September 08, 2011
How To

Reputation Marketing: 7 tactics to manage and protect your brand

SUMMARY: Social media and online marketing techniques allow for a high-level of customer interaction. This interaction also means people can easily publish reviews, comments and complaints about your company that can show up in Web search results and negatively affect your brand.

This how-to article provides seven tactics from a reputation management consultant that offer a way to proactively protect your brand online, and to react to problems when you face a communication or reputation crisis.
by David Kirkpatrick, Reporter

At the most fundamental level, marketing has changed through digital and social marketing channels. Your customers have more control than ever before, in terms of interacting with your company. Instead of a monolithic "brand" sending messages to a nameless, faceless "customer," marketing is now more about engaging in a conversation with individuals.

Here at MECLABS, we are big proponents of transparent marketing, to which MECLABS Managing Director, Flint McGlaughlin, says, "People don't buy from companies, people buy from people."

Of course, there is a downside to an empowered customer base. Because essentially anyone can attack your brand, legitimately or not, it is now more important than ever to monitor and manage your reputation.

Tony Wright, CEO, WrightIMC, an integrated marketing communications firm, has a very interesting perspective on reputation-based marketing that we thought could be helpful to you as the 10th anniversary of 9/11 approaches.

On Sept. 11, 2001, Wright worked for a large PR firm and his key responsibility was the corporate communications and interactive marketing departments at American Airlines. Immediately after the attacks that morning, Wright went to the American Airlines headquarters in Fort Worth, Texas, and, with a team of about 10 people, began manually monitoring the Internet for unfounded rumors about the company.

In the 10 years since, tracking and protecting your brand online has significantly changed. In fact, Wright believed being proactive is the most important step in reputation management.

"If your brand has not done anything to prepare for a crisis, then you have a blank slate," he said. "If a crisis hits a blank slate, the crisis wins. Unfortunately, doing PR or crisis management during a crisis in some cases can be like trying to eat healthy during a heart attack. It is a little bit too late at that point."

Wright also offered a key point on the empowered customer, "If I tell my friends about your brand, it is not because I like your brand. It is because I like my friends."

Read on for seven tactics from Wright that can help you market your brand's reputation, and deal with a reputation crisis when your brand takes a public hit.

Tactic #1. Control your search engine results pages

The search engine results page (SERP)is what gets called up when you search for a term, such as your company name. A typical SERP contains about 10 results, and your goal should be to fortify positive results on that page.

These results aren't necessarily items on your website; in fact, you might get three results that link directly back to your site. To improve your brand's SERP, go out and find positive results and push links to those results. The more fortified you can make the positive results on your SERP, the more difficult it is for a piece of negative information to make it to the top 10 results list.

- Search engine optimization

Even though you want, and need, positive results from sites other than your own, you do need to understand search engine optimization (SEO) and do everything you can to fully optimize your website. Make sure your code is properly formatted, and make sure your content is keyword-rich.

For SEO, it is not as easy to attain incoming links from external sources. But Wright believes that it, "separates the men from the boys."

- Google Suggest

Google Suggest is when Google makes suggestions as you are typing in the search box. These suggestions are created by popular searches. A reputation issue can appear if your brand name gets tied to a negative search time, like "rip off."

People want to know the "bad stuff," Wright explained, and will often click on that auto-suggested search. By doing so, this behavior reinforces the negative search's popularity.

Unfortunately, there's not any proven way to combat this particular issue, aside from driving a large number of searches that don't include the negative term. Wright said a PR campaign might create searches for your brand, but realistically, a negative Google Suggest search is difficult to counteract. Nonetheless, you want to remain aware of this area of reputation management.

To manage your SERP, Wright suggested creating what you consider your ideal results page, and strive to get that mix of results on the first page. He said you should also take a snapshot of your SERP at least once a month, so you can track what results are showing up on brand searches. In the event of a reputation crisis, you have something to compare to, and find out what results have changed.

Tactic #2. Ask your customers for positive reviews

A huge area of customer empowerment online is product and service reviews. Positive reviews are great, but people are often more motivated to write reviews about negative experiences or opinions.

He added that every single company, no matter how good it is, will have someone write something bad about it at some point. And this negative review might not even be true. It could come from an ex-employee, someone trying to increase their review count, or maybe just somebody having a bad day.

"How do you combat negative reviews?" asked Wright. "Well, you can't stop people from writing something bad about you."

The way to proactively combat this is to create a positive review strategy. Actually ask your customers to write positive reviews. Have salespeople, or other frontline employees who interact with customers, instruct satisfied customers where to write online reviews and how to actually leave the review.

- Create a review portal

And better than just requesting your customers leave reviews at different online outlets, create a review portal on your website. The page might not even be in the main site navigation, but it is a place where you can send your customer to leave a review that lives on your website.

Wright offered a car dealership client as an example. The dealership had a service department with great marks, but only unsatisfied customers were leaving reviews online. The company created a review portal and began requesting positive reviews from its satisfied customers.

Wright also mentioned companies that ask customers for post-purchase surveys to be used internally should instead be asking for online reviews. You still get customer feedback, and you are also creating more, hopefully positive, reviews of your brand online.

Tactic #3. Deal with customer complaints offline

"There is very little to be had for getting into a 'flame war' or argument with a customer online," Wright advised.

He said one issue you may face is fighting a battle on territory that isn't yours. In this case, it's very easy to come off sounding defensive.

Wright likened the situation to talk radio, where a limited number of people call in, but thousands more are listening. When someone puts a complaint or gripe about your company online, you should keep in mind a lot of people are watching to see how you handle the situation.

According to Wright, the way to handle most online complaints is

o Open with, "I am sorry that you are having this problem."

o Don't admit any guilt

o Follow your opening with, "Please email me, or call me, and give me your phone number or email address."

o From here, take your response offline

o Don't air your dirty laundry in social media

o For complaints on Twitter, ask the person to follow you so you can send them a direct message

Wright said if you get a very combative personality, continuing the interaction in public only serves to create more negative content around your brand that will get indexed by search engines.

One exception to taking complaints offline is if the issue is simple to solve, or if you are providing information, go ahead and handle it publicly.

For complaints you take offline, find out what the issue is. Sometimes you'll be dealing with someone who's just unhappy, but if there is a real service issue, then solve the problem.

Wright said a good rule of thumb is to offer to solve the complaint offline, no more than three times. If the person refuses to accept your offer and continues to post negative content about your brand, you can start looking like the reasonable party and negative impact of the complaint can be diffused.

"People have a megaphone on steroids," stated Wright, "and it is called social media."

- Monitor your brand

The way to track down online complaints is to regularly monitor your brand through either a free tool like Google Alerts, or one of the paid solutions.

"This isn't something that is going to break the bank, but it is something that could potentially save your business if you start seeing some negative things," said Wright.

- The rules have changed

This advice is different from even a couple years ago according to Wright. The reason for the change is the rise of social media in consumer-generated content.

In the days of message boards, the advice was to not respond to complaints in the forum where they were happening. Responding on a message board would typically result in a flood of negative comments about the company, making you look worse for the effort.

With social media, directly addressing the complaining customer, and quickly moving the conversation offline is the best course of action.

Tactic #4. Sometimes it's best to just tie up your CEO

No, not literally. Wright explained, "What is a crisis to the CEO may not necessarily be a crisis in general."

Something that looks like a major problem from the C-suite may not be a true crisis, or even a real problem. One example Wright provided is when he gets clients to actively solicit customer reviews, they need to understand not every review is going to be positive. In fact, Wright said he is pleased with a mix of 70% positive reviews and 30% negative to neutral.

Even with this mix, the 30% are most likely not nearly as bad as people at the company perceive them to be. Wright said if you were to survey three people from the company and three people from outside the company on the tone of a non-positive review, the outsiders would be much more likely to view the post as more neutral than negative, while representatives from the company would be much more defensive.

The takeaway is to not overreact to comments about your brand that you perceive as negative. You don't want to come off as overly defensive about content that others don't find that negative.

Tactic #5. Don't be afraid to ask for help

Wright said a brand reputation issue can quickly get out hand, and it's possible to react too late to really solve the problem.

"When you see that crisis happening, make sure that you have got somebody competent, if whether that is in-house or an outside consultant, to help you solve it," said Wright.

Getting help is particularly important if the problem might show up in search engine results. He said that is where reputation problems cause the most damage. He added that those most at risk for negative search engine results are companies and brands that are not household names.

One problem with proactive reputation management is it's a hard sell internally. Wright stated that there is no ROI calculation on being proactive. The only number you might have is if you don't proactively protect your reputation, face a crisis and see how much money that event costs you.

Tactic #6. Define success (or the least bad outcome)

What should you do when a reputation crisis occurs?

When a crisis does hit, Wright says his first question is, "What is going to be a success for us here?"

Some definitions of success include

o Getting a negative item out of the SERPs

o Keeping news coverage more neutral than negative

o Changing the landscape of customer reviews to be more positive than negative

He added you should remember that your company's reputation can be affected by any single person in your organization.

Tactic #7. Pick up the pieces (and avoid the problem next time)

After a crisis occurs, you want to do a postmortem analysis answering four questions:

o What happened?
o How can we prevent it from happening in the future?
o What was the impact?
o What is the future impact?

Getting the answers to these questions will show you how effective your crisis management was in dealing with situation.

Useful links related to this article


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The Last Blog Post: How to succeed in an era of Transparent Marketing

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