Marketing Disruption 2/7 : The proper use of language in online brand–customer dialogues – five steps for a successful online dialogue

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Customers’ willingness to engage in dialogues has increased with the advent of social media, especially in terms of how they interact with brands.

Once brand–customer interactions moved online, they could take place anytime and anyplace. But managing the ensuing influx of online dialogues became time-consuming and challenging for most companies – hence the growing reliance on chatbots. Because online dialogue is vital to shaping brand–customer relationships, this blog identifies five steps for a successful online brand–customer dialogue, and provides implications for both human employees and chatbots interacting with the customer.

Nowadays, customers can easily interact with brands using various channels, such as Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, etc., and use these channels to verbally illustrate their brand-related experiences. Since most of these channels lack paraverbal (voice) and non-verbal (gestures) cues to interpret written statements, brands must pay particular attention to their language style. However, not only does the language style per se count. Equally important is whether the brand accommodates the customer’s language style (accommodation strategy) or maintains its original language style (maintenance strategy) throughout the online dialogues. To investigate this assertion, we conducted two studies.

In the first quantitative study (questionnaire, n=32), we derived two common language styles that brands and customers use in online dialogues:

  • Informal language style: Colloquial words/expressions, intense use of personal pronouns, modest grammar
  • Formal language style: Sophisticated words/expressions, complex grammar, minimal use of personal pronouns.

In the second quantitative study (experimental study, n=427), we put the two derived language styles into context to reveal the impacts of both strategies (accommodation strategy and maintenance strategy) on brand relationships (brand trust).

We found that accommodating a customer’s language style in online dialogues shapes brand trust because customers perceive that the brand is putting effort in the dialogue and is benevolent toward them. As a result, the perceived quality of online dialogue is positively influenced. These effects are displayed in figure 1 below.

Figure 1: Relationships tested statistically in the empirical study

Based on these results, we recommend that brands follow five steps to conduct a successful online dialogue with their customers:

  1. Develop and implement a distinct brand language style and make it informal at its core. Customers prefer an informal language style online and they like brands that adapt to the stereotypical written language style used in online environments. Thus, use colloquial words/expressions, modest grammar and (many) pronouns throughout the dialogue. However, be careful! Brands must not sound “[…] like a prepubescent student in need of a proper grammar lesson.” (Clickz, 2014)
  2. Define the brand’s language style broadly enough to allow for language style variations for different customer types. Accommodating the customer’s language style is always perceived as putting effort in the dialogue and shows that you care about the customer and have benevolent intentions.
  3. Define customer type-specific language guidelines to facilitate dialogues. To identify your most common customer types, conduct a netnography of past dialogues and specify different degrees of formal and informal language styles to adapt the language styles to different degrees.
  4. Raise employees’ (and chatbots’) awareness of different language styles and train them to recognize and apply different language styles.
  5. Make your chatbots socially-oriented to prolong the conversation and adapt to the customer’s language style stepwise in the dialogue. The longer the dialogue, the better the chatbot can identify and analyze the language style used by the customer. However, as long as chatbot algorithms are incapable of sensing language styles properly, employees should conduct the most critical dialogues.

The online brand–customer dialogue must be conducted in a very personalized and sensitive way. To these ends, companies should closely monitor online dialogues in order to set the right tone when interacting with the customer.

To understand the customer holistically, companies should also gather and analyze customers’ online feedback. In the next blog, Simon Monske will demonstrate how and why companies should analyze online customer feedback.

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