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Time to take stock of your online reputation

The buildup and tear-down of a business’ online reputation is akin to neighbors gossiping over the fences, except for the fact that social networking sites allow millions of strangers to see and hear why you would never buy your produce again from a regional grocery chain.

Back in the day, the primary recourse a consumer had was reporting a business to the Better Business Bureau or writing a letter to the head of a company. And in the early days of the Internet, complaints on community blogs were pretty much ignored by businesses, or were ripe areas for a business to post its own accolades. In other words, they weren’t considered a real threat or boost to a business’ reputation.

These days, customer frustrations are broadcast across YouTube, MySpace, Facebook, blogs and Twitter. And, lo and behold, you now have an online reputation to deal with.

Take United Breaks Guitars, a Youtube video by Dave Carroll. Baggage handlers broke his band’s guitars, and he wrote a song about it when United didn’t respond to his complaints. The video went viral. United apologized and donated $3,000 to a charity, but it was too little, too late. Millions of people watched the video and many made complaints of their own against airline practices, in general.

But there are ways that businesses can make it all go away, or at least bury complaints.

Services like ReputationDefender, based in Redwood City, Calif., help businesses control what customers see when they search online. The service essentially crawls social networking sites and pushes down unfavorable information, so that more positive information appears higher up in search.
This is a snippet of how the service works, according to the company’s website:

After identifying existing positive and neutral content about you and pushing to the top of your search results, our professional writers and editors create new, personalized, truthful internet content that’s consistent with the image you want to promote.

You review the content and have final say on its substance and tone — it’s your reputation after all.

Along with your new content, you’ll have direct access to a personal portfolio of web rankings, trend reports and monthly profile progress statements — all of which will be monitored by a dedicated image agent available by phone or email to answer questions, offer advice or simply marvel at how damned good you look online.

Then there is a crop of customer feedback management vendors and social media analysis tools that are starting to develop features that crawl social networking sites for mentions of your company name, with the goal of redirecting the destiny of your online reputation.
When a mention is found, you receive an alert, and what you do with this information is up to you.

The mainstay customer feedback survey vendors (Vovici Corp., Confirmit Inc., MarketTools Inc., Medallia Inc., Mindshare and Allegiance Inc.) and text-mining applications like Attensity are a few years out when it comes to developing modules that gather information from social media networks, according to Gartner analyst Jim Davies.

The primary way many businesses are still dealing with their online reputation is by feeding online complaints to the help desk, or tweeting the customer back — as is the case at companies like Comcast.

Moving into 2011, I think online reputation management is going to become more of a priority, and tools and services will become more readily available to address it.

But social networking sites just might incent more businesses to address problems up front, to avoid being the punch line of some hilarious customer complaint videos.

And while videos may be a more entertaining format, don’t downplay the power of Twitter.

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