Word-of-mouth is not what it used to be. Just 10 years ago, upset customers, or raving fans, could spread their opinion about your business only to their family, friends, neighbors, and work colleagues. Now, thanks to social networking and the infinite publishing power of the Web, customers can share their rants and raves instantly with a worldwide audience.

In such a wired world, your online image is everything! And if your online image is tarnished, performing the following key business functions will become much more difficult:

  • Marketing. Ongoing demand generation is critical for growing your business. If your Google results are soured with negativity when prospects search for your business, you will see your lead generation pipeline dry up.
  • Selling. With your marketing and demand generation waning from your negative online image, your sales will start to tank as well. Prospects will not want to do business with you, and customers may get spooked and look for another company to work with.
  • Recruiting. You need a great team of employees on the bus for your company to be successful. If your online image is tarnished, the rock-star employment candidates may want nothing to do with you.
  • Financing. Your negative online image may make raising capital more difficult. Investors and creditors have integrated online research into their due diligence processes. If your search results look iffy, those much-needed dollars will be harder to come by.

Now that you know why having a positive online image is so important, let's put in place a brand-monitoring strategy to track and enhance your online image.

What should you monitor?

Begin your brand-monitoring strategy by identifying the brand phrases that you want to track. Identify the phrases that represent your company so you can monitor the positive or negative statements about them. Those brand phrases will often include the following:

  • Company name
  • Brand names
  • Product names
  • Key executive and employee names
  • Taglines and mottos

Keep in mind that you are on the lookout for disgruntled employees or upset customers, so include negative modifiers such as "sucks," "rip off," "scam," and "fraud" with your brand phrases.

You may also want to apply a similar process for competitive intelligence purposes. If so, supplement your list of brand phrases to monitor with the following:

  • Competitor company name
  • Competitor brand names
  • Competitor product names
  • Competitor key executive and employee names
  • Competitor taglines and mottos
  • Important industry keywords

How will you monitor?

Once you know what brand phrases you want to monitor, put a monitoring process in place. Active brand-monitoring will help you identify a communication crisis from its start, providing you ample time to react and take action. You can do that manually by performing Google searches on a regular basis to monitor your image. However, I recommend you instead use one or more of the following monitoring tools:

  • Google Alerts is an easy-to-use tool to monitor your brand online. Simply enter a few phrases that focus on your brand, and Google will email you each time it encounters those phrases on the Web.
  • Social Mention is a social media search site that aggregates user-generated content from more than 80 social media sites, including Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Digg. In addition to displaying social posts related to your brand, Social Mention will also display the sentiment (i.e., positive, negative, or neutral) of the conversations.
  • Hootsuite is a social media dashboard that allows you to connect to multiple social networks from one site. In addition to providing great tools for managing social media marketing campaigns on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+, Hootsuite helps you monitor your brand reputation on social media.
  • Klout is not focused on reputation management, per se, but it's a great tool for monitoring your influence on popular social networks. As you create and share content online, Klout will assign an influence score based on how many people you reach and engage.
  • Twitter Search is a robust search engine that can help you keep track of tweets about your brand. Thank goodness, too, because Twitter is the most fast-paced social site, with more than 10 million tweets flying by every hour.
  • Viralheat is for you if you are looking for more of a social media monitoring system with robust analytic reports (less than $30 per month). Its feature set rivals those of much more expensive systems.
  • Sprout Social is another inexpensive fee-based social media monitoring tool worth checking out. The service offers a great toolset to help you publish, monitor, and analyze your brand content on the popular social networks.

Once you have the right monitoring tools in place, set up a reasonable process for managing the tools that are managing your reputation. You can easily go overboard if you check on them all day long, so set aside a realistic block of time each day, and stay disciplined.

How will you respond?

Once you have an effective suite of monitoring tools in place, the next step is to create a plan for responding to mentions and improving your online image. The following five ideas will help you get started.

1. Publish good content via online public relations

One of the best ways to prevent a negative online image is by actively spreading a positive one. Apply online public relations tactics to publish educational content (e.g., articles, press releases, whitepapers, videos, presentations) on relevant websites and social networking groups that focus on your area of expertise. This "good" content will bubble up as people perform searches.

2. Monitor your mentions and feedback to determine whether they are positive or negative

This step is where the tools mentioned earlier become invaluable. Is a customer complaining about the quality of a product or service? Is a disgruntled employee ranting about working conditions? Is a customer requesting a product or service enhancement? Determine the sentiment of your mentions, and prioritize them based on the risk to your reputation.

3. Create a response plan

Create a response plan to deal with each mention that requires your attention. Based on the severity of the mention, determine an acceptable turnaround time. Also, determine the proper channel of communication for your response. Should you communicate via your blog, Twitter account, Facebook page, direct email, or all of those channels together?

4. Execute like a professional

Do not get emotional, angry, or defensive. If you respond defensively when your feelings are hurt, you may make the situation worse. Involve trustworthy colleagues in the response loop. Run your response by them to make sure it will help your cause rather than hurt it.

5. Listen... you just might learn something

Often, your reaction will be to defend yourself. However, make sure you listen carefully to each mention and keep track of feedback trends. If customers are continually complaining about the quality of your product or service, you may have a bigger problem on your hands than just a negative online image.

* * *

A brand is a terrible thing to waste. Make sure you actively manage your online image to ensure that you effectively compete as more and more business moves online in the future.

(Image courtesy of Bigstock: Funny Businessman)

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image of Bob DeStefano
Bob DeStefano is president of SVM E-Marketing Solutions, a B2B online marketing agency that helps industrial companies use online marketing to produce bottom-line results.

Pro members: Interested in hearing more wisdom from Bob? Be sure to check out this online seminar presented by Bob, How to Make Your B-to-B Website a Lead Generation Machine.