Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Managing Your Online Reputation - Part One

Whether or not you conduct business online, your business name is online.[1] You have no doubt heard about “Cybersquatters,” the people who buy up web addresses with the hopes of selling them later for a hefty profit. Cybersquatters are not the only ones you need to watch.

As technology expands and more people go online, there are more and more outlets for people to share their views and experiences. These days, there are too many to name—places in the virtual world where anonymous comments are not only possible, but also potentially very damaging—from message boards to Instant Messaging tools to blogs. Then consider that almost every electronic communication tool has a way for others to post comments and replies—some public, others private—and you start to see the picture.

Defamatory comments about your business or employees, even if untrue, can get out of hand quickly. Disgruntled customers may be likely to plaster negative remarks all over the web. They are more vocal and resourceful than ever, according to this recent article from MSNBC. You do not want to see your company’s name on this site, for example, or your products mentioned here.

Insiders can also do their own damage by posting comments from an employee’s perspective on the company culture, management, or trade practices. Take a look at these examples of gossip boards, for example: Public Message boards like this one at Yahoo and this one that began as the dot com bubble burst but now has a new lease on life.

And there is the ever-present risk of disclosure of company secrets from staff, business partners or even customers. Once your secrets appear on FaceBook, Bebo or Yammer, they have been let out of the proverbial bag. You can sue all you want and even win all your lawsuits, but a secret is not a secret once it becomes public. Besides, lawsuits cost money and distract you from your core business.

Finally, every business executive should worry about YouTube and similar video sites. Here is a compilation of bad customer service comments given to a video reporter in NYC. (Caution: this one has very rough language.)

You need a strategy and it is not complicated. The hardest part is diligent monitoring without becoming obsessive. The three-part strategy I recommend is:

1. Protect what you can
2. Monitor routinely
3. Take immediate action if you find a problem

In subsequent posts, I will explore each of these with more detail.

[1] In fact, your own name is already probably online. There are a number of business data web sites now (Jigsaw, MarketVisual, ZoomInfo, Spoke, etc.) that cull public data and attempt to build a data map that they then charge you to update. Think about it: they get the data wrong, then want YOU to pay them to correct it.