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The 21st century is a relatively unnerving era to be doing business. Enterprises of all shapes and forms are adopting the latest technologies to gain or maintain the upper hand in the digital space. In such an environment, there's room for neither complacency nor error, as a single oversight on a business owner's part can cost them dearly.
Yet, nothing puts a business on edge more than its online reputation - how the interconnected world sees it. The internet has made sending messages much easier, sadly including scathing comments and such. A few low-rated reviews are all it takes to drag a business's reputation down, whether or not the reviews are grounded in reason.
With the so-called 'keyboard warrior' a prevailing voice in online discussions, the necessity of building and maintaining a solid online reputation is no longer up for debate. Business owners must appear reputable to all kinds of customers to avoid earning their fury. Fortunately, online reputation management (ORM) is within the bounds of digital marketing.
Reviews are the most common way people choose their brands. Statistics vary, but experts agree that at least nine out of ten customers read a business's reviews before deciding whether or not to go for it. They peruse positive reviews as much as negative ones; in fact, too many good reviews can be a cause for scepticism.
A recent survey revealed that half of the respondents trust reviews as much as recommendations from friends and relatives. It also helps businesses to have as many reviews as possible, whether they're positive or negative, with 60 per cent of respondents agreeing. Word of mouth from influencers and other forms of advertising aren't trusted as much.
ORM is focused on improving a brand's image in online media, of which there are four types.
Contrary to popular belief, ORM isn't the same as brand reputation management. A business can have multiple brands and manage its images, but ORM deals with information about the business as a whole. As such, rebranding isn't necessarily the best way to deal with negative publicity stemming from comments and reviews.
ORM is also different from public relations, as the latter is concerned with the business's image among other businesses and organisations, most notably news outlets. Public relations also often focus on providing details about a new product or company activity.
Removing negative comments and reviews is an option, with some services like Google offering ways to do so. However, there are only a few valid reasons for such a move, one of which is if it violates the publishing site's content guidelines (e.g., harassment, link spam).
Beyond valid grounds, taking down negative publicity rarely works. In 2010, a world-renowned dairy brand requested YouTube to take down a viral video following allegations of it sourcing its palm oil from an unsustainable supplier. YouTube complied, but the video appeared on another site, leaving the brand to face immense public backlash due to its takedown attempt.
Despite case studies of businesses trying to suppress negativity this way, a demand for it exists and persists. Some businesses are paying for niche services that de-index negative content, but their effectiveness remains to be seen. Like Google, these services deal with copyright-infringing and defamatory content, not public opinion.
It also sets a dangerous precedent on the issue of free speech. Unless the business can refute the negative comment or review with solid evidence, taking it down will most likely result in public outrage. In most cases, it's better to take action to resolve the issue highlighted by the review, as the dairy brand from earlier did by switching to a more ethical supplier.
Managing your reputation on the internet can be complicated and resource intensive. It's never a one-man or one-department job, as a bad reputation can hit any department based on the cause of the negative review. Poor customer service may signify an issue with the sales team, while faults in a product or service may indicate something wrong with the production process.
Because of this, many businesses outsource ORM to digital marketing companies such as Aaron Gray's company, Pursuit Digital, and others. Outsourcing helps businesses, especially small ones that don't have much capital for an in-house team, focus on their core functions. Nevertheless, if you prefer to do ORM in-house, here's a look at the typical steps to take.
1 Reputation audit
Information gathering is the first step in any business strategy. For ORM, this entails going over reviews in aggregator or third-party sites, comments and reviews in social media sites, and search results. Reviews that receive substantial interactions (e.g., likes, shares) or rank high in search results are worth looking into.
The most basic approach is to run a search on Google or the site's in-built search function. It doesn't cost anything but involves an extensive manual review of every result. While not much of an issue for a business that isn't well-known in the market, those that receive much exposure must deal with dozens of results.
Budget permitting, consider signing up for an online analytics tool to automate most of the audit process. An example is SEMrush's Media Monitoring app, designed to collate results that mention the business or brand across various media and determine if the details are positive or negative. Some free services like Google Alerts are also viable.
2 Task prioritisation
After sorting the results according to commendations or complaints, the next step involves classifying them based on ease of doing and its impact on stated goals. This is done with a model known as an impact matrix, which is divided into four segments.
The classification of activities essential to ORM can depend on customer sentiment patterns in the content. Requesting the removal of offensive or inappropriate reviews from aggregator or third-party sites may be a fill-in if only a handful exist. But when inundated with such reviews, getting them taken down may result in a quick win.
Crafting a sound response to allegations and other issues is typically a big bet. Making one takes much time and effort and won't guarantee that the public will go along with the reply. That said, success on this front can give the business enough leeway to resolve the issue and maintain its standing in the market.
3 Channel analysis
The survey mentioned at the beginning also states that most people read reviews on Google. In fact, more people relied on the search engine giant last year than in the previous two to three years, with other sites like Yelp and Facebook seeing usage decreases. One possible factor is the ease of searching for reviews on Google, brought about by rich results.
However, these statistics don't always point businesses to the most widely used platform for communication. What if the majority of the negative publicity comes from, say, Facebook or Twitter? Even if it's the most widely used, responding via Google will have a limited reach.
It's important to assess where the bulk of the reviews are posted and weigh whether or not managing them is worth the resources and effort. On that note, prioritise reviews to reply to based on content, as replying to every review on the internet is a thankless task.
4 Feedback incentivisation
More customers leave reviews multiple times a month than those who do once a month or less often, but the difference is minuscule. As such, a business can have a sizeable customer base but not an equivalent number of reviews. Without enough reviews, a business is most likely to be ignored.
To increase the number of reviews, industry professionals advise offering incentives to those who leave a review. The most common examples include:
It's worth noting that Australian law requires incentives to be applicable for both positive and negative reviews, and incentivised reviews must be disclosed to other customers. Failing to do so can be tantamount to misleading conduct, prompting an investigation by authorities.
5 Search engine optimisation (SEO)
Businesses will struggle to grow if negative feedback ranks high in valuable search queries. This is because studies show that the top 10 results for most keywords receive around 86 per cent of clicks and that few users go beyond the top 10. It gets worse when negative feedback ranks at the top position, which can receive over a quarter of all organic clicks.
SEO assists in this regard by ranking helpful on-page and off-page content high, pushing the negative content deeper in the search results. The bad comments and reviews remain but will be in a part of the results list that most people don't explore. Even if customers come across them, they may lean toward the higher-ranked content and accept it as truth.
There are various ways to perform SEO, the most prevalent being guest posting or creating content for a third-party website. Some sites label guest posts as branded content, such as this one about considerations in choosing a dentist. Regardless, as long as readers find it helpful to their needs, the content can rank high in its keyword cluster.
The internet allows quick dissemination of messages, which also include negative or untoward comments and reviews. Businesses must be decisive about dealing with them, lest they risk having the negativity fester long enough to ruin their names. Proper ORM should be less about taking down such reviews and more about resolving issues in a professional manner.