Online reputation management (ORM) has become the hot term emerging in digital marketing. But, like the ever-evolving areas of social media and crowdsourcing, few marketers know exactly how to use it to their advantage.

A central challenge of most organizations is that they need skilled marketing people who can read and understand the data resulting from online monitoring, as well as subsequently craft well-thought-out strategies to build business. In other words, although a company intern who spends 10 hours a day on Facebook and has been blogging since the age of 12 may feel the most comfortable online, that intern will not have the business acumen to develop and carry out a long-term, in-depth ORM strategy.

Organizations that understand that ORM is an essential part of a new integrated communications model will assign the task to someone who grasps the larger communication strategy. Such proficiency is, as in most cases, learned. No one knows how to create an effective print campaign, for instance, without listening to a mentor, reviewing case studies, analyzing data, and learning nuances through trial and error. So, moving ORM responsibility down the lower rungs of the employee ladder is not the answer.

In addition, companies face three major difficulties when trying to monitor and guide brands' online reputations.

1. There is no standard for measuring social media or online reputation

It's as if we were in the early days of the Internet, trying to measure visitors, hits, and actions. And there are still, to this day, discrepancies between the three major online-audience measurement services. No wonder that, when trying to measure "engagement" and "pass-along value," organizations are really at a loss.

At this early point in the measurement of social media, it is important to choose a trusted technology and stick with it long enough to see trending data. Foremost, measure where and how your strategies are working, and where they can be improved. Also, drill down into the aggregate data to find the one-on-one content that will provide you with hidden gems of information.

2. Many companies cannot decide where the responsibility for ORM should reside

Placing responsibility in Marketing makes sense, with its connection to brand management—which, in some companies, is a subset of product management. ORM also crosses into public/media relations, even as the media landscape of revered publications and well-defined news channels of yesterday has morphed into a Wild West of sometimes anonymous blogs, video chats, and powerful social media leaders.

Because of the time-sensitive nature of the communications flow, it makes sense that the responsibility reside with an online-savvy media relations spokesperson, with input from Marketing and management. It also benefits an organization to consult digital experts who "live" in the online world and have learned from their experience.

3. ORM is difficult to master because there are no rules in the creation of social media

The appeal of social media is that anyone with a computer (or smart phone) can post. The challenge is that authors can remain anonymous, and there is no fact-checking.

Some companies have had great success in finding one-on-one—or one-to-many—conversations with clients and attracting new clients via positive "word-of-mouse." Others have failed miserably by engaging enraged individuals in public debates and trying to control what employees can and can't post online.

Having a well-defined plan for dealing with potential internal or external issues is vital, because problems can grow exponentially via social media. Some organizations have been successful in creating a detailed social media policy that both educates and guides all employees in using online media outlets, while aiding in avoiding pitfalls.

* * *

So, where does this leave us? The Internet is starting to feel like one world-wide high school cafeteria. There are the popular kids (like Apple), the friends of the popular kids (everyone trying to partner with Apple), the unpopular kids (BP right now, but new targets arrive hourly), the nerds (new tech startups), the cheerleaders (those who keep passing on the good news!), and of course the bullies (be careful about engaging them online; they live for a good argument in comments sections).

However, the worst option—in business as in high school—is not showing up. If you aren't out there in the social media world, everyone else is, and a void is easily filled by the good, the bad, the ugly... and the competition.

It takes courage to try new things, but the opportunities and potential rewards are great. Any company can even the playing field and overtake the competition by planning well and acting quickly. The challenge is in translating your marketing strategies to the online world, building a meaningful relationship with your target audience, and finding a compelling way to measure results.

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Monica Giffhorn is the digital director at Kinetics Marketing & Communications.