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Online reputation management (ORM) is one of the most powerful forces available to modern businesses and personalities. Beyond the veneer of high-valued companies, the sexy allure of game changing products, and the magnetic appeal of business celebrities, online reputation management holds sway as possibly the most influential yet understated capabilities that a business possesses.
The quality of a corporate reputation can predict a business’s demise or devastation. The difference of one star in a business’s online reviews can mean a difference in millions of dollars. A CEO’s reputation can plunge her business into global disgrace or skyrocket the business to worldwide renown.
It all comes down to reputation. And that reputation is formed or destroyed online.
But what is reputation? And how does reputation work? And what’s involved? Is reputation management even effective? Does your business need it? How much does it cost? How long does it take?
What you’re reading now is the single most comprehensive answer to every important question regarding online reputation management. To make this guide as helpful as possible, we’ve assembled nine of the most commonly asked questions on reputation management and developed succinct yet in-depth answers.
Let’s start at the very beginning — what is a reputation? The question is a straightforward one, but answering it can be complex. Nonetheless, it is essential to understand the essence of a reputation before we can expect to form, repair, or protect a reputation.
Here is a working definition. Reputation is the subjective qualitative belief a person has regarding a brand, person, company, product, or service.
To put it in a simpler form, reputation is what people think about who you are. It may be the reputation of an individual, a business, or even a product or service that a business produces.
Let’s not skip over that word subjective, because it communicates one of the most troubling aspects of reputation management.
A reputation is a person’s subjective belief — belonging only to one’s self and shaped by that person’s ideas, feelings, and past experiences. What this means is that there is no single unambiguous reputation of a company or person. There are a disparate number of reputations, each varying according to the person who holds that reputation in his or her mind.
Let’s consider an example. What comes to your mind when you think of Macbook? The Macbook computer is one of Apple’s products. As such, it possesses a reputation.
There exist a certain type of person known as the “Apple Fanboy.” The Apple fanboy is characterized by a rabid devotion to Apple products.
The fanboy probably considers the Macbook to be a glorious form of technology, worthy of adulation, purchase, and respect. After all, didn’t the company cross the trillion-dollar threshold?
For Fanboy, the Macbook has a sterling and outstanding reputation.
Other people don’t hold this high opinion of Macbook or Apple, the company that produced it.
This group of people may view Apple as a greedy, selfish, monopolistic, anti-government, environment-destroying, poverty-exploiting corporate ogre, turning the world into a worse place, one software update at a time.
It’s important to understand this subjective aspect of reputation, since managing your reputation involves understanding your business’s reputation from different angles. Your reputation involves certain shareholders — groups of people who have a vested interest in your company. They may be:
...and the reputation they hold of your business matters when it comes to the practice of managing that reputation.
Bear in mind that reputation is also qualitative. Like the word subjective, it may feel as if qualitative muddies the definitional waters. But here’s why qualitative matters. Issues of quality are distinct from issues of fact.
When someone forms a reputation, that reputation does not consist of mere facts about a company. Yes, undoubtedly, those facts influence the formation of a reputation, but the reputation does not itself consist of facts.
The reputation is about feelings and qualities. “Bad,” “good,” suspicious,” “greedy,” “monopolistic,” “sympathetic” — those are qualitative terms, the kind of words you hear when people describe a corporate or personal reputation.
This is not a statement of reputation: “Apple was founded on April 1, 1976 and their current stock price is $208.71.”
This is a statement of reputation: "Apple is a cruel and monopolistic corporation."
This is also a statement of reputation: Apple is a positive force for innovation, progress, and healing in the world today.
Which reputation is the correct one? That’s like asking, which is correct — 1 or 2? Um. Both? Neither? Yes? Sure? Maybe?
A reputation like an individual’s fingerprint is his or hers alone. You can’t steal it, replicate it, call it untrue, or call it true. It is what it is. And that’s what makes online reputation management so infuriating, fascinating, and important.
So what does it mean to manage that reputation?
If a reputation is a subjective belief, then what has online reputation management got to do with anything? Can a company even manage an subjective and qualitative belief about them?
As it turns out, yes. And, as it turns out further, online reputation management is a highly complex, incredibly sophisticated, but always an influential billion dollar industry for a lot of very good reasons.
Let’s start with that definition of online reputation management:
Reputation management is the effort to influence online what and how people think of a brand or person.
Now, let’s trace out a few implications of this definition:
Nothing in the business’s existence is outside the scope of online reputation management.
A business’s reputation is that business. The reputation determines whether the business will sell, hire, exist, implode, or prosper.
If the reputation sucks, the business sucks. That’s as simple as it gets.
If you’re looking for a taxonomy of online reputation management, let’s put it in sales and marketing space. The online reputation of a company is often managed by a CMO (Chief Marketing Officer) who heads up other teams — social media, SEO, online advertising, PR, etc. Each of these teams or skill groups has a part to play in online reputation management.
But a company’s reputation is obviously much larger than a mere department, C-level executive, or team of SEOs. A reputation has to do with all the events, news, reports, social media posts, actions and inactions of its employees, commentators, leadership, and the occasional news blurb.
Does this business above suck? Yes, it does. Because the reviews suck. We could just as easily swap out App store reviews, Amazon reviews, Facebook reviews, or Yelp reviews. All reviews matter.
When a business has a high concentration of low or one-star reviews, it means something: the business sucks. And when a business publicly sucks, few people will choose to do more business with it. Why risk it? It’s a ploy. It’s a scam. Run.
Reputation challenges like this are not not easy to overcome. Often, before the damage can be fixed, the business bites the dust.
There are two primary candidates for online reputation management — businesses of any kind and people with high public profiles. (Think famous or infamous people.) It’s important for everyone, regardless of status, rank, or notoriety, to engage in their own online reputation management efforts, but doing so usually does not require the services of an ORM agency.
The stakes are high, however, for businesses or people whose personality or reputation constitutes a business. These people may be executives of major corporations, entertainers, athletes, or politicians.
Businesses are the main clientele for ORM services. Most medium sized businesses have an entire team of people devoted to the task. It’s called the “marketing department.” The people who write copy, post to Facebook, do SEO, and craft marketing messages are the reputation guardians of the company, often with a CMO at the helm. Smaller companies may not have departments, but they certainly engage in online reputation management.
Though some have tried to besmirch the reputation of online reputation management, the truth is that online reputation is an ethical, important, and reputable industry. Like any other industry, there are nefarious practitioners, but the profession is a necessary and legitimate one, just like lawyers, politicians, and purveyors of pre-owned vehicles.
Without online reputation, how would you know what local pizza joint serves up the freshest pies, whether or not your vacation hotel has clean sheets and no cockroaches, and whether to splurge $39 on that hardback book you’ve heard so much about? From TripAdvisor comments to Airbnb host ratings, the world runs on the necessary and helpful field of reputation management.
But this introduces a whole new question — who’s really in charge of a business’s reputation? If it’s truly subjective, then why, how, or what does a reputation management agency really do?
The entire universe of online reputation management seems to disintegrate before your very eyes when you ask yourself this question — who’s in charge of an online reputation? Can a reputation be controlled?
There is, admittedly, a spectrum of answers. On the far end of the spectrum, there are those who say that a business can’t control the reputation, period. It’s up to the whims and vagaries of a deterministic force or individuals’ unique perspectives. On the other hand, some people may testify that a business controls the totality of their reputation, shaping with extreme care the publication and perception of news and information.
Here’s the truth. A brand or individual has very limited control over their reputation. Here’s a way to visualize it.
What people think is based on what people see. All you can control is what people see. You lack control over how those people respond, what they think, how their experience shapes that thinking, and whether or not their arthritis is acting up that day.
Although this control is limited, it is nonetheless very meaningful. You control, in part at least, the source of the reputation — where it all begins.
Here are some examples of reputation-shaping information over which you may possess some level of control:
You’re in charge of your reputation, to a degree. Therefore, it’s plausible to assume that reputation can be managed, to a degree. Reputation management consultants, agencies, and advisors, will help to address the following types of information:
All of these elements (and a whole lot more) go into the shaping of an online reputation. How people interact with that information is totally up to them, but you do have a role in what, how, and where the information is released.
Who needs online reputation management? It’s tempting to pass of a blithe “everyone,” especially since we stand to benefit from additional clients. And the truth is, yes, everyone should take an active role in their personal reputation management.
Personal reputation management is a task that most people with a modicum of technological awareness can take on themselves. You know how to use a computer? Create a Facebook account? Manage your LinkedIn profile? Then you’re basically set, and won’t need to pay a fee for this service to an online reputation management company.
However, online reputation management clients fall in two large categories — businesses and personalities.
Every business, regardless of size or industry, should give attention to their online reputation. Here are some representative examples of such businesses:
Depending on the particular angle of the reputation management company, businesses comprise 75-95% of an ORM agency’s clients.
Some people have reputations that are larger than life, and these reputations are in desperate need of management. An individual, simply by force of position or personality, can spark his or her reputation. The reputation may take on Paul Bunyan proportions while the individual is lilliputian in character. Such a reputation needs management.
Here are some typical personalities that stand in need of online reputation management services.
A politician's reputation (which doesn't always square with their character) is one of their most prized assets, and is leveraged to win elections or mismanaged to lose elections.
Basically, if you’re a celebrity, you stand in need of online reputation management.
Online reputation matters because business matters. Businesses exist to earn revenue (and, yes, “make the world a better place.” The only way they can do this is to attract customers and sell products or services.
The only way that they can attract customers and sell products and services is by possessing a good reputation. In our modern economic and political landscape characterized by free markets and capitalism, reputation is how a business stays in business. Exceptions notwithstanding, consumers get to choose who they do business with.
If Store A has a bad reputation, the consumer can choose Store B with a good reputation. Store A struggles. Store B flourshies.
A quick illustration should help to put a point on this point. A Harvard Business Review working paper claims with the evidence to back it up that “a one-star increase in Yelp rating leads to a 5-9% increase in revenue.”
This is one data-driven example that can stand in for hundreds of thousands of business that also receive consumer reviews in the form of star ratings. Let’s take the random example of a high-end children’s boutique clothing store on Elm Street in Anytown USA.
Let’s say your job is to sell smocked dresses and knickers to the well-heeled parents of adorable children in Augusta.
But in reality, you’re also fretting over your Facebook rating that is teetering between a 5-star and a 4-star, worried about that caustic two-star review on Google, and nibbling your nails over a stuck Yelp rating that won’t increase.
Your business is at the mercy of these reviews. It is impossible in today’s age to create anything — be it a business, book, video, app, or product of any kind — and for it to escape ratings.
Maybe you’re an independent author. All you want to do is live a quiet life, write books, and make a decent living. You self-publish your book on Amazon, and instantly it is critiqued by the masses, reviewed, and commented on.
What if you go indie and self publish the books without using Amazon as an intermediary? Then someone will put your book on Goodreads, share, and the reviewing commences. You can’t escape it.
Today’s consumer seeks and finds information online. The only logical thing for businesses to do is to manage the output and appearance of that information in order to protect their reputation.
Reputation management is outstanding in theory. You’re shaping, manipulating, curating, creating, and publishing information online in order to restructure and revise your reputation.
The reality of the matter is, reputation management is a lot of hard work, a lot of hit-and-miss, and takes a lot of time. Here’s a rough sketch of the process we follow when working on a business or individual’s online reputation.
The goal in the research phase is to measure the corporate sentiment and understand the reputation landscape. We want to understand what your reputation is like, what people think of you, what content is being published about you, and what kind of results branded search queries will return.
The bulk of this research simply involves Google. You’ll search for phrases and see what appears. What websites rank first? What social media feeds are displayed. What Wikipedia articles appear? What featured snippets are visible above the fold? What kind of star ratings do searchers see?
Research always uncovers the key stakeholders in your reputation plan. Remember, there is no such thing as a monolithic reputation. Your business’s reputation is as varied as the people who hold a reputation of your company. It’s important, therefore, to classify these people in general groups, known as stakeholders.
Some stakeholders might be your business’s target audience — the customers. What do they care about? How do they search? What search phrases are they using? What types of reputation information do they see? What about prospective employees? What do they see about your company when they google the brand name, search Glassdoor, or read about you on LinkedIn?
You must consider your reputation through the eyes of each stakeholder, the questions they are asking, the things they care about, and the methods that they are using to access information online.
The research phase also requires that we find your competitors that are doing a great job of online reputation management. When the research phase is complete, we will have a list of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats that will guide us in developing an online reputation management strategy.
When you’ve finished, you’ll have an online reputation audit of sorts. You’ll understand how you’re positioned and what it takes to improve.
Creating a plan of action comes next. Developing this strategy obviously depends on what was uncovered in the research phase, specifically what is the major reputation problem that the business or individual is facing.
A reputation strategy can include some of the following techniques:
A comprehensive strategy usually selects some or all of the above techniques, rolls them into a schedule, and begins implementing the reputation repair or defense strategy.
Reputation management is part SEO, part content, part social, part public relations and even part psychology. Properly strategized and expertly executed reputation management can completely reshape a brand’s identity online.
The short answer is ten months to five years. The more nuanced answer is that it depends on the nature of the problem, the severity of that problem, and the ultimate goal.It should be clear to those who understand the SEO industry that it takes a long time to improve search rankings. When you throw reputation in the mix, that timeline can become protracted.
Here are some of the features that can affect the timeline of an online reputation management contract:
Let’s consider a few real-life examples, with the exact details shourded to protect client confidentiality.
Mandate: Release information about the opposing candidate that would place him in a favorable position to win the election.
Time required: Four months
Outcome: Won the election
In this case, our client was able to engineer what seemed like a last-minute release of information that revealed the truth of the opposing candidate in the week before the election. The information release happened over the course of only 48 hours, but it took a seven-person team four months of research, content creation, planning, and preparation to pull it off.
Client: Local insurance agency
Mandate: Recover from having a 2-star rating on Google for over a year
Time required: 12 months
Outcome: 4.5 star rating
A local insurance agency was reeling from receiving an overall 2-star rating on Google after the former president of the agency was rude to clients on the phone and created a toxic work environment where his reps were also rude. The agency had only a small handful of four- and five-star reviews and dozens of angry one- and two-star reviews. A thorough review management strategy used email marketing and other tools to regain the trust of old customers and build the trust of new customers, eventually earning a 4.5 star rating. This level of reputation management effort required substantial amounts of time, since it is nearly impossible (let alone advisable and/or ethical) to game the review algorithms. Twelve months was an impressive timeline considering the severity of the reputation damage to begin with.
Client: Ecommerce site selling pet accessories
Mandate: Recover from allegations of using toxic plastics in leashes, collars, and other pet paraphernalia
Time required: 6 months
Outcome: Little to no trace of the online discussions directed at the ecommerce site
Our client came under fire for accidentally selling non-BPA free pet products online. The site claimed to use only BPA-free plastics. However, when a customer’s pet became sick it was found out that the company had at least one shipment where the product claims were false. This led to a widespread social media revolt against the online business. After investigation, it was determined that the pet’s illness was not due to the product in question. Furthermore, there was only a single shipment of that particular product. Nonetheless, a bashtag movement took root and spread on Twitter, Reddit, pet forums, and niche pet social media sites. By suppressing content and abating the conflagration on social media, we were able to resolve the issue and restore the company’s reputation.
Some large corporations may fight reputation battles that linger for years. A small business may be able to clean up a reputation issue in just a few months.
Be it known, however, that reputation management is not a snap-your-fingers-and-clean-it-up affair. True reputation specialists know that creating content and optimizing websites and individual pages is measured in months, not days.
Again, the most accurate answer depends on the specifics of the situation.
Truly effective reputation management is not an inexpensive task, especially when the reputation management company is asked to repair a damaged reputation. Reputation management efforts usually involve dozens of professionals — SEO specialists, copywriters, social media experts, content marketing strategists, not to mention project leads and managers.
One of the biggest costs in online reputation management is the production of content. Content marketing comprises one of the most expensive and ongoing costs, but the quality of that content also plays a role in cost. Excellent content costs a lot, but these costs are recouped because the brand’s reputation improves much quicker. Poorly written content, by contrast, is actually more expensive because it produces sluggish reputation improvement.
When asking the question, “Can we afford it,” it’s also a good time to ask “what are the consequences of not doing this.” As stated above, neglecting a damaged corporate reputation is tantamount to jeopardizing the entire business.
A business with its reputation in tatters is hemorrhaging vast amounts of lost revenue in opportunity cost, talent acquisition, and market share. The amount of bottom line sacrificed would be, if it calculated in a numerical figure, shocking.
Anything that can be done to save the company should be done, even at great financial cost.
Again, the answer varies. Here is an answer for individuals and businesses.
If you are a person of modest ambition and relative ordinary status, sure. You can handle your own social media profiles, create a placeholder domain name for yourself, and make sure you don’t get into any public spats that aren’t worth fighting.
If, by contrast, pundits argue about you on television, national periodicals feature your face on their covers, and you’ve been the exclusive subject of New York Times articles, then you probably should hire someone to help you out.
Businesses, more often than individuals, must combat the effects of fake news and blistering or heartless online reviews. Most of the time, such management should be assigned to the expertise of people who have fought these demons before.
Reputation management matters. In large part, today’s businesses live and thrive, or shrivel and die based on their reputation. Reputations exist in the mind of shareholders, the customers, clients, employees, applicants, investors, or others who have an interest in the business. But that reputation can and should be managed.
If you are interested in taking an active role in your online reputation management, set a meeting for a free consultation.