Just like an old fashioned home intercom system, conversations with your customers only allow for one side to talk at a time. Are you too busy talking to hear what they are telling you?
The internet is a great conversation tool, but just as in real life there are some people that refuse to shut up long enough to listen to others. Many small and medium sized businesses are so focused on pushing their messages out to their target audience that they don't pay attention to the messages coming back in from the field. Most large companies are guilty as well, although they are more likely to have the resources to monitor and respond to online feedback.
Does your company fall into this category? If so, read on for tips on how to monitor the conversation about your company, respond where appropriate, and contribute useful content to help improve your reputation.
Step 1: Listen to what your customers are saying
Many reputation management experts will tell you that the first step in assessing your company's online reputation is to just listen. Pay attention to what your customers are saying about you online. No matter how squeaky clean your business is and how nice your customer-facing employees are, you will undoubtedly have customers that are impossible to please. Don't just assume they are all naturally bitter individuals, some may have a legitimate problem that can be resolved peacefully. You might even be surprised how many happy customers are willing to post their positive experiences.
Fish Where The Fish Are
Obviously the internet is too big to randomly troll around hoping to find what you are looking for. There are a lot of powerful tools out there that can help you. Depending on your industry, some or all of these resources may be useful in sifting through the mountains of data to find the nuggets that pertain to you. All of them have search features that will help you find what you are looking for:
Technorati - Acts as a search engine for over 110 million blogs
Google Alerts - Sends alerts when your company appears in News, Blogs, Web, Video, or Groups results
Digg - Social media site that allows users to vote on stories
Yahoo! Answers - Over 75 million users ask questions and post answers on a variety of topics
LinkedIn Answers - A social network for professionals with a Q&A section
Wikipedia Article Edits - Track specific articles to get updates when anybody makes edits
Tweetscan - Alerts you when your company name is mentioned on Twitter
MySpace - The world's largest social network
Facebook Lexicon - Counts occurrences of any keywords on users' Walls over time
Google Trends - Provides search volume over time for any keyword
Yelp.com - Allows users to rate and review local businesses
Del.icio.us - Online bookmarking service allows users to share links
These are just the basics, but should give you an idea of what is being said about your company. Try searching for your company name, trademarked terms, products, services, brands, executives, customer service departments, etc. Spend a little time anonymously reviewing the results regardless of what you find. Don't be tempted to jump into the conversation to defend yourself yet. That's step 2, and I'm saving that for tomorrow.
Mirror, Mirror On The Wall
First, look for patterns and trends in the feedback you found. Do you like what you see? That information is your online reputation. That is what many of your potential customers are seeing when they seek your products or services in various search engines and social media.
Does the negative feedback seem to be repeated over and over? Perhaps there are unresolved customer service or quality issues within the company that your normal feedback channels are not identifying. One or two negative reviews scattered amongst many positive mentions will not sink a brand, but an overwhelming proportion of negative comments may raise red flags with many prospects. Rather than rely solely on a reactionary strategy, take control and fix the root cause(s) of these issues within your organization. The old adage is true, "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure."
Take a little while to think about how you would respond to these complaints if they came from customers that called you directly. Handling these situations online is much more delicate, as the wrong words or implications can suddenly snowball into a firestorm of negative feedback.
Tomorrow, we'll discuss how and when to enter the conversation. You will learn how to engage various online communities and effectively communicate your plans to resolve any issues you encounter.
[UPDATE] Added link to Online Reputation Management Part 2: Respond [/UPDATE]
[UPDATE] Added link to Online Reputation Management Part 3: Contribute [/UPDATE]
If you have specific feedback or questions, leave a comment or contact me and I'll be sure to address them in future posts.