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Online Reputation Management

Online reputation management (ORM) is essential if a business, whether based online or offline (or both), intends to maintain a positive brand image, generate sales, raise capital, and form partnerships. According to a 2008 Cone Business social media (SM) survey, of the 60% of Americans who use SM channels, 59% interact with companies via SM web sites. Also, 89% of online buyers read consumer product reviews before making a purchase. A business that is involved in the maintenance and monitoring of its online reputation, as well as the engagement of SM users, is a business that owns its online identity.

The process of ORM involves five steps:

1. Assessing the Social Media landscape

Many businesses, even if based completely offline, do not realize that users of Web 2.0 technologies such as Facebook and Twitter may already have posted content about the company and its products. That content could be positive, negative, or somewhere in between. When assessing the SM landscape, it is important to first discover such content (product reviews, service queries, complaints), and then determine who (customer, competitor, reviewer) has posted it.

2. Planning a response

Once all the information has been gathered, an appropriate response should be planned. Planning will require asking and answering several questions, such as what will be the goal of the ORM campaign, where will campaign efforts be focused, how much time will be devoted to ORM, and who will be held accountable for results (professional experts, internal staff).

The goal(s) of ORM might be improved brand image, fewer lost sales, or a higher number of venture capitalists. Depending upon where user content about the business is located, campaign efforts may be focused on blog or forum posts, setting up SM profiles, or launching a web site. A certain amount of time per week or day will need to be set aside for these activities, and someone will have to take responsibility for accomplishing them.

3. Creating a positive presence

The creation of a business presence in the SM community involves two aspects: content creation and viral marketing. Content creation involves the establishment of a web and/or blog site, posting comments and replies, discussing topics, and publishing press releases, white papers, and articles. It also involves the prompt address of customer inquiries and issues, as well as conflict resolution.

However, because no business can be present on every SM outlet, viral marketing must also be implemented. Viral marketing not only allows business content to be distributed exponentially, but it also gives consumers a choice on how they wish to see it delivered. For example, a content consumer may wish to obtain blog updates via RSS feed instead of visiting the blog site. When updates do occur, the consumer reads them and sends them on to three other individuals.

Viral marketing can be used to disseminate information through various means. Articles may be submitted to directories that redistribute the content through publishing sites like Ezine Articles. Press releases and company updates may be posted to SM community sites like Facebook and MySpace. Viral marketing may even be used to generate consumer interest and traffic via special discounts, coupons, or other promotions.

4. Monitoring Social Media activity

Once consumer "buzz" has been generated via business web sites, feeds, and promotions, it is imperative that ongoing SM outlet activity be monitored for consumer sentiment, regardless of whether that sentiment is positive, neutral, or negative. To this end, there are tracking tools such as Google Alerts, Trackur, and Radian6, which provide daily notices of business name or product mentions. One may also recruit brand ambassadors, who will not only help monitor the SM landscape, but will also answer consumer inquiries and dispel misunderstandings.

5. Reducing negative impact

Inevitably, a negative comment or web site will appear in relation to the business name and/or products. When (and not if) this occurs, it is necessary to have a defined course of action in order to reduce negative impact and initiate damage control. A typical sequence of events involves first establishing where on the search engine results page (SERP) the negative content is located. If the content is placed in the first 10 search results, its effect on business image can be substantial. Writing to the content producer and attempting to clarify the bad publicity is a useful first step. Placing a rebuttal in the comments section of the content also serves to dispel public assumptions about the company.

Should the aforementioned approach prove insufficient (e.g., the blogger refuses to post the comment), one will need to post a unique blog or web page that addresses the negative content. Such an approach will do more than provide a rebuttal. It may also be used as a focal point for other customer questions and/or concerns. This is certainly easier in the long run than attempting to track comments all over the SM landscape.

The next step in neutralizing negative content, especially negative content that ranks highly in the SERP, is to produce high-ranking positive content. This may be performed by posting third party research reports that are fact-based and keyword-optimized, by enlisting the aid of influential web masters and bloggers, and by gathering one-way backlinks from authoritative web sites with high page rank (PR). Ultimately, the goal of these exercises is to push down the negative content in the SERP. In this way, while the negative content will still be available for viewing, it will not be as prominent. Also, if the negative content is equally balanced by strong positive content, web users will research the facts before passing judgment.

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