By Michael F. Carmichael
Sept. 12, 2013
“Never argue with someone who buys ink by the barrel,” Mark Twain never said. The same thought holds true, however - and more so, actually - when it’s not ink, but electrons, and they’re free. Delta Airlines found this out recently when a series of misadventures on the part of the airline’s staff caused Kara Swisher, an editor at The Wall Street Journal, to miss a connecting flight. She kept all of her 900,000 Twitter followers apprised of each and every instance where Delta screwed up. Jet Blue took notice and tried to help. Other airlines followed suit.
That’s a problem that is now being faced not only by humungous airlines but also by small businesses of every sort. From the dry cleaner down the street who broke a shirt button on the shirt you just put on for a client meeting you were already late for, to the garage mechanic who left a lugnut in your hubcap, to the fast-food franchisee whose minimum-wage counter person got an order wrong - people are talking about the businesses they deal with in ways that never were possible in the days of letters to the editor.
But who has time to keep track of every opportunity on Twitter, Yelp, Angie’s List, the local Patch and countless other online outlets for hacked-off consumers or former employees or even competitors to say things - bad or even good - about your business?
That’s where a new industry called Online Reputation Management comes in. ORM covers “anything that exists about a business or individual on the Web is classified as a part of their online reputation,” says Brent Franson, a vice president of Reputation.com. Reputation.com is one of the leaders in this emerging field.
Reviews and rankings
While there are many ways a company’s reputation can be expressed online - their own website, Facebook page or tweets -Franson says, “the biggest lever for actually impacting revenue and impacting the performance of a small business is probably reviews.”
How important are online reviews? A recent Pew Research study shows that 60 percent of Americans report they do online research before making a purchase. That jumps to 72 percent among those making $75,000 or more. So keeping track of those sites is critical.
Nearly three out of four consumers say they trust the online reviews they read as much as word of mouth from people they know. More than half say that positive online reviews make them more likely to use a local business, according to industry research.
Franson, who’s been with Reputation.com since its founding some seven years ago, says one thing that surprises him about consumer behavior is the amount of trust consumers place in online reviews. “I would have thought that they would have taken them with a degree of salt, thinking that they might have been posted by an employee or a competitor.” Obviously that’s not the case.
How much difference does a ranking on a rating site make to a company’s bottom line? A recent Harvard Business School study showed that - on sites that ranked businesses with stars or something similar - one star makes a 5- to 9-point impact on revenue. That’s one star up - or down. With small business operating margins usually south of those numbers, that’s huge.
Franson says that Reputation.com “does a lot of work with automotive, and [a rating star] can be a 30 percent impact on revenue.” He explains that those results are based on dealerships, not the manufacturers. “Dealerships with a 3.5 star rating or less got 30 percent fewer leads than those with a higher rating.”
There is a disconnect, though, between online reputation and offline (read: real life human interaction). “What the true reputation of a particular location might be often is not reflected online, so the business is being unfairly hurt by the online reputation,” Franson explains.
Why is that? “If your average customer is satisfied,” they don’t go online to say so. But, “it’s only the ones who have had a bad experience, those are the ones who are talking online; your business is being hurt by something that you don’t deserve. If your online reputation is great and that’s helping you, that’s great and you deserve it. If it’s bad and you’re a bad business, and that’s hurting you, good.” The disconnect comes, says Franson, when “the average offline experience at your business is really good, but you’re just not sophisticated at managing your online reputation and so the online reputation is not reflective of reality.”
That’s where ORM comes into play.
“Our job is to put tools in place for a small business to use technology to simplify everything. ‘Here are the things that matter, here are the review sites [for your kind of business] that matter and we’re going to let you know when you receive new reviews, we’re going to put it all in one place. You’re already trying to pull 36 hours out of a 24 hour day so we want to make it as simple as possible.’ We then give those small businesses the tools and guidance that informs them on the best way to insure that their real reputation, their offline reputation, is reflected online.”
A technical balancing act
Michael Zammuto is president of another ORM company, Brand.com. He says that his small business clients “are surprised at the volume of people searching online for them every day. If you only know how many people are visiting your website you’re losing a big part of how well your marketing is translating into revenue. When our clients search for themselves and put themselves in the position of a potential customer who’s researching their product or service, what they see are not the things they want them to see. The Internet makes up a larger part of the presales process than people expect. There’s more of that going on than people, particularly small business owners, realize.
With so many people going online to use a search engine such as Google, Bing or Yahoo to look for a business with which they want to interact, there is a relationship between where a business shows up in the search results and its online reputation. Franson says, “When we started this space [ORM] people would call us and say that ‘when my business is Googled, or my name is Googled, there’s something I don’t like that’s appearing.’ It could be a blog post, a newspaper article, whatever - it’s something they don’t like-¦”
So, early on in the nascent ORM business the goal was to push the “something” down far enough in the search engine results that it hopefully ended up on the second page - where few consumers bother to look. This was accomplished by a flood of positive, or at least “newsworthy” content that was more recent and thus higher in the ranks.
A few, less scrupulous, ORM companies would post negative comments about a potential customer, often on a fabricated website, then - for a fee of several hundred dollars - offer to scrub the comments from the search engine results. This would then get repeated with a different fabricated website and another scrubbing charge.
Today, professional organizations, such as Reputation.com, and competitors such as Brand.com, take a holistic approach to managing a company’s online reputation.
“While you want to ‘own’ your search results and ensure that the first ten are an accurate reflection of your business, that’s only one side of the coin,” says Franson. “The other side is the review sites. You want to ensure that there are lots of reviews and that they are reflective of reality. That’s not the publishing of positive content to influence the search engines, but putting campaigns in place to ask your customers to post reviews and giving them links to make it easier to do that. There’s that propensity for people who are satisfied to not go out of their way to post online. It’s the folks who aren’t happy or who are very happy that do tend to post reviews - it’s the silent majority whose average experience is not being shared.”
Brand.com’s Zammuto explains that there’s one thing small business owners don’t want to do is try to counter a less than favorable review. “Don’t try and debate a negative comment on Yelp because it then moves it higher up in the rankings and is counter-productive.
Franson says, “There’s a really interesting relationship between review sites and SEO (Search Engine Optimization) that’s often overlooked. Yelp has a relationship with Apple maps, so if you’re pulling up something on Apple maps the Yelp reviews are going to be displayed pretty prominently.” The same kind of relationship holds true with other mapping services and other review sites, Franson continues. “So there is a very direct relationship between visibility in local searches and local businesses. We see this with doctors, with convenience stores, with big boxes.”
How do review sites then impact search results on a map? Franson explains it this way. “Say I’m at soccer practice and I need to get to my doctor appointment. I have a relationship with him, I see him twice a year so I don’t need reviews about him. I ask my iPhone for directions to his office. Up pop reviews about him - positive or negative - that I wasn’t even looking for. They’re just displayed in connection with the map functionality. My doctor could be losing patients he’s had for years because they’re seeing one or two reviews that are not representative of reality.”
It can get worse. If you’re looking for a business category, but not a specific name in that category, Franson says that algorithms built into the map applications’ search function take into account not only the most recent reviews, but the most positive reviews when deciding, as he puts it, “to drop the pin in” the map’s search results for a particular business. “These local searches are vital to small business.”
“We’re still in the early stages of this [ORM],” Franson reminds us. “We’re trying to say online reputation matters. But that’s just the catching-up stuff, and not the getting-out-ahead-of-everybody-else stuff. For most small businesses my recommendation is focusing on having a good presence on these online review sites.”
There’s a cautionary aspect to having good reviews according to Franson. “You don’t want to ask for a positive review, you don’t want to incentivize customers to post a good review and don’t post reviews on your own website. You just want to be very straightforward and say that online reputation matters and you’d really appreciate it if they’d share their honest feedback.” He explains that Reputation.com uses technology and shares strategies with its customers to help accomplish that.
Does the attempt at changing customer behavior, the ‘silent majority’ who don’t post online reviews, actually work? Franson says it does, “when you put these programs in place people tend to go out of their way to post and it’s because of the relationships. ‘Even though the drycleaner experience was what I expected, the person was nice that rang me up. They remembered my name.’ When you simply ask and tell your customers it matters, there is a meaningful percentage of them that says, ‘yeah, I understand that and I’m willing to do that.'”
Brand.com also offers a number of free tools for do-it-yourself ORM in the hopes that if a small business finds something that’s problematic they’ll turn to Brand.com for professional assistance.
Zammuto says one reason for getting that professional assistance is because “if you want to severely damage a small business you can do it in a couple hours for a couple hundred bucks. You go online and buy ‘JohnSmithCorpSucks.com’ or JohnSmithCorp.net (if it’s available) and you put up a site and put bad stuff on it. Then you set up a couple of free social media sites and you criticize [the real JohnSmithCorp.com’s] services and products. If you position yourself as a former customer you can say almost anything you want as long as it’s not libelous in any way. Go on Yelp and give them a 1-star review and say they’re horrible people. You can do a surprising lot of damage to someone pretty quickly.”
Whether you work with someone like Reputation.com or want to do your own ORM - or some of each - the point is that there’s a lot more about you on the Internet than you probably realize and that you need to pay attention to it. Be proactive. Keep your company website up to date, add new content frequently and don’t have customer reviews on it. Set up a Google news-bot to search for your company’s name whenever it’s mentioned on the Web. Know when, and how, to seek that outside help.