Think you know what's being said about your company? Don't be so sure. There are billions of searches conducted on the Internet on a daily basis and what is being said about your company, or your products, can make or break a sale, says Blake Cahill, vice president of marketing for Visible Technologies, a reputation monitoring company.
You may not want to believe it, but first impressions matter. Negative comments about your company online can be detrimental to getting business and keeping business, not to mention scaring away prospective employees.
How can you keep a lid on what's out there?
Know what's being said
Most business people either don't take the time to monitor it or don't want to look. Take your head out of the sand and at the very least do a Google search of yourself and/or your company. Also, set a Google Alert to let you know when something is being said about you or your company. Both are free options.
Peter Kim, an analyst at Forrester Research, suggests other good -- and free -- options include checking certain blog search engines, such as Technorati and BlogPuls. You can also download a piece of software, called the Buzzmonitor, an open source aggregator conceived and sponsored by the World Bank, of all places.
The caveat, of course, is as with anything, especially free anythings, is that you get what you pay for. In the above cases, what you're getting is free alerts, which are good for a thumbnail sketch, for getting a sense of what's going on, or getting into the conversation. But these alerts don't offer any help for devising a strategy to correct misinformation.
Have a communication strategy in place
Someone on your staff -- or, if you need to, hire someone -- to handle participation in online conversations. If something happens online, such as a negative post about your company, there should be a reactive post on it. It should take the writer of the post into a direction where they feel that their concerns are being met.
To that end, it may mean admitting a mistake and taking whatever corrective measure to satisfy that audience. Next, put out a correction. If there is misinformation out there, you have to put out the correct version, says Joseph Fiore, a vice president at Canada's CoreX Technology and Solutions Inc., in Milton, Ontario, a reputation monitoring company.
Bring in outside help
When should you bring in a professional monitoring firm? 'When free tools are just aren't doing it well enough,' says Fiore. 'That's when a paid service is something to consider. Once, a client who was using 31 different tools came to us. She said, ‘I know there's something I'm missing.''
Monitoring services make the most sense if you have business in different countries. Many, like Fiore's company, are aware of different language nuances. Even if you do hire an outside firm you shouldn't just 'hand it over' to them, says Fiore. The company should keep you informed, even if it's just on a macro level, say, when the comments are turning positive or negative. Many of these companies use artificial intelligence to monitor these kinds of patterns, and they can receive alerts.
How much does this outside help cost? Typically, they run for as little as $2,000 a month to about $90,000 a year, says Kim. The disparity is largely because monitoring companies work differently. Some formulate strategies for dealing with the negative comments and create dashboards for their clients, instead of just creating an e-mail alert. Part of what the dashboards do is aggregate the comments and enable you to jump into the online conversations more easily and directly.
What the outside firms can also do for you -- although you could do this too, yourself, but its time consuming -- is to promote content that you want promoted. Ideally, you'd want that kind of positive and correct information to come up on the first page of a search. Says Cahill, the majority of people only look at the results on the first page. The only way to promote the news/message you want out there is to make sure it shows up on the first page. One example of this is to have a Wikipedia.com page, or to correct one about you that may have incorrect information. Wikipedia.com is an example of a site which shows up very high in search rankings.
One caveat: Be wary of firms that say they can eliminate negative content on you. When it gets beyond writing a 'please remove this post letter' this can get into a murky area that may backfire, experts say.