Never has the opinion of the individual been as powerful as it is today. One negative blog post or product review can spread online in a flash and change the direction of a company. Need proof? See Jeff Jarvis’ 2005 blog post, Dell lies. Dell sucks, which created the “Dell Hell” phenomenon and forced the company to make big changes to how it interacts with its customers.
We’re doing business in an era when search engines appear to be putting greater value on blogs and user-generated content; when customers are more likely to trust the unfettered comments of their peers; and when anyone unfamiliar with who you are and what you do is likely to type your name into a search engine and “Google” you. That’s why reputation management is near the top of the SEO Success Pyramid. If you hope to succeed online over the long haul, what other people say about you matters. A lot.
What About Small Businesses?
Sure, you say, big companies like Dell — of course they need to do reputation management. But not me. Not my small business. Nobody blogs about my company, or the products I sell. Nobody leaves reviews about me on the web. I’m too small.
I might’ve agreed with you five years ago, but not today. Consider the case of a local car dealership in my hometown, one of a couple Ford dealers I could choose from if I’m buying that make. If I go to Google and do a search for Ford dealers in this area, I’ll get some Google Maps results with a couple customer reviews featured prominently:
Two bad reviews. And what makes it worse for this dealer is that very few other car dealers in this area have reviews, so just the fact that this dealer has reviews — negative or not — means they appear higher in the SERPs. Ouch.
Compare that with the reviews for this small bike shop in my area:
The point is that people are talking about small businesses online — even local car dealerships and small bike shops.
Small Businesses are Catching On to Reputation Management
Slowly but surely, the idea of small business reputation management is taking hold. Proactive small business owners are learning to manage their reputation on review sites like Yelp. This is new territory for many small businesses, and traditional media occasionally picks up on the idea — sometimes reporting the good and sometimes the bad.
- Good: USA Today recently wrote about the impact of reviews on a small business’s online reputation.
- Bad:In the San Francisco area, some restaurants are learning reputation management the hard way: They’re having to give away free food or risk having their online reputation trashed.
Good or bad, I hope the message is clear for small business owners: It’s time to pay attention to what’s being said online about your company, your industry, and your products or services.
A Quick Interview: Andy Beal
Andy Beal is one of the leading reputation managment experts in the world; he (literally) wrote the book on this topic: Radically Transparent: Monitoring and Managing Reputations Online, co-authored with Dr. Judy Strauss, is an absolute must-read for businesses of all sizes. The book makes the case for why monitoring online reputation is necessary, and offers specific strategies and tactics for building a great reputation across the Internet.
While putting together this article, I emailed a few questions to Andy about small businesses and online reputations. Here’s what we talked about:
Matt McGee: I’ve had small business owners tell me that reputation management is only for big companies. What’s your reaction to that?
Andy Beal: I’d say it’s the opposite. Larger companies have the marketing budgets to help with their reputation management. Small companies often don’t have that luxury, so reputation management is a way for them to compete on a more equal footing. In addition, small businesses — especially local businesses — live and die by customer referrals. It might help to call it “referral management” when speaking to small businesses — that’s something they’d more easily understand.
The idea of monitoring all kinds of company-related names, product names, executive’s names, and so forth, probably turns off a lot of small business owners. They think they don’t have time for that. What’s the absolute minimum that a small business should be doing to monitor its reputation online?
There are two approaches, both very effective. First, find your “centers of influence” and only monitor your reputation at these places. For example, if you’re a restaurant, you could probably get by with monitoring only Yelp.com and CitySearch.com. Online retailers might just monitor ePinions.com and perhaps one or two influential bloggers.
The other approach is to “cast a wide net.” This is where you use social media tracking to keep an eye on any mention of your brand. Even if you simply monitored the name of your company, you’d cast the net wide enough to catch most feedback, praise, and complaints.
I think some small business owners would be surprised to know that people are out there reviewing their company on sites like Yelp, InsiderPages, or Google Maps. And some of those may be negative reviews. What’s the best way for a small business owner to handle negative reviews when they happen?
First, don’t panic. Negative reviews happen. If you serve 100 customers a day, and maintain a fantastic 97% satisfaction rate, that’s still 3 customers a day that might post a negative review online.
Here are three steps to consider:
- Try to identify unhappy customers before they finish their transaction with you. If you can fix the problem early, they may never even post their complaint to the web.
- Respond to negative comments with sincerity, transparency, and consistency. Apologize for the incident. Explain how it happened, why it’s not the normal way you treat customers, and how you’re working to ensure it never happens again. Ask the customer for an opportunity to serve them again and provide a better experience. All of this will leave a positive impression with anyone reading the initial negative review.
- Encourage your happy customers to post their reviews too. Unfortunately, happy customers just don’t have the motivation to post a positive review online. Sometimes, simply asking your delighted customers to post a review–and point them to the review site you’d like them to use–can be enough to surround the odd negative review with positive ones.
And finally, for the small business owners who want to start getting good reviews to improve their reputation — how do you suggest they go about encouraging customers to write reviews online?
You need to make it easy for your “raving fans” to post a positive review. You also need to figure out how to make them “want” to do so, without a financial incentive — which ensures their review is not a paid shill. The best way is to let them know that they play a huge role in the success of the company. Do they think you have the best lattés in town? With their support at Yelp.com, they’re ensuring that you stay in business and they always get their beloved lattés.
The key is to make them feel like a valuable part of your brand and that their help will make your company better, which ensures they benefit, and rewards them with the satisfaction that they did their part.
Thank you, Andy, for the great conversation.
Additional Reputation Management Resources for Small Businesses
If you’re a small business owner looking to learn more about managing your online reputation and joining the conversations about your company, your products/services, or your industry, I would begin with Andy and Dr. Strauss’s book. It’s an excellent read, with a great balance of theory and action plans. Beyond that, here are some additional resources to consider:
- In addition to his book, Andy often writes about reputation management at Marketing Pilgrim. He also created Trackur, an reputation monitoring tool with plans as low as $18/month.
- Andy Sernovitz is a leading expert on word-of-mouth marketing, which has a big impact on your overall reputation. He wrote the book on WOM. Read Andy’s blog for more about word-of-mouth marketing and how to encourage customers to tell their friends about you.
- Glen Allsopp often writes about reputation on his ViperChill blog. He also wrote a reputation management ebook.
- UK search marketing agency Distilled offers a reputation monitoring tool with prices starting at £4.99/month.
- Earlier this year, after a podcast conversation with Andy Beal, John Jantsch published a blog post listing 34 online reputation monitoring tools.
- The reputation management nominees in the 2008 SEMMY Awards are also good reading.
There are many more reputation management books, ebooks, and blogs online. I’ve listed the ones I’m familiar with — the ones I trust enough to include in this article.
Customers will talk about you, or your products and services, or your industry. Prospects will be influenced by what they say, and by what they see when they search Google or Yahoo for your company name. That’s why reputation management is such a key part of the SEO Success Pyramid, and why it’s something small businesses must do for lasting online success.