Protecting Your Online Reputation

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Admit it: You occasionally run a Google or Yahoo! search to uncover what people are saying about you or your business on the Internet. Personally, I am always on the lookout for public opinion concerning the content and articles that I regularly write. For an independent consultant such as myself, a simple Internet search a few times a year is sufficient to capture the relatively small number of appraisals scattered over the Web. However, for larger organizations, safeguarding a reputation online is a much more arduous undertaking. The larger the company, the more at stake: Respected and trusted brands take years (and often millions of dollars) to cultivate. And yet, a few commentators in a social media venue – such as a blog, forum, discussion board, YouTube video, publicly available wiki, etc. – can literally make or break a product or brand in a matter of hours. At any moment, somebody in cyberspace may be critiquing your business, compromising the privacy of its executives or having impassioned discussions on how your company’s goods and services fare in comparison with the competition. By necessity, companies have started to rely heavily on dedicated software to help with their online reputation management activities. ORM software gives companies of all sizes the ability to track and monitor the Web across multiple search engines, blogs, newsfeeds, etc for mention (good and bad) about their business practices and products. Because knowing in real time exactly who is praising or pillorying your company can result in tremendous competitive advantages, ORM has become an essential part of everyday operations for even the smallest of organizations.

Establishing a methodology for managing and protecting one’s online reputation can appear formidable at first. There are seemingly limitless numbers of social media and social content sharing sites, news portals, industry journals and other online media, making it very difficult to uncover everything that the Internet community is saying about your organization, let alone try to manage and respond to both negative and positive mentions of products, services and brands. Fortunately, ORM applications and associated automated dashboards can provide comprehensive ORM capabilities – through comprehensive searching (“deep Web” scouring), analytical/trending, sentiment ranking and customizable alert functionality against all types of online content – from YouTube videos to blogs. The most advanced ORM applications employ sentiment tagging functions; these functions are able to intelligently classify Internet statements into positive sentiment, negative sentiment or neutral sentiment buckets. Furthermore, these ORM tools have the capability to search and analyze data across a diverse breadth of demographics, geographies and languages, which is extremely important for organizations that have to manage reputational risk on a global basis.

In order for any ORM tool to achieve its full effectiveness, a large portfolio of key performance indicators and metrics must be carefully established. Hostile and friendly trends must be consistently captured and analyzed so that reputation management becomes less of a reactive exercise and more of a proactive one. Complex comparative metrics must be commonplace, such as those that help track the success of a brand’s reputation over time, or correlate the relationship between volume of conversation and brand reputation, and so on. In tandem with coherent and actionable metrics, a repository of reputation management data will need to be maintained. The repository should archive history in such a way that reports about online threats can be recreated well after the incident has been first spotted. (The Internet has a tremendous rate of change; any aspersion appearing on the Web can disappear almost immediately after it is identified.)

A well-structured rapid response team that is responsible for identifying and rectifying online threats to reputation will be critical to your organization’s ORM strategy. An effective RR team will be headed by a brand evangelist (an increasingly visible position in customer-centered firms) who understands the value proposition of the company’s core products and brands. The brand evangelist’s team will have a playbook, or set of operating principles that formalize how to classify and react to various types of online reputational threats, to turn biting consumer criticism or belligerence emanating from the Internet into opportunities to win over existing and prospective customers. Moreover, resources from an organization’s legal and compliance department will be integral to the team’s success, with their ability to execute cease and desist letters or provide extra muscle in negotiating a final resolution when a website’s content is deemed to be slanderous or libelous.

Maintaining a blog is a surefire way to elegantly acknowledge and address online vitriol aimed your organization. Within the confines of the blog, a brand evangelist can explain what his or her company is doing to correct any consumer issues, clear up misleading rumors in the press and much more. What is important is that organizations indicate a willingness to listen, to resolve complaints that originate on the Internet in a personal manner, over the phone or email, “offline” and off the record. A customer-focused blog, authored or edited by a persona that the public readily associates with a brand or product line, will align corporate marketing and sales strategy with customer service operations in ways that create tremendous value for all.

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