Reputation management matters, but it's complex. This guide will help you navigate the world of reputation strategy in the online environment.
Online reputation — that intangible asset, that electronic chimera — is hard to assess let alone fix. And when it comes right down to the exact techniques to repair a reputation, many CMOs, publicists, or executives are downright nonplussed.
In order to understand how to build a reputation, you must first know your building materials. In the field of online reputation management, there are three main building materials — earned, paid, and owned content.
Note: I’ve used the word “content” to describe each of these three. The word “media” is also interchangeable.
Here is a helpful way to visualize them.
Each of these components are used by reputation management professionals to help shape an organization’s reputation, often using a combination of ORM, PR, and SEO. When used correctly, they can make a significant impact on your reputation. Let's dive a little deeper into each.
Earned content is the online information about your business that doesn't require you to pay for it or write it yourself. You can think of it as free publicity.
Online reviews fall into this category as well as social shares, re-posts of your content, and mentions of your brand. If you’re lucky, you may even get favorable coverage by a well-known media organization such as the New York Times or Wall Street Journal.
With the increased popularity of social media, earned content is more prevalent than ever before and has the ability to go viral. 53% of people recommend companies and products on Twitter and the average consumer mentions brands 90 times/week with family, friends and co-workers. That's a lot of potential earned media.
Owned content is the material you create yourself. The most common form of owned content is your own website, something over which you have total control. But your website only occupies one spot in search results. A blog separate from your website, for example, is also a powerful channel for owned content, as are your social media channels such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
All of the properties just mentioned are the "standard fare" of reputation management companies. Beyond those are the industry-specific types of owned media that are different for every industry space.
Establishing a strong presence across your owned content enables you to build a connection with your audience or consumers in an often cost-efficient way.
The final category, paid content, comes in the form of PPC (pay per click) advertising, display ads, paid social media promotion, content syndication, paid influencers, and all the other forms of content that require you to hand over your credit card number. Paid content is not less valuable than the other two forms of content, but it should be used in conjunction with them as part of your overall content strategy.Source
With those three building materials, an online reputation is formed. But there are other systems at play that, along with paid, owned, and earned content, heavily influence how a company is seen online. The most important is online search, closely followed by social media algorithms. But before we dig in, remember that the cornerstone of a good reputation strategy is quality. That's why we create the Reverse Wikipedia Strategy which helps to guide practitioners of ORM with a spam-free mindset.
Try as we may to be independent thinkers with the ability to research an issue and develop a viewpoint, our entire process of research and thinking is affected by the tools we use.
When we’re discussing online search, we might as well not be coy about it, and just call it Google. When people want to learn more about something, what do they do? They Google it. You do too... admit it.
Tools like Google have engineered biases (for lack of a better word) that can shape the viewpoints of their users. For a simple example, consider Google’s ability to know your location.
If you live in Miami, and search for “tacos near me,” you will not see results for Portland, Oregon. Google gives you the results it thinks you want to see.
As machine-learning goes, Google is pretty good. The algorithm has the ability to reward good content online, serve up fast results, understand what you’re most likely interested in, and even remember that for next time you search. This means that Google’s algorithm is constantly changing. Sometimes, the changes are massive. Sometimes, they’re minuscule. But it’s constantly evolving.
And yet people can "outsmart" Google. No, it’s not easy. And no, it’s not illegal. And, no, it’s not unethical either. As an AI-driven algorithm, smart people can create content that rises to the top of search engine results, thereby suppressing other results. But the way it's done is important.
This is one of the primary techniques that online reputation management companies and people will use to “remove” negative content (e.g., bad press) from the search engines. Sometimes bad press can be removed at the source, but not often.
We probably don’t talk about it enough — how social media is teaching us what to think. Just as Google has their own complex machine-learning algorithm, social media feeds have theirs as well.
For example, Facebook’s EdgeRank algorithm can be simplified and visualized thus:Source: spraguemedia
But the News Feed algorithm is run differently.
And these algorithms, too, are in constant flux.
In January 2018, Facebook announced that it would prioritize posts that spark conversations and meaningful interactions between people. This led to a need for businesses to create even more engaging content that encouraged commenting to show up on a person's news feed.
These algorithms learn from your social behavior — whose pictures you’re stalking, what things you search for, the pictures you like, and the content you post. It also learns about your friends and family, knowing that the people whom you’re connected to on social media possess an influence over your life.
Sounds kind of creepy, right? It’s not total Big Brother yet, but there are startling similarities. The point to be aware of is this — a business's online reputation is largely dependent on the vagaries of social media.
Let’s say a politician is experiencing a lot of publicity because she’s running for office. Is this publicity good or bad?
It depends. She’s a democrat. You lean left, and it’s no secret to Facebook. Therefore, the content you see on social media, trickling through from Vox and the New York Times certainly seems favorable to her.
But if you’re a republican, suggested to Facebook by the fact that you once liked Fox News’s Facebook page. Now, you’re seeing shared posts by your friends from influencers like Sean Hannity.
Moderates may see a mix of conservative and liberal updates, news articles, and shares in their feed.
These algorithms intuit your social, political, ethical, moral, and religious biases, and respond in kind. While they may not be able to switch up your religious preference or political tendency, they will serve to reinforce it through the psychological phenomenon of confirmation bias.
Earned, paid, and owned content are like the bricks of an online reputation. Google and social media algorithms are like the mortar, binding the bricks together in a certain way.
But unlike masonry, online reputation is flexible. It can be changed over time. So how do you actually change a reputation? You start with a strategy, and then execute it.
The process that follows is a framework. I’m not able to cross every t and dot every i. The specifics depend on your unique situation. But I can give you an outline to follow when repairing, shaping, or protecting an online reputation.
For sake of continuity, I’m going to assume that you, the reader, are the chief marketing officer (CMO) of a medium-sized business. Your mission is to shape a strategy for protecting (or improving) your company’s reputation.
Developing an online reputation management strategy is much like measuring corporate sentiment, discussed in a prior article. Some of the following material will be review. The section on creating a plan, however, goes beyond what was discussed in measuring corporate sentiment.
Your first task is one of research — Google search to be specific. In this phase, you will search for every iteration of your company name and product, and document the results.
The goal of the research stage is to get an accurate barometer of your corporate sentiment. What is your corporate reputation? Are most people satisfied with your company? Is there an overwhelming amount of negative reviews? Pay careful attention to the following and record them in a spreadsheet or document:
In this step, you should go straight to you web browser and open a private search window so your searches will be less influenced by your cache or browser history.
Here is what to search for:
Social research could take you down a rabbit hole of troll-hunting and comment-sniffing, but the goal here is simply to identify positive coverage, negative coverage, similar companies, and any industry influencers.
To do social research, follow the following process:
Next, you’ll want to take a look at all the review sites that may cover you. Which review sites you have a presence on depends on your industry, but here are the common ones:
Based on the preceding research process, you should have a list (or should already know) some of your competitors. Follow the same process to research your competitors. This is a powerful revelatory process that will deepen your insight into your industry and help you to establish greater objectivity as you move into the assimilation phase of your strategy.
If you have several dozen competitors, it’s not necessary to exhaustively research all of them. Instead, be aware of each of them, and research only the top five or a representative sampling.
Again, your goal is to gain an understanding of your company’s corporate sentiment and, in response, create a list of positive coverage, negative coverage, similar companies, and industry influencers.
Once you have a thorough understanding of your corporate sentiment, you have everything that you need for the assimilation phase.
In this phase, you will ask a series of questions of the information you’ve collected in the preceding step. You may not have clear answers to each of the questions, but you should be able to pencil in ideas that will point you to a final strategy.
The helpful thing about the strategy-creation process is that it is organic — the answers emerge, but they don’t necessarily pop out, as with a successful Excel formula. You’ll begin to understand the strategy as you analyze the information.
In this final phase of reputation strategy, you will assemble a list of action items for each of four categories. These categories roughly parallel the strategic planning technique known as the SWOT analysis.Source
If you are familiar with the process of a SWOT analysis, I’ve included the associated SWOT label with each of my categories.
Identify the single most damaging factor in your reputation, and create a list of remedies. This point should come first, especially for an organization that has suffered from some reputation misadventure.
Example: Your brand has an average of two-star reviews, stemming from a failed product launch six months ago. This is your weak point, and it should be addressed immediately.
Address these remedies in a serial manner (one by one). The reputation strategies created by Reputation X are serial in design, often spreadsheets with actions to be taken in order.
Identify your content or intangible assets that are the strongest in terms of reputation. Implement the successful strategy for other content channels. Focus on the techniques that would produce the greatest improvement to your reputation. List out the techniques and address them in a serial manner.
Example: Your brand’s Facebook page has a massive following and rabidly loyal fans. Use the same processes, publishing schedule, content, etc., to amplify other social media channels, your blog, etc.
Every brand has some risks to their reputation. Determine what areas are most vulnerable to a reputation attack and create a plan to strengthen those properties.
Example: Your brand’s website does not appear on page 1 of the search results for branded terms (like your company or product name), leaving you with essentially no owned content on page 1. A likely strategic action would be to improve your website’s SEO.
Select the one competitor with the best reputation, and mimic their activities to achieve similar results. Most brands have at least one brand that has a stronger search presence, better reviews, or a more robust social strategy. Select a brand that has an outstanding presence in any one of these categories and reverse engineer the techniques that produced success.
Example: Your competitor, Acme 123, has brand mentions in high-profile publications such as Forbes and Inc. By carefully examining their process, you identify a handful of contributors who frequently mention and link to brands. You decide to pitch these writers for information on getting a brand mention.
A reputation strategy is a detailed plan for online profile improvement. It involves imagining an eventual "ideal" profile, adjusting for what is possible, and then creating a step-by-step plan to accomplish those goals.
At the beginning of an engagement, we work with clients to imagine what a "perfect" Wikipedia page might look like in the future. This is a form of visualization for both the client and our ORM team. Even if a Wikipedia page isn't part of the ultimate goal, the act of imagining what a great one might look like informs us as to the publications, messaging, search engine best practices, and content that would be referenced in a Wikipedia page.
We use Wikipedia as the source of this inspiration because a well-developed page is fact-based and peer-reviewed. It tells the story of a brand, often the good, the bad, and the ugly. At the bottom of a Wikipedia page reference. Those references have a tendency to appear in the search and social results. The Reverse Wikipedia Strategy enables clients and staff to visualize the brand story, as well as the online publications that will need to be developed along the way.
The Reverse Wikipedia Strategy helps us to block out the milestones in service of the most immediate goal. Here are a few of the sub-strategies that go into fulfilling a goal.
The suppression strategy pushes bad results down in search listings by helping both new and existing content that is good move up. New content, web properties, images, and reviews are all developed to increase a brand’s positive image. The best content is then promoted using modern search engine marketing methods including SEO (a tool of ORM) and outreach with reputable websites. Over time, negative sentiments are overwhelmed and suppressed in favor of better, more relevant content.
Sometimes we can remove search results altogether from a web page. This is often the case with sites like Complaints Board, Scam Group, YouTube, The Dirty, and others. This is often due to a Terms of Service violation, or a relationship we can leverage to our client's advantage.
Articles on local newspapers are also often candidates for removal, as are personal blogs. Web page removal can happen at the source, or, under certain circumstances, from Google directly.
An online reputation protection strategy works to defend your brand’s reputation by creating useful content and publishing it in publications that are topically relevant to your customers and of high domain authority (influencers). The "strength" of those sites on search engines help protect your search results against future negativity bias while the links, mentions, and shares further strengthen positive online content.
A review management strategy generally involves engaging real customers who have interacted with your brand and encouraging or incentivizing them to post reviews. We work with existing review trends to gently support an improvement in star ratings over time.
In the event negative reviews already exist, we craft responses that respectfully problem solve and aim to inspire a reviewer to change their mind. These efforts can have big rewards—a study of the restaurant industry found that a one-star increase in a business’s Yelp rating can lead to a 5-9% increase in revenue.
You can’t fix what you don’t know about, which is why a large part of any reputation strategy we implement involves tracking mentions of the brand online. We’re able to help our clients identify a problem before potential problems overwhelm the brand.
We use a variety of tools to monitor mentions on search listings, review websites, and social media platforms. These tools also allow us to track how certain content campaigns are performing, increasing efforts or changing direction as needed.
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