Online Reputation Management
Online reputation management, or ORM as the experts call it, is a growing field, and with good reason. The concept is pretty simple. The internet gives customers and employees – both happy and mad – endless opportunities to rave or rant about your company. You can get terrific reviews from satisfied customers, and you can get serious rants and even targeted attacks from disgruntled employees and irritated patrons.
Consider the recent case of Abercrombie & Fitch CEO, Mike Jeffries. Jeffries has made several unpopular comments about the sizing of his clothing. Apparently he only stocks small sizes in his store because, “He doesn’t want larger people shopping in his store; he wants thin and beautiful people.” In addition, he candidly admits that he “goes after the cool kids.”
While he’s made comments in this vein for years, the most recent comments via an online interview had a tremendous fall out. The comments went viral.
The internet advances truly by leaps and bounds and what would have buzzed in some fashion magazines a decade ago is now all over the internet being tweeted, retweeted and “liked” by irate teenagers who appear to hate what Jeffries, and his company, is all about.
After just weeks of negative publicity online, the results are in. Quarterly profits in the stores have fallen by 13 percent since last year. And in case you don’t remember, American families had less to spend on clothing last year than they do this year. Abercrombie is in trouble, and if the internet’s social networks can take out a retail powerhouse, what can they do to your business?
Step 1: Build a Positive Online Brand
While Abercrombie makes an excellent example of what to avoid doing in the hyper-aware cyber space, you’ll need to do exactly the opposite. Pour all of your marketing energy and efforts into creating a positive online brand.
You don’t need to be hip or cool to be positive, but you do need to be out there making connections, updating websites, offering advice and maintaining your blog. The more good, relevant and positive information the Google gods have about your business and your brand, the safer it will be from lasting attack.
Start now to build your brand and carry those branding efforts online in a big way. In the fight against nasty online publicity, the very best defense (and often the only defense) is a good offense. In this case that simply means be prepared, be proactive and be positive.
Step 2: Monitor Vigilantly
You can’t fight what you can’t see. If you’re not already monitoring your company name online, set up alerts right this minute to do exactly that. Stop reading and go to Google alerts and set up a system to show you an account of every time your company name is mentioned. Then go to Yahoo Alerts and do the exact same thing.
Your alerts can be as simple as your company name or you can include modifiers like “sucks” or “scam”. You can usually add as many alerts as you’d like, so you can also add to these over time as more possibilities develop.
While that will handle web results, you can also use RSS feeds to search through the blogosphere using Technorati and Feedster. Social media is a big potential enemy, but you can monitor there as well by setting up a tag alert system with tagfetch.com or tagbulb.com.
There’s no way that you’ll be able to search out and find every bit of bad news on the web. Using alerts and feeds to help call your attention to potential problems is painless once you set up the accounts and you might also get some warm and fuzzy feelings as you see people responding to your positive PR campaigns as well.
Step 3: Maximize Persistent Marketing
Everything you do is marketing. Every email you send, every newsletter you write and every blog or tweet you post is part of your marketing plan, and every one of them should be appropriately optimized. If you’re not an expert with SEO, this is a great time to learn the basics of keyword use at least. Be consistent with keywords that you use in press releases and emails. Learn to include links and keyword phrases in your tweets and captions.
Make every word, image and program count for you both with customers and with the search engines. If you get in the habit of including relevant keywords and branding phrases in everything you write, you’ll be doing yourself dual favors all of the time. Not only will you be sending out that newsletter or online coupon, but you’ll be gaining traction in the search engines as well.
Outside of search engine marketing, however, you should keep up the pace in all of your other marketing efforts as well. If this were war, your constant marketing would be essentially drilling your soldiers and playing war games to prepare for the real thing. If you stop sending out those newsletters or stop posting on the blog and allow it to sit dormant, you might as well let 90 percent of your soldiers go home – they won’t be up to fighting for you when you need them most.
Step 4: Engage the Enemy
When the battle finally arrives, don’t be surprised. It’s a rare company that doesn’t have to deal with some sort of complaint online. In some cases you’ll be notified. For example if the Better Business Bureau has received a complaint, they will let you know and give you an opportunity to address the issue. But if someone has posted a rant on a site like PissedConsumer.com or RipOffReport.com, you’re going to have to engage the enemy on their terms.
Never let a complaint sit there online without a proper response. If a customer complains or ex-employees whines online and you don’t take action, others will read that response as confirming the problem. Even if that customer really did have terrible service from a now-fired employee that day, you must still respond.
Before you go shooting from the hip, however, take a moment and assess the situation. Ask yourself what the complaint is really about. Does it have merit? Do you need more information?
When the complaint surfaces, address it first publicly so that any followers can see that you are handling the situation professionally. Then ask the poster to email or call you privately to finish discussing the situation. Assume that anything you say or offer will wind up back online, but at least you can protect your brand a bit this way.
How you respond to the complaint will vary according to what the complaint is. At worst you’ll start some serious damage control and delve into the deeper layers of reputation management. At best you’ll satisfy the customer with your offer and bring around a new, very loyal and enthusiastic fan.
Step 5: Know Your Rights
While it may not seem so, there are laws that govern what can be said online and what cannot. Defamation lawsuits do occur based on online accusations and attacks. It’s important to know your rights in regard to how you can respond to persistent and serious threats against your person and your business.
In some rare cases it is best to allow professionals to handle situations or at the very least call in the help of your lawyer to guide and advise you on how to proceed. Do be careful in using the law, however. In the online war games, calling in the law is akin to dropping the atomic bomb. Once you mention lawsuits online, there’s no going back. The freedom-loving social networks who fight so diligently against monitoring and legalese are going to spring into action. They may work for you, but they may also go against you.
Be cautious when threatening legal action online – never do it flippantly as your words will be preserved forever. But at the same time, don’t shy away from calling in reinforcements if a situation grows out of hand and you feel someone is acting with the intent to legally harm you or your business.