Managing Your Reputation in a Viral World
The worst case would have been for that customer to tell 10 friends and family members about the unhappy experience. Those people might have told 10 of their own friends and family members and so on until the momentum petered out. While you might have found the results disappointing, they most likely wouldn’t have had much â€” if any â€” impact on either your reputation or your bottom line.
Those days are long gone. As the world has grown increasingly connected because of the Internet, so has the ability for dissatisfied people to post negative comments and scathing reviews about your company. By themselves, negative comments probably won’t have an impact on either your company’s reputation or bottom line. The danger is that they can and sometimes do take on a life of their own.
“We believe every online post or comment has the potential to have an impact on our sales and reputation, no matter how insignificant the entry may seem,” says David Sung, online marketing coordinator for Lawrence, Kansas-based Protection One.
The potential for information â€” good and bad â€” to become widespread almost instantly has increased with the emergence of social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter. With 350 million and 12 million users respectively, a negative comment, especially if it strikes a chord with others, can quickly be read by hundreds of thousands of people around the world.
“On the Internet, things can go very wrong very quickly,” relates Wade Meredith, online marketing manager for Voltage Creative, an integrated marketing firm located in Kansas City, Mo. “Most social media networks want people to be able to rebroadcast instantly, so messages spread more quickly â€” both bad and good.”
It might be tempting to think that the solution to any negative content posted about your company would be relatively easy. Contact the poster directly, address his or her complaint or concern, and ask the person to remove the negative post. Problem solved, right?
Wrong. The same technology that allows you to read a research report from 2004 also makes those offending posts available. Google uses an algorithm that scours the Internet constantly, archiving Web sites and placing them in an online cache that shows up in Google searches. In other words, once something is online, it’s there forever. And now that Google also displays Twitter and Facebook information, that potential is even greater.
“Google archives everything, and it does that very quickly,” said Patrick Richardson, director of marketing for Boston-based public relations and marketing firm, Schneider Associates. “So once something is out there, it’s tough to retract. And even if you do, it’s out there pretty much forever.”
The whole process for managing your online reputation may seem like a daunting task, and it is. But it is not a hopeless pursuit. There are a number of steps you can take to minimize the impact on your company’s reputation based on negative online content. Some of these steps are easy. Others are more difficult. But all are doable, whether in-house or by contracting with an outside firm.
FERRETING OUT NEGATIVITYMonitoring what’s being said about your business online is the first step. It’s also one of the easiest steps to take when it comes to reputation management. There are a number of free tools that will help you accomplish this (see related story, “Basic Tools,” left). without requiring you to do much, if any, heavy lifting.
Perhaps the most popular and easiest to use is Google Alerts. (Yahoo also has a free alerting service [alerts.yahoo.com], which some prefer, but Google’s [alerts.google.com] is by far the most widely used. Giga Alert [www.gigaalert.com] is a newer, subscription-based service that is gaining traction in the business world.) You can have search results for the Web, blogs, forums and more e-mailed to you daily. While there is no limit as to how many alerts you can receive, you should be strategic about what you choose, Meredith advises.
“You should be getting alerts for anything that’s appropriate to your company and products, as well as your industry,” he notes. “You really have to tune in to your market and customers.”
Now, before you wade into the world of monitoring what people are saying about your company, be advised: You’ll need to have thick skin.
“The scary part is that you hear everything â€” both positive and negative,” Meredith says. “The Internet gives power to the people. It’s not just one way, like it used to be with advertising and billboards. Individuals have that power as well.”
With any luck, when you Google your company’s name, the top result you see won’t be a link to someone criticizing your company. Because of the way Google determines in which order to display search results, the post or Web site would have to have been read and/or linked by a large number of Internet users.
One of the most difficult entities to both deal with and/or to contain is an anti-site. These sites are set up by people outside of your company, adding words like sucks or scam to the end of your company’s web address.
“About 60 percent of Fortune 500 companies have anti-sites, and they don’t want to see them in search results,” Meredith says. “One of the best tactics for making sure those don’t rise to the top of search results is to build up your other properties and sites so the good will drown out the bad.”
While most haven’t done it, many forward-thinking companies snatched up variations of their Web site addresses to combat this potential. APX Alarm in Provo, Utah, is one of those companies. Josh Houser, the company’s vice president of service and inside sales, has worked hard to anticipate and potentially head off such anti-sites. The company owns the domain APXalarmscam.com and has populated that site with company-generated content designed to reassure potential customers that the company is indeed legitimate.
“We found that APX Alarm scam was a common search people were performing when they heard about us,” Houser explains. “Now when they search, not only do they find out we’re a legitimate company that cares about our customers, but the site is also a complaint interceptor. We provide information on a number of ways to contact us. We want to hear from people so we can take care of them.”
TO RESPOND OR NOT TO RESPOND?The issue of whether or not to respond to negativity about your company that’s posted online is a sticky one. In fact, the experts are of two minds about it, with many opting to answer, “It depends.”
That may sound like a cop out, but it’s true. “If you’re already out there and communicating and showing your company’s point of view, when something negative comes up, you already have a standpoint out there,” Richardson says. “If you respond, you can say, ‘We’ve already talked about this. Here’s what we’ve said.’”
One of the trickiest areas is online forums. These posts show up in your Google Alerts, and can often â€” along with social media posts â€” be among the most negative and potentially damaging to your company. In deciding whether to respond, Richardson thinks, one factor to take into consideration is whether the forum is open or closed.
“Forums can be a great way to have a conversation online with people who are interested in the same thing. You should definitely get involved in the conversation if you can,” he says. “But if you haven’t been active and pop in to respond to a negative post, backlash from forum members could cause the situation to spiral out of control.”
A good overall guideline for deciding whether a response is warranted is whether the information that’s put out is factually incorrect. In that case, Richardson said, it probably makes sense to calmly correct the information.
“It also makes sense to look at the individual poster. If they’re speaking to a small number of people, such as Twitter followers, then maybe you just leave it alone, rather than calling attention to it,” he believes.
Protection One embraces every online post or comment as an opportunity and pays special attention to those that are negative, Sung says.
“Whatever the nature of the feedback, whether negative or positive, we welcome the dialogue and view every comment as an opportunity to help, communicate, learn or improve,” he explains.
This issue to resolve issues is certainly not unique to Protection One. Houser said APX Alarm strives to interact with customers and others who have seen fit to talk about both their positive and negative experiences online â€” and to do it very quickly.
“As we monitor and track what’s being said about us on the Web, we make sure to communicate with customers in the same way they communicate with us (Facebook, e-mail, forum posts, etc.),” he lists. “We have a dedicated customer advocate team that responds to people pretty much in real time.”
MANAGING YOUR REPUTATIONWhen it comes to managing your online reputation, the first thing almost anyone who has had any experience with Internet marketing will tell you is that the best way to manage your reputation is to be proactive. In other words, you need to own your company’s image by making sure you’re the one who is putting information out there â€” sometimes with the help of your customers.
“You need to engage people who like what you’re doing and have interest in it,” Meredith says. “Do something with your audience that benefits everyone, such as sneak peeks, contests, insider information, sales or deals. Hopefully, this will lead to some of them becoming evangelists for your company.”
Creating evangelists is something APX Alarm has also spent a lot of time and effort to do, Houser says, with pretty positive results.
“It’s nice when you build a loyalty and a following that has a positive image of your company,” he says. “That way, you don’t have to defend yourself. Customers find that they can’t identify with the person who posts negative comments and aren’t afraid to tell them so. It’s basic customer service; if you take care of them, they’ll take care of you.”
Among the tools that are best suited for this task are any of the social media sites, blogs, search engine optimization and YouTube. Social media has quickly become a favorite of Houser’s.
“I’m always giddy to get on [Facebook or Twitter] and see what people are saying,” he says. “Up until recently, communicating with our customers has been on the phone. This new way gives them a great outlet to share opinions in a non-invasive way.”
Protection One is also heavily invested in social media. The company’s efforts in this area have come from the top down, Sung explains.
“In line with our corporate culture of open communications and setting the tone from the top, our CEO [Richard Ginsburg] actually began our Twitter efforts and has his own account,” Sung says. “He receives all feedback from our Web site and helps foster new and expanded ways of being there for our customers or anyone interested in security.”
Social media can indeed be an effective way to reach out and connect with customers, but it is not a cure-all. Having a company blog in tandem with your overall marketing effort is essential for controlling the message about your company, Richardson believes.
“Blogs are a great way to get information out there about your company in a controlled environment,” he says. “When you post, you’re testing things on a friendly audience. You’re in control and can be talking about issues that may potentially be a problem in the future.”
As an added benefit, a blog will help with search results, which can take up more of the first-page search results. But simply having a blog is not enough, Meredith believes, saying, “You can’t just hawk your company. You have to provide information that’s pertinent to your customers and your industry.”
Richardson agrees, stressing that, especially in an online world, content is king.
“If you’re providing thoughtful, passionate content, you’ll build a loyal following and you’ll be prepared for anything,” he says. “If you don’t have anything out there, it will take you a long time to respond to negative feedback. And on the Internet, even an hour can be an eternity.”
Perhaps the best reason to have a blog is to establish your expertise. “A blog gives you a real chance to become an authority or thought-leader in your industry,” Meredith explains.
IMPROVING YOUR ONLINE REPUTATIONIf you aren’t already engaging your customers or potential customers, start now. If they send you positive feedback via letters or e-mail, thank them. And when you do, ask them if they’d be willing to post something publicly on your behalf. One tool they can use to review you is Google Maps, LinkedIn or other industry-specific review sites. Keep in mind that any positive reviews must come from customers or others.
As tempting as it may be, never create a fake customer to defend or promote you. Many companies have tried this (Walmart is one example) with disastrous results. You may think no one will ever know. Think again. This is the Internet. Everything gets found out.
The best way to improve your reputation is the old-fashioned way: Be a better company. When you see something negative about your company, don’t allow yourself to post a knee-jerk response. Instead, take some time and ask yourself these questions:
• Is the complaint reasonable?
• What, if anything, is the person asking for?
• How can we fix their problem?
When you do this, you’re likely to find the positive in negative feedback: the ability to respond to it.
YOU CAN DO ITThe bottom line in online reputation management is that anyone â€” regardless of the size of their company â€” can take the necessary steps to prevent repercussions from negative feedback.
While the Internet may give customers and others free rein to complain or say nasty things, it also gives you the opportunity to respond â€” and in the process to rebuild or solidify your reputation. People are talking about your company on the Internet whether you’re listening or not, so it pays to be an active listener and participant.
Basic Tools for Monitoring Your Reputation OnlineGoogle.com
Google is by far the best starting point for any online reputation management endeavor. Searching for your company’s name is a good starting point, but it’s just that: A starting point. It is not a solution in and of itself.
This tool, which is more robust than Twitter’s embedded search function, allows you to perform a real-time search to find out what, if anything, people are saying about your company, your industry or anything else.
Google or Yahoo Alerts
Set up alerts to search for key words, such as your company name, and have those search results sent to your e-mail. You’ll receive not only Web search results, but blog posts, news stories and more.
If you know that your customers and potential customers frequent particular discussion forums, you should at least be monitoring the conversation there. The best way to do this is to perform a weekly search. If you don’t know what forums your customer base may be using, watch your e-mail alerts; you’ll see some forums mentioned (maybe frequently) in your search results. Check them out.
Be aware that there are several Web sites that allow customers to post reviews of service providers (such as angieslist.com) and alarm companies specifically (such as alarmcompanyreviews.com). Search these sites occasionally to see what’s being said about your company. You can find other sites by searching for “alarm company reviews” or “security company reviews.”
3 Steps to a Better Online Reputation1.Monitor. Pull your head out of the sand and listen to what people are saying about you online. Some of it will be good and some will be bad â€” and some will be downright nasty. But knowing is half the battle. You can’t respond to or rectify negative situations if you’re not paying attention.
2.Manage. Be proactive. Be the main source of information about your company. Provide interesting and useful content â€” and keep marketing messages to a minimum. This establishes trust and authority, so when you do want to switch to “marketing mode,” people will be more receptive.
3.Improve. If warranted, respond to negative feedback, especially from customers. If possible, fix their problem quickly and loudly. By doing so publicly, you’ll turn a negative into a positive.