Last Tuesday, I gave a presentation on Reputation 2.0 – reputation management in a social media environment. I was asked by a few people to put my slides up online, but since they have no real context without me standing in front of them talking, I figured I would write this to accompany the disembodied Powerpoint. So, as you read this, just imagine me standing in front of the slides saying it. Then imagine me extremely charming and eloquent, rather than bleary and uncaffeinated from getting up at 5 to set things up. Got it? Perfect.
It seems like every week I read more stats about the state of the blogosphere, or new data about who’s using the internet. These numbers are great for making a point, but they don’t really matter, and they often conflict with one another. The real information lies in between all of these omnibus studies and online surveys that we cite in our presentations, and that is the fact that most people in North America use the internet, and most of those – especially among the younger and more affluent – are in some way involved in social media.
Reputation, and by extension, the protection of that reputation, has been around as long as self-awareness. Likewise, as long as there have been companies and brands, there has been a need for companies to maintain their reputation.
Reputation management as a formal business function is relatively new, only surfacing in the early 1900s, but little has changed with regard to the basic principles. At its core, reputation is the sum of actions, and the perception of those actions. When media was much more scarce than it is now, most of reputation management centred around perception – it was much easier to spin your way out of a bad spot when there a lack of widely distributed media made it much harder for the public to see through a public statement or key message.
Now, however, media has advanced to the point where anyone has the ability to publish their thoughts to the world, whether they are the smaller percentage of creators – bloggers, podcasters and the like, or the much larger percentage of commenters – those who do not necessarily publish their own content, but add to public review sites like Yelp, ePinions or public forums that emerge around products and brands.
This democratization of production and distribution of product reviews has led to a mediascape that makes it exceptionally easy for consumers to see objective and community-edited opinions on products and companies, and makes it virtually impossible for companies to bamboozle its consumers. For this reason, reputation 2.0 must focus more on changing a company’s actions than changing the perception of those actions.
Managing your reputation online requires three key elements: listening, analysis and influence.
The first element is one that every company needs to take to heart. Without actively monitoring the myriad public conversations that are happening every minute of every day in blogs, Twitter, Friendfeed, public forums and review sites, managing reputation is impossible. You can’t change what people are saying about you if you don’t even know what that is.
Start with a simple Google blog search, and find out what people are saying about your brand, about your products, about your company or about your employees. Listening doesn’t have to be complicated right off the bat, and at the point where you require a more complex system, you can always switch to an enterprise solution like Radian6.
But keep in mind that it’s not only blogs you should be listening to. As I’ve remarked before, many conversations are moving to Twitter or Friendfeed. People are sharing photos of your brand on Flickr, videos about it on Youtube and possibly even creating Facebook groups – either for or against – and sharing them with their entire social graph.
The second step of any monitoring effort is analysis. What are people saying about your brand or your company? Is it overwhelmingly positive or negative? Is there one thing that many people are harping on? Is it one segment that is talking about it the most?
These are the questions that should shape your analysis, and will eventually shape what you do to improve or maintain your online reputation. Look for the good and the bad, and try to really understand what is being said, and especially how these conversations affect your business. Are people being scared away by bad reviews? Are they coming in droves because of positive buzz?
Secondly, ask yourself how these comments reflect your actual business? Take a step back, and try to understand the comments in terms of customer experience. One comment about customer service doesn’t mean you have a customer service problem, but 100 comments certainly suggests it. The social web provides you with a persistent focus group – don’t ignore what it has to say.
The final step of effective online reputation management is influence. Once we understand what is being said, how do we change it if it is negative, or leverage it if it is positive?
To really influence anything online, you first need to be there – the journey of 1000 miles begins with showing up. This doesn’t mean you have to spend 30 hours a week blogging, but it does mean that you should be active on Twitter, in comments, and it wouldn’t kill you to have a blog to aggregate it all at one place.
Influence also requires participation – which means engaging with detractors or fans, and going beyond just listening to actively soliciting feedback. Participation means creating content that places your side of the story in public record – hopefully before you have to react to the other sides negative comments. Admitting mistakes before anyone else jumps on it can often sway the conversation in your favour, rather than requiring your apologies. Participation is also about creating a network of sympathetic people who will go out of their way to understand you, and who will eventually help defend you against unwarranted attacks.
There’s a lot of talk about “joining the conversation,” and while that sentiment is 100% valid, there’s one aspect of being active in social media that is rarely talked about. Dell is active in the blogosphere, and has many sites dedicated to listening and participating, but to suggest that they are there simply because they as an organization are passionate about social media would be silly. By creating so much content, a search for Dell now requires an entire front page of their side of the story, which is obviously positive, rather than a page of someone else’s side of the story, which isn’t always.
Of course, if your reputation is under fire, you likely won’t be able to SEO your way out of it. Just like spin doesn’t work as well online, it’s very difficult to suppress the truth through search results. Google is smarter than that, and is objective in a way that human beings can’t be. Dell improved its reputation by listening to the commentary about its brand, and changing. It’s a popular sentiment that we’re no longer in control of our brand – the consumer is. Of course, that’s not true – companies ultimately control their product, and the content that they produce, but the consumer certainly has a louder voice. But it’s not because the voice is louder that we should be listening to it – it’s because they’re our customers. This is not a social media revalation – this is a basic principle of business that was somehow forgotten along the way.
The bottom line to this whole presentation is that on the web, you’ll be seen for who you are and for what is said about you. If you’re not part of that coversation, you’re not in control of your reputation, and that’s a dangerous thing.
A stage manager I worked with once in my theatre days was asked by a director why he was always so calm, when other stage manager spent so much time dealing with crises. He replied “being able to put out fires is important, but I prefer to keep the candles away from the drapes.”
Take control of your online reputation, and figure out how to keep the candles away from the drapes. It’s way easier than putting out fires.