If you didn’t see it, you probably read about Snickers’ Super Bowl advertisement, “The Kiss,” which featured two men unintentionally kissing after they were both eating the same Snickers bar. Immediately after the Super Bowl, much of the feedback in the blogosphere was that the ad was funny. But the next day two gay civil rights organizations denounced the ad as homophobic. The blogosphere reacted again, much of it negative about Snickers. By that evening Snickers pulled the ad and took down its website. The day after that, Snickers issued a statement expressing that they did not intend to offend anyone. For the remainder of the week, much of the mainstream media coverage was negative for Snickers and there was much debate back and forth on the Internet.
For weeks, the conversation raged online, which affected search engine result pages (SERPs). Meanwhile the press, including The New York Times and USA Today, picked over Snickers’ bad judgment and missteps. More than two months after that commercial aired at the Super Bowl, four out of the top 10 listings for the search term “Snickers” in Google’s SERPs were about “The Kiss” and three of them were negative.
“The Kiss” is the latest high-profile illustration of the long-term repercussions online conversations have on a brand’s reputation. The content of what is written on the Web not only affects the people who read it, it affects the rankings on the search engines and what the media chooses to cover.
The advent of consumer-generated media (CGM) has transformed the concept of brand management. Nowadays it is possible for a consumer to never encounter information created or endorsed by a company, but instead to rely completely on CGM for recommendations and insights. The bottom line, explains Rob Key, CEO of Converseon, is that “you no longer own your brand – your customers do.”
CGM includes community scoring programs like eBay, feedback rating systems like Yelp, opinion sites like Epinions, social networks like MySpace sites, and blogs. Blogs range from the very influential and highly trafficked, like TechCrunch and Jeff Jarvis’ BuzzMachine, to millions of average blogs that in the aggregate can reach tens of millions of readers.
When a company does something considered egregious, such as produce an offensive commercial or provide bad customer service, bloggers often react harshly and create a far-reaching buzz called a blog swarm, which can cause damage to a company’s reputation. In 2006, there were blog swarms that had serious long-term consequences for companies including Dell (dubbed “Dell Hell”), which started when Jarvis complained about Dell’s customer service on his blog, and another surrounding AOL, which began when a subscriber posted his phone conversation with a rude AOL representative to his blog.
Key explains that because blogs are spidered well (due to their large amount of refreshed content and inbound links) they can rank higher than other sites, including corporate sites. In the past, a brand could control the placement of their site with tags and by the way it designed the site’s pages. But Jim Nail, chief marketing and strategy officer of market influence analytics company Cymfony, says that currently corporate sites are getting outranked by consumer-generated sites “and frequently those are the ones that are negative.”
However, it’s not just the first or second listing on SERPs that brands should be worried about. Holly Preuss, principal of Granular Solutions, an online customer acquisitions services company, says companies should be managing the top 10 and particularly the top five because “above the fold is crucial.” Key agrees. He says it’s similar to how companies must manage their brand on the shelf in the supermarket: Companies must manage their top listings – “their shelf space” – to maximize their brands’ positioning.
Brands have to make their top listings a priority. An April 2006 study conducted by iProspect found that when users perform a search, 62 percent of them click on a result within the first page of results, and a full 90 percent of users click on a result within the first three pages.
Andy Beal, creator of the site Marketing Pilgrim, says sometimes companies find a negative post and think, “it’s only one blogger; it won’t have a long-term impact.” But then a blog swarm begins and the negative buzz ranks high in the SERPs. Then the issue reaches a whole new audience as mainstream journalists increasingly use search engines to research new story ideas.
Because consumers rely heavily on the Web as an authoritative source of information, managing a brand’s online reputation has become a top priority for companies. Strategy consultant Amanda Watlington says the participatory environment of Web 2.0 requires companies to monitor and measure their public perception so they are able to take necessary actions to preserve brand equity and maintain a brand’s personality. This necessity has spurred the development of new strategies, tactics and tools.
Agencies like Converseon and Nielsen BuzzMetrics have tools for monitoring social networks, blogs and communities. They measure the volume of buzz, track the source and gauge the emotions of a comment – whether positive, negative or sarcastic.
But monitoring systems don’t need to be expensive or complicated. Granular Solution’s Preuss recommends that companies “think like a customer” and Google themselves. Companies can create RSS feeds based on keyword searches and narrow down the results to a specific domain with tracking systems like Technorati and Feedster. Sites like BlogInfluence.net and SocialMeter. com provide a snapshot of the credibility of any blogger by showing the audience-reach and popularity for the entered blog URL.
New tools are popping up all the time. Pronet Advertising launched Serph, a tool to find what is being said on social media websites. Do The Right Thing is a community that rates companies positively or negatively. Its goal is to hold big businesses accountable.
Once You Monitor, Then What?
Converseon’s Key says that once companies mine the conversation for detractors, they can separate them into two groups. Some are “reasonable” – they have a bad impression or a company had a bad experience with a company, such as poor customer service. And some are “determined,” such as the site StarbucksSucks.com, which feels Starbucks is ruining independent companies.
Catherine Seda, Internet marketing expert and author of the book How to Win Sales & Influence Spiders, says there is nothing a company can do about determined detractors, so companies should focus on the reasonable ones. There are a variety of ways to do this.
Companies need to reach out to bloggers. The sooner they react, the better it is to prevent potential longterm damage, says Marketing Pilgrim’s Beal. Preuss adds that when there is a complaint about customer service, the company needs to fix the problem and then engage the customer immediately by responding to that post.
Noah Elkin, vice president of communications at interactive agency iCrossing, says his company offers “proactive customer engagement” for their clients by responding to posts with helpful information, such as a link to a technical support page. Elkin stresses that they always indicate they are representatives for a company – “the No. 1 rule is to be honest about who you are; then you can participate in the discussion.”
An option for promoting a company’s brand online is to pay bloggers to evangelize it through a service such as ReviewMe. PayPerPost.com offers this service, but is requiring writers to include a small graphical button that denotes that a post is being sponsored. One of the tenets of Word of Mouth Marketing Association’s (WOMMA) code of ethics is that bloggers must disclose for whom they are blogging. To help craft disclosures, affiliates can seek advice at DisclosurePolicy.org, which was created and funded by PayPerPost.
Some experts recommend monitoring the buzz instead of trying to manage it. Cymfony’s Nail explains that there is no controlling what people say and the best you can hope for is to have your side of the story told. He says that “The Kiss” exemplifies this. It created an ebb and flow on the Web of people that started out attacking the ad and then started defending Snickers. Due to that, Nail says Snickers did not need to issue a statement.
For matters that require a timely response, some experts recommend using paid search (pay-per-click links). Preuss says that on the plus side, PPC links can show up in a couple of hours and they let the public know the company is aware of the situation. The downside, says Seda, is that people who might not have been aware of the problem will likely find out about it.
Some experts say that paid search is underused. For example, searching on the term “Wal-Mart sucks” yields negative results for the first 10 listings. Cymfony’s Nail says it is “foolish” that Wal-Mart does not have any paid links to sites where it could tout Wal-Mart’s economic benefits.
“For a company to protect its brand, they should be buying those words,” Nail says. But Marketing Pilgrim’s Beal warns that paid search “is a Band-Aid” and does not replace reaching out to bloggers directly.
An affiliate could mine blog buzz through a monitoring tool such as Relevant Noise’s pingMe notification system – so when someone posts about a product that an affiliate sells, the affiliate could buy relevant keywords.
One tactic for dealing with negative buzz, such as a product recall, is to issue a press release that addresses the concerns. Press release distribution companies such as PRWeb send releases to journalists’ email boxes and optimize press releases, which helps to increase the rankings in news engines such as Google News as well as in the general search results. When a press release ranks high in a search engine, it is one more spot a company’s competition or a negative listing won’t get.
Knock Out the Negative
Issuing a press release is one way that company information can gain a top search engine ranking, and when this happens, negative sites move lower and get moved off the page. Converseon’s Key describes this as pushing detractors off the “visibility cliff.” There are other ways to try to do this.
Post to top-ranking sites: Postings to sites such as Wikipedia or Squidoo can help a brand or affiliate push negative results down and get more exposure. When an affiliate posts to advice sites like LifeTips.com, it allows them to be seen as an industry expert on the things they are attempting to market. Granular Solution’s Preuss says if an affiliate blogs about cars and posts affiliate links on their site in a CPL deal with automakers and has rev shares with accessory retailers, then they could post on LifeTips.com a top 10 tip list for shopping for a new SUV.
Create a blog: Another tool for creating a positive listing and monitoring a brand is to create a blog, which can humanize a company and present its side of the story. If the comments are enabled, companies can get in touch with their most passionate visitors.
Optimize your site and create multiple domains: Author and IBM search expert Mike Moran explains that search results never contain more than two listings from any one domain, so brands should make sure their pages are optimized for the legitimate two listings (#1 and #2 are ideal). If the company has multiple domains (i.e., for subsidiaries) a brand can ethically optimize those sites for the company’s target keywords. Many companies have mini-sites, for which each has its own URL; for example, Starbucks has one for music, one for locations and one for its online store.
Use affiliate programs: Affiliate programs are a way that brands can get additional positive listings on SERPs. But affiliates pose risks because they can threaten the control of a brand. Watlington says brands have to make sure that affiliates, who are custodians of their brand, are in step because “companies spend a lot of money creating a brand and if an affiliate does something like use outdated creative, the brand is then altered.”
If a merchant does decide to have an affiliate program, it’s imperative for a merchant to monitor affiliates and make sure they are compliant with a program’s terms and conditions. For this reason, Converseon’s Key recommends that merchants start with tightly managed and honed programs.
The Merchant Mind-set
Merchants will need to decide if they are going to allow their affiliates to bid on their trademark terms, which tend to convert very well. Benefits include having offers for different types of users on the SERPs, keeping competitors off the SERPs and keeping competitors’ affiliates off the SERPs. 77Blue’s David Lewis says that merchants need to evaluate what is right for their brand and find trusted partners who will work with them to protect their brands through trademark bidding.
Many merchants are so wary of affiliates bidding on their trademarks that they completely forbid it for all affiliates. Super-affiliate Colin McDougall recalls an instance when an affiliate manager admitted that McDougall’s bidding had made a huge difference for their sales but still would not make an exception to the company policy – it was the “if we let you do it, then we would have to let everybody do it” mind-set.
This mind-set might be changing, however. A 2007 Marketing Sherpa study reports that merchants have become more lenient with the use of their trademarks in keyword campaigns. In fact, 29 percent of merchants say they allow bidding on use of their trademarks and 36 percent say they place some limitations on trademark bids.
Companies no longer have an option about whether they should participate in online communications. These conversations are going to take place regardless if the company is involved or not. For this reason, reputation management has become one of the most talked-about topics among merchant and affiliates. Just this spring, Neo@Ogilvy, Ogilvy Group’s digital and direct media unit, acquired GSI Consulting Group, which specializes in brand reputation. TNS, a provider of strategic advertising intelligence, acquired Cymfony.
The good news is that there are tools to monitor buzz and ways to push negative conversations from the eyes of the masses. Creating a blog, optimizing a company’s website, buying PPC, issuing quality press releases, contributing to high-traffic forums and becoming a part of the conversation on user-generated content sites are all methods whereby an online reputation can be managed.