Online Reputation Management: What Is It and Why Do I Need It?

Vol. 31 No. 3

By

Chuck Schuele has spent the last 30 years in technology. He is the co-owner of My Virtual Project (myvirtualproject.com), a website design, graphic design, SEO, and social media marketing company. Portions of this article previously appeared in the author’s blog.

Reputation management, as defined by Wikipedia is “The understanding or influencing of an individual’s or business’s reputation.” It was originally coined as a public relations term, but advancements in computing, the Internet, and social media made it primarily an issue of search results. For the purpose of this article, we will consider reputation management to be the practice of monitoring the reputation of an individual or brand, addressing comments or contents that are damaging to it, and using customer feedback and monitoring solutions to get early warning signals to reputation problems.

The Situation

You’ve most likely spent a great deal of time building your business. In some cases, it’s taken years. Maybe it’s a family-owned business that started before you were even born. You’ve put your heart and soul into your business to get it where you want it to be. Then, all of a sudden, business starts to erode. The phone isn’t ringing, and new customers aren’t coming as quickly as they used to. You struggle to understand why. You haven’t changed anything. You still provide the same quality product and service that your current customers enjoy, but you can’t seem to attract new business. Someone then points out that there are negative comments posted online about your company. You realize that your online reputation has been damaged and is presenting an unfair or totally inaccurate perception of your business.

Whether you’re a lawyer, an electrician, a doctor, an accountant, or a home remodeler, a consumer’s perception of you or your business is based almost entirely on what people say about you online. The impact of a negative online reputation may be as subtle as a potential customer clicking on a competitor’s website instead of yours, resulting in lost business. Or it may be as damaging as a boycott of your products and services. In extreme cases, this can put a company out of business.

Social Media and Its Effect on Your Business

According to a 2013 survey conducted by Dimensional Research (tinyurl.com/cs77r24), an overwhelming 90 percent of respondents who recalled reading online reviews claimed that positive online reviews influenced buying decisions, while 86 percent said buying decisions were influenced by negative online reviews.

Most businesses today want to leverage social media to grow. Using social media as part of an overall business marketing strategy makes good sense, and in today’s “connected” world it is almost a requirement. Some businesses try it and fail—mainly because they don’t know the best way to use the tools and techniques to be successful. Others experience varying levels of success owing to knowledge, diligence, perseverance, hard work, and, sometimes, just plain luck. Done well, it can take your business to the next level. Let’s look at a historical perspective.

The consumer experience just a few years ago:

  1. Pick up the Yellow Pages and try to find a nearby supplier of the product or service you’re looking for.
  2. Call this business to ask if it has what you need.
  3. Jump in your car and drive to the location.
  4. Locate the establishment, find parking, and hope the business has the specifics that you’re looking for.
  5. Purchase the item or contract for the service.
  6. Drive home.
  7. Hope that no problems or issues result from your purchase transaction.

The consumer experience today:

  1. Use the Internet and search engines such as Google, Bing, and Yahoo to research goods and services. (Some 89 percent of consumers do this, according to Fleishman-Hillard and Harris Interactive Annual Global Study, 2012, tinyurl.com/qemqoqz.)
  2. After finding a viable supplier, turn to social media and review sites to get consumer feedback on that supplier and reviews of its product and/or service.
  3. If the reviews are bad or look suspicious, it’s back to Step 1. If not, it’s on to Step 4.
  4. If it’s a product, purchase it online and have it shipped to you or drive locally to acquire it.
  5. If it’s a service, contract for it online or drive locally to make the deal.
  6. Lastly, share your purchasing experience on social media and/or review sites.

Today, it is critical for a business to have a solid online presence and reputation. Businesses that don’t may not be here in five years.

What This Means to You

Whether you decide to use social media in your business or not, there is one thing that we must all remember. Social media makes us transparent. If you are a business owner, make sure you are 100 percent confident that your service and your products are up to the test.

There is a saying that “good news travels fast”; however, on the Internet, bad news travels even faster.

In the past, when customers had a problem or a complaint about a product or service, they typically spoke directly to the customer service area or a company representative. But now, with the click of a mouse, one consumer can spread damaging sentiments across review sites, social networks, and message boards, reaching an enormous audience.

If your customers have a bad experience with you, they will tell everyone who listens. Here are a couple of examples:

  • One unhappy customer on a United Airlines flight had his pride-and-joy Taylor guitar broken in baggage handling. When he asked United to replace it, they refused. In response, he wrote a song and made a YouTube video called “United Breaks Guitars.” It made such a negative social media blitz on YouTube that the management of United Airlines finally offered to buy him a new guitar. Still disgruntled, he politely declined and proceeded to make a second video, driving the stake even further into the proverbial “heart” of United. What made matters even worse was that Taylor, the manufacturer of the guitar, picked up on the story and contacted the musician with an offer of a brand new guitar, for free. This made United Airlines look worse yet.
  • There is a documented story from a few years ago about Pacesetter, a large national company that sold, among other things, replacement windows and window installation services. After an extremely unpleasant experience, one disgruntled customer, who just happened to be a web designer, built and published a website called www.pacesettersucks.com, where he detailed his entire sordid tale. He also used social media to encourage other unhappy customers to post their experiences on the site. The site went viral, and many, many dissatisfied customers posted their stories on the site. Within two years, Pacesetter was forced to close its doors and went out of business.

The Moral of the Story

If your products and services are solid, social media won’t hurt you. If your customers are satisfied (and they don’t even have to be overwhelmed, just satisfied), then bad press most likely won’t come your way. However, if you do slip up, be prepared for a social media storm that may have a significant adverse impact on your business. Too many of these “bad news” stories about your business can drive potential customers away from you and to your competitors.

Let’s face it—nobody is perfect, so you need to be prepared to react to negative comments that may get posted. Reputation management includes monitoring all things being said about you, your business, your products and your service, and if something negative shows up, handling it quickly and effectively to avoid further backlash. Use the tools available to make sure you know what is being said about your brand, and social media can be your best friend.

Check for Bad Reviews

How do you know if someone posted a bad review or comment? Start with a few simple searches on Google, Bing, and Yahoo for your name, your company, your brand, and your product and/or service. Based on a recent study by Chitika (tinyurl.com/l7m2nqr), 91.5 percent of users won’t look past the first page of search results, so you only need to look at the first page or so of results for each keyword you search on. If you find any results that rank in the top 15 that are negative, you will probably want to address them. If the problems appear severe, seek professional help to resolve these issues.

Next, set up a system to get notified when new comments are posted. You can set up free alerts in Google and Yahoo and you can use Twitter Search to display any mentions of a keyword or phrase on Twitter. You can also set up RSS feeds based on particular keywords in Social Mention (socialmention.com), a social media search platform aggregator, and/or Technorati (technorati.com), a search engine used for searching blogs.

How to Respond to Negative Comments

First you need to understand whether to respond or not. Here are just a couple examples of why you might want to respond to a negative comment:

  1. You were wrong—you need to step up and admit it.
  2. The person making the comment did not understand the situation completely and made some invalid assumptions—you need to clear up the misunderstanding.
  3. The posted comment gets support from others—you need to nip it in the bud before it spreads.

Some believe that you can solve a negative situation by offering coupons, discounts, or refunds to a disgruntled customer, that this will persuade them to retract or remove a negative comment. Others think this looks like a payoff, and it could do more damage than good. Smart businesses have clearly defined policies for these situations. If you are consistent with the policy, your chances of backlash are mitigated. If you set a policy and follow it, the process can become an advantage for you. However, if it looks like a payoff, and it smells like a payoff, good luck convincing anyone that it’s not.

You must decide whether to respond to a complaint on the site itself or through another channel. It is often better not to get into a debate with the commenter on a complaint site; it is often better to take the discussion off-line to limit further potential negative impact or bad press.

Unethical Practices in Reputation Management

The practice of reputation management raises many ethical considerations. There is no law or even agreement within the industry on where to draw the line on issues of disclosure. Here are a few practices that most experts consider unethical:

  1. Posting fake negative reviews about a competitor to enhance your own reputation.
  2. Creating fake blogs pretending to be a different person/business with the same name in order to push down negative search engine results of the actual person/business.
  3. Having a third party (whether paid or unpaid) post positive reviews under different names to enhance a particular entity’s reputation.
  4. Creating fake product reviews on forums and social media.
  5. Adding malicious content on the post where a negative review or comment can be found, then anonymously reporting the blog to the hosting provider to be taken down.

There have even been instances where someone posted negative comments about a company and then, posing as a reputation management firm, offered to eliminate the bad comments for a fee.

Unethical reputation management can also be risky to the reputation of the person/firm itself if its underhanded methods to influence public opinion are uncovered. There are huge issues related to the legal liability of what is said online: defamation, privacy, negligence, harassment, discrimination, etc.

Conclusion

Almost every business, at one time or another, has had to defend its “value proposition” to prospective clients who compare it against other businesses. If you could respond to these inquiries with something like, “Have you looked online to see what our customers are saying about us?” knowing the results are all positive, it would surely help make that conversation go a bit easier.

Companies need to leverage the power of positive ratings and glowing testimonials from happy customers. With all the hard work you have invested in making your business a success, don’t let all that effort get overshadowed by an unhappy customer who posts a one-sided horror story to an online complaint site. Develop a system to monitor your reputation and take action when necessary to keep it stellar. In the end it will be worth the time and effort.

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