think sentiment matters a lot--but most brands are worrying about spikes in negative sentiment when they ought to worry about the everyday grind of negative brand experiences that drag down brand perception, consideration and loyalty. Conversely, many marketers do facile social media marketing to create spikes in positive sentiment, but these are much less powerful for increasing brand consideration than simply improving the product experience and allowing trusted consumer WOM to carry the brand message.

To specifically answer your question, social media departments tend to hang on every little detractor event and still focus too much on posting photos designed to get likes rather than to make a brand impression. Most seem not to not understand these efforts have little to no impact on the brand. In part, this is because they are focused on bad metrics that are not tied to business results (such as the number of likes and retweets) and in part because social media departments do not have the power to change what matters most--customer service, product quality, packaging, etc. Right now, many social media professionals are working around the edges rather than at the core where change is needed, but you do see some exceptions--USAA, American Express and Home Depot come to mind. These are companies that have dedicated themselves to the customer, and social is considered an essential component rather than something to be bolted-on to business as usual.

SMT: Before social media, were brands harmed when they did something so bad as to attract news coverage? Is it possible that the mere act of getting to vent grievances online and in a public forum is enough, and customers can feel satisfied that they're heard? (Especially if they weren't personally harmed by a brand.)

AR: The difficulty in answering this question is that one has to separate what is merely newsworthy from those events that truly have a detrimental business impact. For example, the speaker who preceded me spoke of the impact of the BP oil spill, but that wasn't a social media or PR crisis--it was a REAL crisis that effected lives and the environment, and it had a very serious impact on costs and revenue. The fact BP's stock suffered was not due to social media but because the situation cost them billions of dollars and thousands of customers. Contrast that to the social media eruption over the Applebee's server being fired, and it is easy to see that the Applebee' issue was a tempest in a teapot with little serious business impact.

I do agree with you that people love to vent and be heard, and the way the company responds matters. At the Sentiment Symposium, I had to shorten my deck and I missed one of the points I hoped to make. Brands must be prepared to deal with social PR events, but do so as a normal matter of their jobs rather than treating them as CRISES! I sometimes use an analogy to make this point: Broken bones are serious medical situations that demand attention, but when you go to the hospital, the doctors don't consider it a crisis, call a code and take out the crash cart. They treat it--calmly and professionally. That's the attitude we in the social business have to adopt--not that these social PR events are DISASTERS that bring brands to their knees but that they are situations that must be detected, handled and resolved in a composed and skilled manner.

SMT: Were there other speakers at the symposium you found to be at odds with what you were saying?

AR: I worried that my message might stand out from other speakers, but I didn't hear much that alarmed me or that disagreed with my presentation. Others reinforced the need to know what is on the mind of the customer and, if negative, deal with it. The important thing is that brands have to listen and act every day and at scale rather than waiting for the rare "PR events" to spring into action.

With the growth in usage and power of social media, brands not only need to execute marketing programs in social channels but also recognize the power of brand experiences, offline and online. Consumers have more of a voice today, and that means the actual brand experiences matter more. Rather than tweeting pictures of puppies or waiting for the next crisis, brands must listen to what is important to consumers (which is the sentiment that matters) and fashion products and services that resolve real challenges and exploit real opportunities.

I did not intend to convey a message that sentiment is unimportant, but I want to urge brands to focus even more attention on the sentiment that matters and not on what is facile and easy to measure. Ten thousand "likes" for a puppy picture is not worth a dozen customers getting their real problems resolved because brands listened and acted.

For more by Ray on the topic, check out his post, Social Media Crises Aren't Crises 

Image credit: Ben Smidt/Marquette University