Online reputation management is not just about advertising.  Some companies successfully build a brand image and encourage customer loyalty through memorable, thoughtful advertising campaigns, but there is typically more to reputation management.  No matter what you say or do, customers will have their own experiences and opinions, and they will express them online.  How you respond to your clients’ positive and negative reviews has as much bearing on your brand’s reputation as your company’s own official website and social media accounts.

Depending on the size of your company and your main channels for interacting with your client base online, you might be able to do most of your own brand reputation management in-house, perhaps with the help of some free or inexpensive reputation management tools.  Medium-sized to large businesses might need to hire professional reputation management consultants.  Even if your company is small, you might benefit from professional online reputation management services if negative publicity from a few outspoken critics is harming your sales.

Elements of Your Online Reputation

Customers interact with businesses online in a variety of ways.  Customers can research their purchase, buy it from your website, and then react to it once they receive it, all using different websites.  In the book Spin Sucks, Gini Dietrich uses the PESO model (PESO stands for Paid, Earned, Social, and Owned) to describe the four types of Internet content that make up a company’s online reputation:

  • Paid content is content that appears online because you, the company, paid for it, although you did not create it. Examples include display ads on Facebook, pay-per-click advertisements, posts on affiliate marketers’ blogs, and content produced by influencers you have paid to promote your brand.
  • Earned content is unsolicited shares of your content and mentions of your products. If a travel blogger names your restaurant in her post about her ten favorite places in your city, that is earned media.  It is also earned media when a customer texts his friend a link to your restaurant’s website in response to the friend’s request for suggestions about where to take his out-of-town guests for brunch.  It is also earned content if a customer shares her location on What’s App while she is at your restaurant.
  • Social media, in the context of the PESO model, means your company’s presence on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, or other social networks. It is important to post new content frequently on your social media accounts.  Having an inactive account hurts your reputation more than not having one at all.  Therefore, small companies should choose just a few social media sites, the ones most popular with their target audience, and frequently update their content on those sites.
  • Owned properties are sites that belong entirely to your company, such as your company website or blog. If these sites allow user comments, you can moderate the comments in-house.  You have more control over owned properties than any other element of your online reputation.

Content that you create or sponsor is an important part of digital reputation management, but it’s only one part of the equation.  Building a good reputation online also means encouraging positive reactions from your target audience through high quality products and services, as well as responding appropriately to negative reactions.

Kiss Me, Oscar: When to Embrace the Grouches

The good news is that social media sites and online review sites like Yelp and Angie’s List enable prospective customers to find out what other people like about your company’s products or services.  Better yet is that when customers post reviews or social media comments about your company you get to see, in real time, what works and what doesn’t.  The bad news is that when someone says something negative, everyone finds out and you can’t (and often shouldn’t) make the comment disappear.

Customers have the right to write about their opinions and experiences, good or bad.  Whatever you do, don’t respond negatively to negative comments about your business, even if the bad review uses an angry tone.  There are three reasons for this:

  • The number one rule of customer service is that the customer is always right. Your goal is to make your customers happy.  For example, if your customers complain that your products use too much plastic packaging, you have found out that they care about protecting the environment.  Start researching more sustainable options for packaging.  Would Burger King have debuted the Impossible Whopper if not for complaints about the restaurant chain’s lack of vegetarian options?  Would the food brands that have recently removed racial stereotypes from their brand strategy have done so if their customer base had not spoken up about it?
  • People want to see that you are listening. You should respond promptly to negative comments and reviews.  Even if you can’t immediately fix the problem that prompted the complaint, thank the writer for their comment and promise to address the issue.  When people read the negative comment they won’t just see that someone doesn’t like your product, they will also see that you care about your customers.  If you get lots of comments and reviews, you might need to hire online reputation management profile defenders, whose job it is to read online comments about your company and write timely and polite responses.
  • Professionalism is a cornerstone of any company’s reputation, and being gracious about criticism is a key component of professionalism. Writing a rude response to a rude comment is the worst thing you can do.  It will make you look unprofessional and cost you prospective customers.

Embrace the grouches, but show the satisfied customers your appreciation, too.  Respond to positive comments in a friendly, appreciative manner.

How to Manage Reputation Online When Things Get Ugly

The anonymity of the Internet brings out the worst in many people.  It emboldens them to say abusive, untruthful things that they would never have the courage to say to anyone in person.  It hurts when people say mean things about your company, especially when it is obvious that they put great effort into bad-mouthing you.  It is normal to be angry when you find out that someone is intentionally trying to harm your reputation, but remember professionalism.  Whatever you do, do not respond in kind with hateful or slanderous content.

Some types of negative publicity are worse than honest comments by dissatisfied customers.  The following are serious blows to your reputation that require a more aggressive digital reputation management strategy:

  • Negative publicity on highly visible sources – It is not a problem if a customer writes a bad review about your business on Yelp. It is a problem if the national news reports a story about the review and interviews the author of the negative comment.
  • Hate sites – Just as some people make fan sites about their favorite TV shows, product lines, or anything else they like, some people have nothing better to do than write blogs about products they hate. If the blog “I Hate Joe’s Pickles” ranks higher on the first page of search results than the Joe’s Pickles official website, Joe has a problem.

The best thing to do, in this case, is to vanquish your enemies with SEO.  It is a waste of energy to try to remove this content from the Internet.  Instead, you should just create and sponsor content that ranks higher than your enemies’ content on Google search results.  Remember that two thirds of Google searches result in a click on one of the first five results.  Here are some ways to out-rank your detractors with SEO:

  • Update your blog frequently. Posting at least once a week on your blog is one of the most effective ways to keep your website on the first page of search results.  Only the most dedicated of hate bloggers will be able to post frequently enough to outrank you.
  • Pay influencers and affiliate marketers with highly ranked websites to mention your company more frequently.
  • Pay for ads, so that most of the first page of results is taken up by paid advertising.

If hate sites or negative comments cross the line into truly slanderous hate speech, you should talk to a lawyer about the remedies available to you through the courts.  You should never confront your attackers directly.

Dark Horse Café: A Cautionary Tale

In 2010, a coffee shop called Dark Horse café learned its lesson the hard way about responding in kind to snarky comments.  A customer named April Dunford posted a tweet in which she observed that the café only had one electrical outlet, even though many customers came there to work on their computers.  The café responded with a tweet that was at least as snarky as Dunford’s, saying that the café focuses on coffee, and so should the customers.  This response violates the principle that the customer is always right.  Defensiveness is never a good response to criticism from a customer, and it made the company look unprofessional.

When to Seek the Help of Reputation Management Companies

Online reputation management should be a major part of your marketing strategy.  If negative comments are one of the first things people see when they search online for your company, then it is a good idea to dedicate part of your budget to addressing this problem.  Here are some ways that digital marketing companies can help you with online reputation management:

  • Responding to social media comments in a timely manner can help your reputation, whether those comments are positive, negative, or neutral. You can hire a team member dedicated to social media reputation management or outsource this project to a marketing company.
  • A marketing company can help you fine-tune your SEO strategy. Truly effective SEO involves a many-pronged approach, including keyword research and text and video content of varying lengths, as well as SEO on the parts of your site not visible to customers.
  • If your brand strategy isn’t working, marketing experts can help you change your brand image to something that resonates better with your customer base. Doing this requires research into what customers identify with and respond to.  The new strategy might involve anything from new advertising slogans to a more mobile-friendly website, or an increased presence on the social media sites your prospective customers use.
  • Invest in tools that solicit customer feedback, such as automated surveys. You can publish the positive responses, with customers’ consent, and use the negative responses as a starting point to find ways to improve.

Online Reputation Management Is Vital to the Success of Your Company

In the age of smartphones and Google searches, online reputation management is essential for all businesses, from e-commerce clothing boutiques to neighborhood ice cream parlors.  Don’t ignore the things that customers say about you online, and don’t try to suppress negative comments or fight fire with fire by being as nasty as your meanest detractors.  Instead, treat your online reputation management with the same professionalism, courtesy, and optimism as you treat all of the other ups and downs of running a business.  Companies of all sizes can benefit from the help of digital marketing experts in improving the online reputation of their businesses.