How should you communicate online with concerned consumers?

To satisfy ‘concerned consumers’, a sceptical and social-media savvy audience, companies should avoid marketing fluff and give them straight answers, Jason Sumner says.

So-called concerned consumers visit corporate websites and social media pages with clear questions and highly personal motivations. They want to know, for example, what ingredients are inside the products they eat, drink and put on their bodies. Are they safe, for themselves and their families? Are certain products bad for the environment? Does the company behind controversial ingredients making the news have anything worthwhile to say about them?

A small audience so why bother?

We do not have hard numbers, but we would guess that concerned consumers make up less than 1 per cent of all customers that visit websites. They are certainly minuscule in the context of another consumer audience, the ones that go online to compare products and actually buy things.

So why should companies bother communicating at all with this inquisitive but relatively tiny group? The answer is that for some sectors – fast moving consumer goods, food and drink, retailers, toymakers – the small percentage of people that take the time to investigate products, and maybe even blog or tweet about what they have found, have significant influence on wider opinion. Some FMCG companies we have worked with see concerned consumers as an increasingly important audience group and are reshaping their online estates accordingly.

Using the web estate to communicate with concerned consumers has secondary benefits too. It sends a message that the company is open and transparent about its products. The process of thinking through the company’s position on controversial ingredients is a useful exercise. Ingredient information published on the website can serve as the basis of executive talking points if a media controversy erupts, and it is useful for other important stakeholders such as the media and non-governmental organizations.

Profiling the concerned consumer

During the course of our work profiling audience groups for corporate digital teams, we have found the ‘Concerned Consumer’ will have a different profile depending on sector and company, but we have recognized some common threads. The concerned consumer, fundamentally, is looking for information: about the company behind the products that he or she uses; or for reassurance about a specific issue that concerns them.

Anecdotally, the companies we have worked with find that concerned consumers are more often women than men, likely to have children, and look at blogging and advice websites. They are looking for stories, and will take more time to browse websites than, say, CSR professionals. They use YouTube and Twitter.

We have identified a common set of online behaviours:

  • Their main access points are via search engines, or links from specialist blogs or other social media.
  • Prepared to browse but need to be engaged
  • Likely to click on interesting links
  • Likely to be gently sceptical of company claims
  • May be impressed by graphics or interactivity, and will be happy to experiment with interactive features
  • Will watch videos and read case studies
  • Social media savvy: they are likely to follow blogs, Twitter, Facbook, and are prepared to comment on company-owned online forums

They are also likely to be intolerant of some corporate behaviour, notably ‘greenwash’ (pretending to be green for marketing purposes), jargon, and anything they cannot be bothered to read.

Good practice principles in action

There are two main aspects of communicating effectively to this group. First, the material itself should be clear, informative, jargon-free and have visual flair. Second, it should be organized well and signposted properly so concerned consumers can find it easily. We have developed a further set of guidelines based on these two principles.

Clarity and transparency

Official company policy, which can be technical, should be translated into plain language. SC Johnson, a US-based consumer chemicals manufacturer, uses an FAQ format to explain how it has banned the use of phthalates (used to soften plastics and as lubricants in cosmetics). Where SC Johnson does use a controversial ingredient, such as parabens (a preservative used in cosmetics to which some people are allergic) the language is clear: ‘Some of our fragrances contain small amounts of parabens to preserve the fragrance and formula… We only use parabens that live up to International Fragrance Association standards.’

Visual elements

Visual elements such as videos, charts and images should be used to break up text and aid understanding. L’Oréal, for example, employs video effectively to explain product and ingredient safety policy in its film, ‘Why are there so many ingredients in a cosmetic product’.

Level of detail

There needs to be an appropriate level of detail, an area companies often get wrong by being too general or too exhaustive. For example, Henkel, the German consumer chemicals company, communicates its policies at a high level without addressing specific ingredients. On the other hand, US-based Clorox Company lists every single product ingredient down a long scrolling page. The concerned consumer will likely be put off rather than engaged by the dry material.

Location and signposting

There appears to be no ‘conventional’ place to house information for concerned consumers on corporate websites. It is found in CSR or sustainability pages, product pages, FAQ areas or special sections labelled ‘innovation’ or similar. Wherever it is located, the information should ideally be signposted from the home page, either from clearly labelled sub-menus in drop-down menus, for example, or in utility menus or universal footers. US consumer goods giant Procter & Gamble signposts its content well, even though it is spread across the corporate website and three microsites – website content is accessed via a clearly labeled ‘Product Safety’ option in the primary menu item ‘Sustainability’.

Several companies use separate microsites to house concerned consumer information (see aforementioned SC Johnson, as well as Johnson & Johnson and Nestlé. Our view is that microsites run the risk of making the user experience fragmented and confusing, though they are often easier to manage. If microsites are used, they should be well signposted from the corporate website.

Concerned consumers will often only know a company through its brand names, (eg Kit Kat rather than Nestlé). Brand sites are often essentially marketing sites, which is why companies may be wary to broach any safety or ingredient issues. However, these sites may also be the first port of call for concerned consumers, so signposts to content housed on corporate sites should be provided. Some companies, such as Johnson & Johnson, do signpost their safety microsites from brand sites.

Organization of material

A hierarchy from the general to the specific works best. Eg, general ‘commitments’ explained first, followed by general policies on safety and ingredients, followed by deeper detail. FAQs, if filters are employed, are an effective way of communicating with the concerned consumer audience. Regulatory information (which is too often all that websites provide) should be separated from more accessible material.

More to do on social media

The corporate website is a natural home for concerned consumer information: there is room to deal with complexity and detail, and put across the company’s case with visual flair. Social media, in general, does not offer these same benefits. Still, not enough companies are exploiting the potential benefits, possibly because they see it as risky to engage directly with concerned consumers.

However, with so many large companies already employing sophisticated social media campaigns around sustainability issues, this seems a good fit for honest discussions about product safety, ingredients or environmental impacts. The idea is not to try to explain company policy on phthalates in a tweet, but find an appropriate moment to signpost informative website content. Ignoring the concerned consumer audience altogether on social media, which is what many companies are doing right now, may be the riskier strategy in the long run.

First published 01 April, 2015
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