While having an online presence is essential to promote and/or sell products and services to remain competitive, being able to manage and maintain a positive online reputation can mean all the difference between success and failure. Hundreds of websites such as Yelp!, Google and Yahoo! present customers and clients with a forum to provide feedback on every company in the world. Additionally, social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram allow consumers to seamlessly interact with companies and other consumers, to share their opinions on products and services. In this article, New Jersey Business will explore the ins-and-outs of online reputation management and the fundamentals of managing it.
“Having an online presence is key for a company, but maybe even more important is how you manage that presence and how you promote a positive reputation,” says Richard Catalina, an intellectual property, Internet and technology attorney at Szaferman Lakind Blumstein & Blader, PC. “Even if you are not ‘online’ as a company, whether you realize it or not, information – and most likely positive and/or negative reviews – about your business is on the Internet and social media platforms for everyone to see.”
On average, every company is listed 100 to 150 times on the Internet, through sites like Yelp!, Google or online yellow pages, according to Tom Ottaiano, president and CEO of Pine Brook-based Today’s Business. “The key with those listings is to make sure that your information is correct,” he says. “Before you do anything else, you want to make sure the name of your business is spelled right or the listing is linked to the proper website, for example. You don’t want consumers contacting a different company when they think they are contacting you, or leaving feedback that has nothing to do with your business.”
Ottaiano’s company is a full-service media agency that helps its clients with website development, digital advertising, branding, search engine optimization (SEO) and reputation management. The company’s slogan, “Your Reputation Lives Online” promotes the fact that every company has “the chance to be a part of the conversation about who they are and what they offer.”
“Whether it is utilizing social media outlets, participating in SEOs, making sure your website is structured in the proper way or responding to positive or negative criticism, technology and the Internet gives business owners the tools they need to make their business what they want it to be,” Ottaiano says.
Today’s Business utilizes the latest software to help small- and mid-sized businesses manage their online reputations, which can sometimes be a challenge because smaller companies may lack the resources to be able to constantly monitor the Internet and social media.
“The software package we use allows businesses to hear what their customers are saying on review sites, blogs and social networks, monitor employee activity on social media and receive regular, actionable reports that help improve their online presence,” Ottaiano says. “We let our clients know about the good, the bad and the ugly when it comes to their reputation.”
John Hardiman, director of public affairs for New Jersey Manufacturers Insurance Group (NJM) says that monitoring search results, social media, blogs and forums is effective as a preventative measure, rather than a reactive measure. For instance, NJM utilizes Google Alerts to constantly monitor the Internet and social media, which “greatly aids in the ability to find and assess online reputation problems.”
“[Google Alerts] is a great and easy tool for any business to use to keep track of their reputation,” Hardiman says.
When NJM receives an alert or discovers instances that can directly or indirectly impact the company, it quickly takes action to get to the root of the problem, which is an important part of the process, according to Hardiman, who adds that it is part of NJM’s strategy to focus on “the three Cs” when managing its brand online.
“It is all about customer service, conversation and community,” he says. “It is critical that your customers know you are listening and that you are being responsive. If we receive an alert about something that could turn into a crisis, we quickly research and investigate the issue. The key is to try to mitigate issues at the earliest stage. The quicker you connect with customers, the greater chance you have of solving their problem and keeping that issue contained. However, it doesn’t mean that you are going to be able to provide the answer or solution that somebody is looking for.”
“Monitoring, participating and then responding quickly before negative things can happen and damage occurs is a challenge that all businesses face,” Szaferman Lakind’s Catalina adds. “Businesses need to be constantly listening to the conversations taking place online and on social media and participate in that discussion in order to steer it in a direction that is positive for their business.”
Catalina says that with the Internet and social media being so prominent in the way companies market and advertise themselves, and how consumers share feedback and opinions, it has turned referrals and word-of-mouth marketing into “word-of-mouth marketing on steroids.”
“Traditional referrals and word-of-mouth marketing is when one customer physically tells another potential customer about their experience with a company, and so on,” he says. “Now, what the Internet and social media does is take the word-of-mouth aspect and greatly expand on it. Instead of one consumer referring another consumer, it is now one consumer telling hundreds to thousands to millions of others. Businesses need to keep pace with reacting and responding to it.”
Although the platforms for building and maintaining a reputation have changed due to the Internet and social media, Carreen Winters, executive vice president of corporate reputation at MWW Group, says the discussions that continue to take place regarding companies and their products and services have remained the same.
“The creation of online environments hasn’t changed the conversations that have been happening over history about companies and their reputations,” Winters says. “The only difference now is that companies are able to receive more real-time feedback as to what people are thinking and saying about them. In turn, it creates better visibility for consumers as to what a company is and what it stands for. So, it is more important than ever for businesses today to be transparent.”
Winters says that having the ability to utilize positive or negative feedback in real-time allows all businesses to make adjustments to better serve their customers.
“In the past, only big companies that had the ability to conduct focus groups could get any kind of information as to what consumers thought about them,” she says. “Today, companies of all sizes and with any budget can get that feedback to better run their businesses.”
Winters continues to stress the fact that online platforms have “leveled the playing field” between small and large companies.
“If you think about the world before the Internet and social media, you had big companies with big marketing budgets buying ads and doing expensive things to deliver a message and to have their say,” she says. “Online environments provide the outlets for businesses of any size to tell their story and to connect to their consumers and key stakeholders.”
One particular challenge that businesses face, according to Winters, is realizing that all online channels are not equal and should not be used in the same manner.
“As a business, you need to know the differences as to how you should be using your own website and how you should be using social media,” she says. “For example, your business’ website provides an opportunity for you to deliver your message in a way that you solely control. But, when you look at social channels like Facebook, Twitter or online review sites, these are environments where consumers and/or employees have a voice as well. So, you need to realize that it becomes a dialogue and not just a monologue. … Oftentimes, companies are only concerned about pushing their own message, that they forget about the dialogue and are not engaging or conversing with consumers in real-time, or sometimes, not at all.”
When it comes to engaging and conversing with consumers online, is it appropriate for a business to respond to every situation?
“It’s not reasonable to expect a company to respond or try to remedy every single problem,” Winters says. “As a company, of course you want to be aware of all the conversations that are happening online, but responding to it is more of an art than a science. Before formulating a response, you need to ask yourself a few questions: ‘Is this a conversation that there is an upside for us in engaging? Does this topic align with our brand values? Does ignoring this comment give it more relevance? Does it become a bigger factor or problem if we don’t respond?’
“However, when responding, you should start by acknowledging and thanking someone for their feedback,” Winters continues. “Whether it is positive or negative feedback, and whether you agree with it or not, there is a reason why a customer is providing it. However, you should never conduct a conversation online that should be had in a private forum or one-on-one. Nothing good ever comes from arguing with someone online. Sometimes the best approach is to make arrangements to connect with a consumer by phone or face-to-face.”
Szaferman Lakind’s Catalina adds that some of the criticism businesses receive is going to be unreasonable or irrational. However, it is just a conventional aspect of running a business and it will happen from time-to-time.
“Pleasing 100 percent of customers all the time is something that is not possible,” he says. “Some people are never going to be happy no matter how good you are as a company. So, in those instances, you need to briefly respond in a positive way and move on. There is probably not much you can do about it. So, wasting time and resources on instances like that can be more detrimental than any criticism itself.”
Managing an online reputation as a business is not only limited to handling consumer issues and feedback, but knowing how to deal with employee social media usage is an increasing concern among all companies, regardless of size or industry.
“It is extremely crucial for businesses today to have some sort of social media policy, whether it is part of an employee handbook or other documentation,” Catalina says. “As a business, you have to define to your employees as to what they can and cannot do on social media in relation to the company. No employee should really be speaking on behalf of the business unless that is the designated job. Because these days, if anything can be perceived as having come from or on behalf of your business, the greater public is going to attribute it to your business and not necessarily the individual that has propagated it.”
For example, Catalina says one of his clients had an employee who made a false negative statement about a competitor on social media. The competitor discovered it and, because it was false and disparaging, it filed a lawsuit against his client.
“That false statement from an employee on social media created a huge mess for the company in question,” Catalina says. “The company had to defend the defamation suit because the employee made those statements. A lot of times, employees may not realize what they are doing when it comes to posting on social media. They may think they are helping their company’s cause, but in reality, they may be hurting it.”
NJM’s Hardiman says that employees of NJM are required to review and acknowledge not only the company’s social media policy, but all of its policies annually. “Having employees review your company’s policies once-per-year can be a good standard to set so they are well aware of what they can and cannot do,” he says. “Many times, employees forget what the policies are because they haven’t reviewed and agreed to them in a long time.”
“Employees are really the ambassadors of your reputation,” MWW’s Winters adds. “Every choice that they make ultimately has an impact on customer satisfaction and on your brand and reputation. But as a business, you have to realize that employees share their honest feelings on online social environments the same way they talk to their families at the dinner table. And, so, if employees are talking negatively about your company online, as a company, you should ask yourself similar questions as you would when dealing with customer criticism. For instance, ‘Is there anything to learn from this feedback?’ and ‘What do we need to do to rectify the situation?’
“However, if it is stated in your business’ social media policy that employees can’t go online and complain about management or say negative and provocative things, then it can be grounds for termination,” Winters continues. “The important thing is to be clear about what your policy is and then be consistent in the application of that policy.”
The roles that the Internet and social media have played in shaping the way businesses are run today are constantly changing and can vary from business to business. However, what is certain is that companies need to know what is being said about them online and they need to know how to deal with it.
“No matter who you are and what you do as a company, you always need to have a strong grasp as to what is going on in terms of your reputation, both good and bad,” Today’s Business’ Ottaiano says. “If you aren’t fully aware, then you can’t fix and address what you are doing wrong as a company. Thus, you can’t improve on your product or service, will get less clientele and your business will suffer because of it.”
“Positive reputations – even ones that have been 100 years in the making – can be broken overnight,” NJM’s Hardiman concludes. “With the speed that information moves today and with the incredibly powerful public opinion tools that the Internet and social media have become, if you are not monitoring what is happening with your brand online, you are far behind where you need to be as a company in today’s marketplace.”
Original Post: http://njbmagazine.com/monthly_articles/21071-2/