How brands can avoid a reputation crisis

iStockThis is part of our best-of 2008 series, previously featured on our newsletter, Advance. Social media offers brands the prospect of engaging in open and honest conversations with customers, and brands are embracing this opportunity by creating communities of their own. Unfortunately, negative buzz is a potential downside to these efforts. Jupiter Research found that although only 12 % of consumers post negative comments on these sites, negative UGC creators can be highly influential.

Choosing to ignore the conversation will come at a cost: Negative reviews or complaints can mean lost business. According to a London School of Economics study, just a 2% reduction in negative word of mouth boosts sales growth by 1%. Negative commentary is inevitable, so marketers may well benefit from developing a strategy to best respond to negative buzz. While there is no way to stop negative comments entirely, and it is impossible to think that a conversation in social media can be controlled, there are a few best practices that can help to protect your brand. Brands can improve their reputation by first listening, and then responding. Social media monitoring is critical to containing negative buzz. Conversation monitoring tools such as radian6 allow you to identify who is talking, listen to what they are saying, and track the spread of negative buzz. More and more, companies are choosing to engage in online conversations by responding directly to negative comments. But companies that select this route must be ready and willing to be open, transparent, and authentic in their communications. UGC creators respond well to this type of interaction. Brands, such as Dell, have improved brand perceptions simply by engaging – by giving consumers the impression that their concerns were merited and by offering a direct line of help to those with questions and concerns. But deceptions will be exposed. Brands do not fare well with responses that seem canned or inauthentic.

Because user-generated media ranks well in the search engines, Search Engine Optimization can be an effective way to ensure positive commentary appears ahead of negative commentary within search results. Taco Bell used paid search for reputation management in 2007 when an E.Coli outbreak threatened to damage their business. With a Google sponsored link, Taco Bell customers were able to learn about what Taco Bell was doing to protect them. If an untrue story is spreading fast, it is important for brands to have an easy to find place to provide their side of the story. An obvious place for this is a corporate blog. Blogs can help brands build relationships with their customers. Since SEO works wonders for blogs, blogging can help offset the untrue story and other negative search results. If people are posting legitimate complaints, then it is important to address the issue. It’s also beneficial to tell customers that you are working on the problem and let them know how you addressed it.

Companies that listen to customer complaints and use the knowledge gained for valuable insight into potential product and service improvements are way ahead of the game. Social media has drastically changed where and how customers are getting information about your company. People are going to talk about you, whether you are active in the conversation or not. A focus on reputation management and brand protection, even for small businesses, is vital for success: It’s what customer service looks like in the 21st century.