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All About Reputation Management
(most) everything you need to know.
Overview of reputation management
What is reputation?
Reputation is the subjective qualitative belief a person has regarding a brand, person, company, product, or service.
Let’s start with the often asked question "what is a reputation?" The question is a straightforward one, but how it works can be confusing. 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 is 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.
Reputation is in the eye of the beholder
Ever hear of an “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 the Fanboy, the MacBook has a sterling and outstanding reputation. Do you agree?
Other people might not hold this high opinion of MacBook or Apple, the company that produced it. That's because reputation is subjective.
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.
To whom does reputation matter?
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:
- Regulatory agencies
...and the reputation they hold of your business matters when it comes to the practice of managing that reputation.
Search is the lens of reputation
There was a time when people decided the reputation of a brand or person through personal interaction. Google has supplanted that human behavior. People rely on first-hand research less and less today, opting to simply "google it" instead. Most people trust Google search results, so the most effective way of changing reputation is by changing the lens through which it is perceived - Google.
How can Google be changed? By giving it what it wants. That's right, the key to reputation management is knowing what Google wants, and what Google wants is (ostensibly) what people want. But people are drawn to illogical things. They're drawn to sensation over passion-free observation. People tend to follow the opinions of the crowd over common sense. Because of this, one of the key tools in the best reputation management consultants' tool belt is psychology. Create content that draws people in and satisfies them, promote it the right way, and Google responds. Search and social results respond. Reputation changes.
What is online reputation management?
Reputation management is the effort to influence online what and how people think of a brand or person.
If a reputation is a subjective belief, then what has reputation management got to do with anything? Can a company even manage a subjective and qualitative belief about themself?
As it turns out, yes. And, as it turns out further, 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:
Online reputation management extends to virtually every area of the business
Nothing in the business’s existence is outside the scope of reputation development.
- Facebook? Yep, pretty important.
- Online reviews? Definitely, even if the online reviews aren’t reliable.
- Hiring? Glassdoor, oh yeah.
- Firing? Have you ever googled “former Facebook” employees or something similar?
- Sales and revenue? Bloomberg and similar publishers care.
- A certain product? ProductHunt will slay you.
- Employees? They’re all on Facebook.
- And LinkedIn. Your CEO’s personal life? All over it.
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.
Reputation management is sales and marketing
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 brand profile development.
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.
Online reputation management is essential for a business’s survival.
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 easy to overcome. Often, before the damage can be fixed, the business bites the dust.
ORM is important both for personalities and businesses.
There are two primary candidates for reputation building and 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 profile building 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 reputation enhancement.
ORM is a legitimate and effective practice.
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?
Who’s in charge of an online reputation?
The entire universe of reputation 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:
- Content published on your website (“owned media”)
- Content posted on social media (also “owned media”)
- Information you release to journalists and thought leaders (partial control)
- The behavior of your employees and leadership (little 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:
- Negative news articles
- Negative online images
- Wikipedia entries and content
- Blog posts, both onsite and offsite
- Ripoff reports, scam sites, or other similar content
- Review sites, including Google, Yelp, and Facebook,
- Social media, both owned and non-owned
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 is reputation management for?
Who needs ORM companies? It’s tempting to pass off 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. Do 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 into 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:
- Local business/small businesses. Many of the businesses that are either destroyed or buoyed by online reviews are the little guys — local businesses, mom and pop establishments, or other similar boutique stores. The smaller the size, the greater their need for active online reputation management, since a small spate of negative reviews can crush their revenue.
- Startups. Startups are uniquely positioned as candidates for reputation services because their reputation is so new. This newness means that they have both an advantage (an unsullied reputation) and a disadvantage (no awareness that they exist).
- Large corporations. Most reputation management firms are medium to large businesses. The sheer size of such organizations — having employees in the hundreds to thousands — means that there are a lot of reputation risks, a lot of moving parts, and a lot of information to manage. When neglected, the companies reputation is in a highly tenuous position.
- Any business with an online presence. It’s hard to conceive of a business that doesn’t have an online impression. At the very least there’s a Facebook page, a directory citation, or a Google My Business listing. Whatever the scale, businesses with an online presence need to pay attention to how they are seen online.
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's 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.
- Politicians. Political reputation management is a fascinating field, but not for the faint of heart. Politics requires gloves-off, hard-hitting reputation management. The intensity gets so fierce to demolish or protect one’s reputation that even Wikipedia locks down relevant pages to forestall any mudslinging.
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.
- Business executives. Powerful leaders at the helms of big firms are often under attack for their lifestyle, decisions, or otherwise. You can believe that Richard Branson, Elon Musk, and Tim Cook aren’t slouching around when it comes to their online reputation.
- Entertainers. Most celebrity-status musicians or actors rely on a small, often full-time staff, of PR professionals and online reputation specialists to manage their online presence.
Basically, if you’re a celebrity, you're in need of reputation protection.
Why does reputation management matter?
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 whom 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 flourishes.
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 businesses 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.
How do you do online reputation management?
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.
Do the research
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 the 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 managing how people see them online. 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.
Develop a strategy
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.
Techniques used in reputation management
A reputation strategy can include some of the following techniques:
- Content suppression - It is possible to suppress negative search results by improving the SEO of other search results. This is known as a pushdown strategy, a suppression strategy, or just burying search results. If there’s a lot of negative stuff in the search results, you’ll want to engage in an aggressive effort to boost the relevance, reliability, and technical features of the content that should be appearing higher in the search results. When the good stuff rises in the search engine results pages (SERPs) then the bad stuff goes down, banished to the second or third page of Google where few people will see it.
- Content removal - In some rare cases, it is possible to have online content removed. The Right to Be Forgotten policy and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).
- Blog and content marketing - The cornerstone of a solid reputation strategy is creating owned media and allowing it to rank high in the search engines. This broad effort falls under the rubric of content marketing. The more owned content you are able to create, the more leverage you have in shaping your online reputation narrative.
- Social media content creation - Social media content is a huge part of your online reputation. Many people are using the search features within their preferred social media platform as their de facto research method. Often, such searches will surface hashtags (or "bashtags") that relate to your brand. The more active and present you are on all social media platforms, the better. For today’s brands, social media presence isn’t optional. It’s the main method of attracting customers and keeping the customer base informed.
- Influencer outreach - Sometimes, your brand’s own voice isn’t loud enough to be heard above the din of a sinking reputation. This is when it helps to call upon influencers, thought leaders, or other personalities who can help to spread news about your brand to combat a negative reputation story. Influencers are allies who have access to an audience and brand that is distinct from or complementary to your own audience and add credence and viability to your reputation narrative.
- Web property analysis - If your brand owns more than one web property, it’s worth checking to see if you can optimize them to gain more visibility in the search engines. Having multiple websites increases the chance that you can “own the SERPs” with additional websites ranking for a given search term.
- Wikipedia management - Wikipedia is one of the primary mediums of information that shapes a company’s reputation. Every brand and well-known personality must take an active role in monitoring and amending their Wikipedia entry
- Press releases - Press releases no longer have the SEO power that they once wielded, but they are an additional tool used for reputation management. They can be used to spread greater brand visibility and relevant news about your organization.
- Build brand mentions - Brand mentions occur anytime your brand or business appears online. Gaining brand mentions is a valuable form of online currency, since it increases your “brand signals,” thereby improving your visibility of search engine results.
- Review management - Review management is "de rigueur" for nearly every brand. Personal brands — e.g., individuals — are exempt from brand management, but virtually every other brand has some manifestation on a review site. Yelp, Facebook, Google, Amazon, all of these brands allow customers to rate your business and leave reviews. Building positive reviews to combat negative or neutral reviews is an essential part of every online brand management effort.
- SEO - Search engine optimization (SEO) is the science of improving content visibility in search results. Most SEO efforts are focused on owned media, since you have direct control over it, but SEO also gives due attention to search ranking factors such as link building and citation building.
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.
How long does online reputation take?
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 ORM campaign:
- The status of the business’s current reputation. Is it weak? Strong? Obliterated?
- The strength of competitors’ reputation. Going up against large and established companies takes time
- The ability to build links. Link building is a key feature in many ORM efforts, but it is a time-consuming process.
- The timeline for content publication. Content marketing, another major weapon in online reputation management, has a delayed fuse in terms of effectiveness. Even with the production and publication of high amounts of content, that content takes time to rank.
Let’s consider a few real-life examples, with the exact details shrouded 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 e-commerce 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.
How much does reputation management cost?
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 related to reputation management campaigns 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 a great financial cost.
Can I just do online reputation management myself?
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.
- Large to medium size business trying to recover from a damaged reputation. No. The stakes are too high. At the very least, get a strategic blueprint from someone who’s done this before. You may have the internal resource to carry on the project, but it will be all hands on deck until the storm quiets down.
- Large to medium size business trying to protect an already-good reputation, hire a reputation agency to give you a plan, then conduct the plan on your own. As long as you have internal resources such as developers, designers, content creators, SEOs, and social media managers, you should be able to carry out a plan internally.
- Small businesses trying to recover from a damaged reputation. Probably not. Again, anytime we’re dealing with major issues, it’s essential to reach out to agencies that have experience in dealing with these issues. For small businesses, it’s even more important, since small organizations typically do not have the personnel resources to devote to the effort of rebuilding a damaged reputation. It’s possible to learn any of these skills, however, if employees have the time to do so.
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.
“Reputation X has done an excellent job for our company. They deleted nearly all negative online content placed by a very active detractor, and pushed down the rest.”Ralph Serrano President | Safe Harbor Equity
"You will be glad to have Reputation X as a strategic partner."Rosemary Plorin CEO | Lovell