Reputation Management: Making the Connection with Small Businesses

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Some version of reputation management has existed ever since it became possible to Google yourself or your company or brand. Anyone with a public reputation will attract positive and negative attention online, and the original concept of online reputation management has to do with mitigating the negative effect of bad publicity while promoting a strong public image — more or less the online version of public relations. This started with corporate entities and celebrities, who were subject to rumor and opinion in traditional media.

Now that everyone has a timeline of online activities going back several years — one that family members, prospective employers, and potential life partners are looking at and judging us by — we have all become public figures to an extent, and at the same time we’ve had to transform ourselves into hall monitors of our own online activities. No one wants to be their social circle’s equivalent of Lindsay Lohan.

Some companies in the local search arena saw the proliferation of online reviews and other content related to local businesses and thought: “Why shouldn’t business owners be doing the same thing?” This insight gave rise, four or five years ago, to the first entrants in the field of reputation management for local businesses, including Marchex, Moon Valley, Vendasta, YellowBot, ChatMeter, Palore, and Yext. I was personally involved in the development of the Moon Valley product but have no particular bias toward any of these solutions. All of them, to a greater or lesser degree, and despite differences in emphasis, fulfill on the promise of getting businesses connected with the places where their listings are showing up online, where reviews are being written about them, and where social chatter may include mentions of the business as well as check-ins, photos, videos, and the like. Many of these products have also attempted to help businesses figure out where they stand in relation to nearby competitors.

In the beginning, there was a struggle to explain how this set of tools differed from SEO. At least a certain segment in the business community had been trained to understand the importance of promoting one’s own website, and an industry was already well established around the best practices for doing this. Today, however, it’s become so common to see Yelp and Facebook window clings on storefronts that one assumes businesses largely understand the difference between self-representation on a business website and public representation elsewhere. Surely the need to manage reviews on Yelp, in particular, is something that any business with a customer-facing orientation understands today.

So why hasn’t reputation management become a de facto part of every small business marketing plan? We all predicted it would have happened by now. Big online directories like Superpages have invested heavily in promoting the idea. And it’s fair to say that reputation management has taken hold amongst chains and enterprises, the majority of whom now recognize the need to track reviews, ratings, and social activity across store locations. It’s the small business community that still represents a largely untapped market for reputation management tools. We as an industry may see clearly why these tools are essential, but we have not yet learned how to communicate that value to small business owners.

Here are some points to consider:

 (1) Small businesses are not created equal. One of the drawbacks of what might be called “reputation management 1.0” is the promotion of one-size-fits-all solutions. Though many reputation management tools have done a good job of looking for content on sites relevant to the business category — bringing in reviews from TripAdvisor, for instance, only if the business is a restaurant or a hotel — few solutions have found effective ways of customizing themselves to the needs of particular verticals. The tracking of Facebook and Foursquare check-ins, for instance, has little value if your business doesn’t have a retail-type storefront; whereas for some types of businesses, check-ins and related promotions may be one of the most critical components of an effective rep management strategy. The answer would seem to be a modular orientation, where the content available in a reputation dashboard could be turned on or off according to the needs of the business.

(2) Business owners are not local search experts. The solutions on the market in this sector have largely taken the attitude that businesses want access to as much information as possible, with multiple opportunities for filtering, sorting, and interacting with data. While it is true that some users want the full smorgasbord, for many small businesses it’s a challenge just to understand why this stuff matters and what they’re supposed to do about it. Those of us who have worked in this space have all done our best to simplify without dumbing down, but we have to do better. The killer app for reputation management will be the one that finally succeeds on this front.

 (3) A social medium needs social tools. Tools and services designed to gather data run the risk of assuming passivity on the part of users. The worst response to a reputation management report is for the user to say, “Great, now what?” Instead, you want users who are engaged with the tools because they find they can do work with them. Google, for example, is not much more than an information retrieval service, but it promotes an active response by acting as a gateway to the web page you were searching for. Alexa and ComScore offer data points about web traffic that can be used for research and analysis projects. For reputation management, the key is making sure that all of the data gathered by a tool has an immediate benefit to the user that can be realized in some sort of action. And because rep management is largely dealing with the web as a social medium, those actions should be oriented toward connecting the business directly with consumers.

 (4) The reward must outweigh the risk. This isn’t so much a statement about the cost of rep management tools, most of which have been priced reasonably. Rather it’s about the cost of one’s time, always at a premium for the small business owner. In order to agree to take some of my precious time away from running my business, I must be convinced of the benefit. In a competitive vertical or geographical area, this may be relatively easy as businesses know what it means to fight for incremental gains in order to achieve top ranking in Google results and top star ratings on review sites. But the average business owner needs to understand the benefit of managing online reputation in terms that are equally clear.

We cannot blame small businesses for not flocking to these tools in larger numbers. Those of us who are convinced of the need for reputation management solutions must do a better job of packaging those solutions in such a manner that the benefits are immediately apparent to the business community.

Damian Rollison has served as VP of Product for Universal Business Listing since 2010. He holds degrees in English from the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Virginia, where he did graduate work at the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities. Damian’s articles on emerging technology have appeared in Venture Beat.

Damian Rollison is Director of Market Insights at SOCi.