Protecting Your Online Reputation

By Chris Smith, President of Argent Media

Edited By Ken Adams and Douglas Burson, Sphere Marketer & Analytics

This article is written for our small-business clientele – if you or your company are unfamiliar with “Online Reputation Management” – it’s a critical part in developing your short- and long-term business prospects and growth.

Online marketing experts have spent a lot of time providing advice on managing online ratings and reviews for local businesses — but reputation can have much broader impact than your reviews in Yelp and Google.

There’s hardly a business out there that doesn’t have an occasional issue arise with a customer.  Ideally, you can resolve things before it reaches a point where a customer believes they can only get satisfaction through a public forum or feels they ought to warn people about your business.  The internet has made it so the barriers between one customer and another are far reduced — word-of-mouth can now travel almost literally at the speed of light!

But, if you’ve prepared and planned for how to handle online criticism of your company, the impact of one or two complaints can be much reduced, and you may be better able to respond effectively and rapidly to minimize monetary impact.

You Can’t Opt Out Of Reputation Management
For many small businesses, the complete lack of proactive reputation management leaves them in the position of a sitting duck.  With little more than just a website to represent you online, you’re in a precarious position if anyone creates a site to target you or even just posts something on social media, as those items could rank for your business name searches.  For established local businesses, people may frequently be searching for you by business name — so, having bad stuff rank in branded search results can directly impact your bottom line.

Online reputation management and repair has been a burgeoning segment of online marketing for years.  If a business doesn’t invest in developing their online presence and reputation proactively, they will more than likely pay considerable costs later in terms of lost revenues, repairing abrupt damage – and developing out the presence they neglected!

For businesses tied closely to the identities of their proprietors/founders, the names of their executives may be another area of reputation that needs to be managed proactively.

There are many executives who desire to keep a low profile and thus have avoided all forms of social media out of a desire for privacy.  Again, with zero assets built around the executive’s name, they may be a sitting duck for some reputation damage the instant someone decides to take them down a notch.

Perhaps the only thing worse than under-engaging in online media is handling social media badly.  No one can damage you as seriously as you can damage yourself if you don’t know what you’re doing.  Entrepreneurs and small business employees sometimes develop a major case of hubris — perhaps because those operating small businesses have to be jacks-of-all-trades to some degree just to be able to run a small business effectively.

But, knowing how to create a great product and being able to do all the things necessary to successfully manage and run a small business doesn’t automatically make you an effective communicator in the internet space.

With these concepts in mind, here are 10 professional tips for your online reputation management.

1. Create A Presence On Any And All Relevant Web Properties
Your company should already have Twitter, Facebook, and Google+ accounts, at minimum. If you’re in a highly competitive market and vertical, you may need to be active on some additional social media sites, as well — there are dozens available, some of which may be specific to your industry.

For many B2B, high-tech and/or professional types of businesses, having executives and employees integrate with LinkedIn may be valuable.  For visually-oriented products, using Pinterest, Instagram and Flickr may be needed.  And, most businesses will benefit from some number of videos shared through sites such as YouTube and Vimeo.

2. Don’t Neglect Your Social Media Accounts
It’s important to build out your social media accounts.  Merely having a Twitter, Facebook and Google+ account/page for your business is insufficient — you need to develop your audience on them, too.  With ongoing development, you can build your social media accounts in order to interact with customers and to increase your influence and engagement scores.

If you don’t do this, those accounts may not be strong enough to outrank the postings if someone begins to post negative things.  While we don’t know precisely how Google and Bing may assess the strength of social media accounts, you can use some independent scoring utilities to assess whether you’re achieving growth.

3. Consider Your Brands And Products
You may need to build out online materials and social profiles for more than just your company name.  If you have brand and product names beyond your company name, you likely ought to develop content to rank for those names as well. You may need to develop websites, web pages, social media profiles and collateral materials just to claim and reserve each brand name.

4. Protect Individuals Associated With The Business
Develop a strong social media presence for your founders’, owners’, or executives’ names, particularly if they are distinctive.  Keeping a low online profile to preserve your privacy just leaves you wide open for any drive-by defamers!

There are quite a few businesses where the company’s identity is fairly entangled with their executives, and a solid reputation management strategy is vital for these. Consumers often search by name for doctors, dentists, and lawyers (to name a few), so create collateral to rank for these individuals if they don’t already have any.

5. Implement Authorship Where Applicable
This is primarily for businesses where a founder/proprietor is closely associated with the business’s identity. Google requires authors to be individuals; thus, the author tag must be associated with an individual Google+ profile, not with a business page.

Using the author tag assumes you’ll be doing some ongoing publishing of articles or blog posts over time or else it’s not worthwhile — which leads us to the next point.

6. Blog
Blogging  is a secret weapon for local SEO because it helps with a site’s rankings on good keywords (if done properly) and provides fodder for your company’s social media accounts.

For reputation purposes, it not only can rank for your name, it can give you a solid “home court” ground where you can directly respond to any major assertions made about your company if necessary.

7. Listen
When responding to online complaints or bad reviews, seriously consider that there may be some weaknesses in your process that need to be addressed — particularly if you get frequent negative feedback about a specific thing.  Remember the adage that “the customer is always right”?  Don’t be inflexible; come up with a creative way to give customers what they’re wanting without creating friction.

Just because you can pressure people into paying more doesn’t mean you should. Consider that you could be driving existing or potential customers into the arms of your competitor.  The extra money you make on that annoying fee could be cancelled out by business lost from those who see numerous complaints about it online.

8. Apologize
If you or your company messes up, fails or otherwise does something wrong, own up to it — and make a genuine apology to those who have been affected.  Being real and transparent in apologizing can go far toward diffusing a situation and moving the process along toward reconciliation or, at least, toward making a crisis situation come to a close.

If you do it, make sure the apology is authentic — don’t do one of those weaselly, “I’m sorry you allowed my actions to make you feel bad” statements that are disingenuous nonsense.  Also, try to make amends in some way, unconditionally.

9. Don’t Get Into Online Arguments
It’s very easy to get sucked into this — but even if you’re technically right, you might lose out overall by just coming across as petty, harsh or unprofessional.  Worse yet, you might actually be wrong… and once you get emotionally riled up, you could end up saying and doing things that damage your reputation.

The best approach is to diffuse situations and take communications offline to try to reconcile.  Be nicer in your online interactions than you even think you need to be. Your professional responses may win more customers than being “right” in an online disagreement.  If you feel yourself getting drawn into escalating conflict? Walk away from your computer.

10. Make The Investment
Reputation development requires an investment, both in time and money.  Most small, local businesses are either ignoring proactive reputation management or they are doing it themselves, on a shoestring, and on an as-needed and as-they-have-time-to-do-it basis.

BC549BB9-4407-4F9C-973D-09A0FBA7FFFC   Chris Smith is President of Argent Media, and serves on advisory boards for Universal Business Listing and FindLaw. Follow him @si1very on Twitter and see more of his writing on reputation management on Marketing Land.