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."