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Your customers are your reputation

Do you know what your customers are saying about your company online?

Even if you’re not an online business, chances are people have expressed opinions about you and your company online. Sometimes disgruntled customers want to vent – type any brand name and the word ‘sucks’ into Google for some colorful examples. The internet marked a revolution in the way companies market their products and interact with customers. Where it used to be enough to broadcast advertising via print, radio, and TV, the internet gave customers a platform to talk back – and talk back they do.

The Road Away From Hell

One company that learned the hard way about the power of the online consumer was computer manufacturer Dell. In 2005, it was facing a very public backlash against faulty products and poor customer service. One customer put up a ‘Dell Hell’ website; others chimed in with their own stories on blogs.

The effect of Dell Hell was best summed up by Buzz Machine blogger Jeff Jarvis, who wrote: “We are in the new era of ‘seller beware’. Now when you screw your customers, your customers can fight back and publish and organize.”

Indeed, the online complaints were loud enough to be picked up by mainstream media, including a story in the US news publication Business Week – ensuring that the bad PR was not limited to people who read blogs.

To its credit, Dell listened, learned, and changed what it was doing. A few years down the track, Dell now takes an active role in managing its online reputation.

One of its responses was IdeaStorm, an interactive website for customers to raise issues and make suggestions for how the company could improve. Vida Killian, the US-based manager of IdeaStorm, says Dell staff can monitor and report frequently occurring requests or problems so they can be dealt with internally.

Creating a buzz

Stepping into an online conversation about your business means opening up a new line of communication with your customer base. It may sound calculated, but you need to decide what you want to achieve, and where to place your online time and energy for the best effect. And don’t forget, happy customers can boost your online reputation by word-of-mouth recommendations.

So how do you harness the good side of social media and get online buzz recommending your company or products? The secret lies in treading the fine line between participating and just using social media as a way to blast out advertising.

“The party analogy can be an effective way of helping to understand the online community,” says Daniel Young, digital practice director for public relations firm Burson-Marsteller. “If you’re rude and disrespectful at a party then it’s likely that others will talk about you behind your back. This is equally true if you fail to bring anything to the party.”

He advises clients to think about how their online engagement can add value for the customers who are reading the site or online service in question.

As an example, one Burson-Marsteller client, recruitment firm Robert Half International publishes a podcast aimed at giving clients and job hunters information and advice. This in turn strengthens the company’s overall brand offering.

Reaching influencers

Many companies now woo ‘influencers’, such as prominent bloggers, in the hope that they can get favorable mentions on popular blogs for their products or services.

While some people view Facebook or microblogging website Twitter as toys for the geek minority, many early adopters of these sites are now influencers. For example, the actor and author Stephen Fry have more than 100,000 subscribers to his Twitter feed, which often discusses new tech gadgets. He has such a large online following that a BBC News blog asked, “Can Stephen Fry kill a gadget?” after he publicly poohpoohed the Blackberry Storm smartphone.

Seeding new products to bloggers is a calculated risk – you may get a positive or negative review. Also, the rules are the same as for mainstream media journalists; readers expect to be informed when a blogger has been given items for free or influenced by a company in some way.

Transparency is key, says Nick Broughall, editor of Australia’s most popular technology blog, gizmodo.com.au.

“For me, it’s extremely important that the readers think that the editorial is 100% independent, although you will always get people questioning your opinions,” he says.

People come to tech sites like Gizmodo for news and trusted reviews of new technology. If Broughall praises a lemon, his readers will react.

“If someone does take the time and effort to list their concerns, I’ll take the time and effort to respond, and so far it’s always been successful,” he explains.

“Besides, I’m not that opposed to being questioned – it serves as a reminder that I am in a position of influence.”

Ultimately, choosing to get involved in online communication in an honest way gives you an opportunity to influence your reputation in a positive way, says Hackett. “But don’t do it out of obligation – that comes across as fake. Either do it because you want to or don’t do it at all. It’s not an obligation for me, it’s a passion.” #Read the full article here.

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