When Avis Rent A Car launched a blog earlier this year, one of the first comments was from a shareholder questioning its cost.

But Xavier Vallée, the firm’s UK head of marketing, believes its investment has provided value for money across a range of activities, including branding, PR, customer service and product development. Here, he talks about how Avis manages the blog and how it has improved its dialogue with customers.


What did you aim to achieve when you launched the blog?

It was a long-term commitment to our customers, and a platform to make car rental easier and quicker for our customers. We wanted open and honest discussions of new and existing services, and we also wanted to be able to address concerns and issues on the blog.

But it is also really only the tip of an iceberg, in terms of our customer generated content strategy.


What is your customer generated content strategy?

The rise of blogs, social networks and review sites has given all our customers the opportunity to become an author and to provide their views and feedback about our services.
Since July 2005, we have been monitoring the volume of content that has been generated about Avis. We have been segmenting it by customer segment and – more importantly - by sentiment; whether it is positive, neutral or negative.

We have been doing that for 18 months now, and we have discovered that there is a lot more content being generated about Avis than our competitors. Much more. We found that a lot of discussions were taking place, and that was interesting because our findings also matched customer research we did in 2005. It confirmed something I strongly believed in – that brands are built from the bottom up.

That’s why we launched the blog. If customers are going to discuss Avis and our services, they might as well do it on our own turf – where it’s easier for us to interact with them, answer their questions, and give them the information they are interested in.

We monitor comments on the blog all the time and have put processes in place between marketing and customer service so that customers’ questions are answered. When we have a customer query, we deal with the customer directly offline, and leave the comments on the blog.


How are you doing that monitoring?

We have been working on the project since July 2005 with two agencies; Web Liquid and Market Sentinel.

When we started, it hadn’t been done before so the three of us had to set up a new methodology to measure what was being said about Avis. The methodology was used to cut the data into small bits and segment it, and to remove all the spam. There are a lot of car rental splogs. We have a measure for feedback from customers on the blog and on the web.

Since setting up the methodology, we have been measuring the sentiment monthly. It’s a good way to influence product development and your marketing messages – things your research indicates might be very important might not be.

One example is we have just launched our GPS product in the UK. We could see that our customers weren’t very happy that we didn’t have a GPS product, although they were very happy with the rest of our services. Since then, the sentiment has changed.


What feedback have you had so far?

In terms of feedback from the blogosphere and press, 90% was recognising it as a bold move from Avis. A few gave some tips about how we could go further. It was quite positive. We’re also happy with the feedback from customers.


Which departments are involved in the blog on a day-to-day basis?

Two departments are involved in the blog – customer service and marketing. Four of us are involved in writing the posts, answering the questions and making sure the blog is working well. It’s quite a big commitment, on top of everything else that is happening in the two teams. We have also been working with the support of Web Liquid and Market Sentinel from the beginning.


What’s your moderation policy towards negative comments?

We don’t filter negative comments – we just filter spam. Every comment that’s left is published. We always have someone overseeing comments and we have a process in place to decide whether it is a customer service or marketing query.

In terms of posting, we have two people each from customer service and marketing, although that may change as there are a few people in the organisation who could also participate.


How many man hours does it take up per day?

Probably one hour a day, between the four of us. It’s a lot in a week, but we all believe in the value of it.


Have you experienced any unexpected costs?

Launching the blog itself wasn’t an expensive exercise, but because it is the tip of an iceberg, there are a lot of hidden costs. I can’t give you any figures but there are things that you need to be aware of.

You have to think about the blog development and the measurement of customer generated content. It’s not something you can do in one month – it’s a long exercise. You also need strong support from your board, which we had from the beginning.


Have there been any challenges or difficulties that you didn’t foresee at the start of the project?

Like any project, you have to do a bit of convincing at the start. Also, the challenge, which is still going on and I don’t think there will be an end to, is finding the right kind of voice.

How do you find the right balance between your personality, the personality of your brand, and the voice that customers want from a blog? Customers don’t want you to be pushy, but at the same time you don’t want to affect your brand. It’s something you need to be aware of, and it is how people will judge you.