Protect Your Brand in 5 Simple Steps

by Eric Harr on April 28, 2012

Today, one bad experience might cost you a hundred, maybe a thousand customers. Because of this, social media has irrevocably shifted the role of customer service from an easily outsourced, back-office function to one of an organization’s most important tactical assets.

~Oliver Blanchard, Author of Social Media ROI

WHEN STEVE JOBS INTRODUCED THE IPHONE IN 2007, he famously quipped: “I skate to where the puck is going to be…not to where it’s been.” Truth be told, he borrowed that brilliant little nugget from Walter Gretsky, who often taught it to his boy — named Wayne.

Poignant words that I resolutely believe drive breakthrough brands. It’s not enough merely to improve on your competition. You must innovate. And, to do that you must imagine where the puck will be, not where it is.

That said, if you were to ask me where the puck is going in social media, from a business perspective, I would say without hesitation: reputation management.

This will be a major growth industry over the next decade.  Think about it: Companies invest thousands, millions, even tens of millions of dollars–and untold hours–building precious brand equity and erecting a beautiful brand image. And, it can be unraveled online in hours. Don’t believe me? Just ask Bank of America, Verizon, Dell, United Airlines, etc ad nauseum (and counting). Very few people, or companies, know the art of reputation management. And, it is an art…

If you were considering a career to pursue, marinate over reputation management. If you can help companies listen to the online conversations about their brand, draw actionable insights from that, develop strategy and make measurable progress, you can write your own ticket. This is a brand spanking new field. There are no “benchmark salaries” for this kind of job. It’s all “value based fees.” You could waltz right in to a job interview and proclaim: “Look, you spend $11 million a year on advertising to build your brand. You should pay me 10% of that to protect it.” If you are an expert in reputation management, you will be able to charge a fortune — and get it.

A single negative Tweet, Facebook post or YouTube Video can race across humanity and burn through brand equity—and company valuation!— with blinding speed. We’ve seen it time and again with vaunted brands from Bank of America to United to Verizon. They have all the resources in the world to put out fires, and even they could not begin to contain the tsunami-like brand revolts against them. It’s like trying to hold back a tsunami with your bare hands. Consider this video that has garnered over 10 million views and will continue to damage the United brand, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year…for the rest of time.

Brands have never been at greater risk than they are  at this moment. And, that risk grows not by the day, but by the minute. The power of the people is becoming greater than the people in power. Thanks to social media, consumers wield enormous power now—and that power is growing logarithmically.

That is why reputation management has become such an important component of social media. A few scathing reviews on Yelp, Amazon, Facebook or a mom blog—without your engaging in the conversation—could seriously hurt your bottom line. Consumers in the consideration set won’t necessarily say anything; they simply won’t do business with you. Virtually every study shows that people trust peer recommendations orders-of-magnitude more than they trust corporate marketing.

Online reputation management is critically important, but relatively simple to develop. It requires three things: planning, proactive listening–and a clear and well-defined response mechanism.
Here are five actionable insights that can help you build a cohesive, effective brand management strategy:

1. Face Facts.
You may have spent untold amounts on branding, website design and corporate communications, but these efforts pale next to the hundreds of millions of people sharing ideas and opinions in social media. They are talking in public about companies—and in doing so, they are defining brands. You need to accept this reality — and not cavalierly disregard “brand management” as a “nice to have.” It’s a “gotta have. Right now.”

2. Listen (All the Time).
Put your ear to the ground and start listening to what people are saying. Not doing this because you are “afraid of what you’ll find” could be the death knell of your business. To move from good to great, you must face brutal facts and improve that which needs improving. Be unwavering on this. Perform searches for your company on the main social media platforms: Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Linkedin. What are people saying? Is it accurate? Don’t get defensive if you find something negative. In fact, those can be valuable business insights. If a blogger flames your company, don’t ask: “How can we get rid of this post? Ask: “Are they right? What can we do to fix it?” Then fix it and let them know you’re fixing it. I also advise against leaning too heavily on technologies for online reputation defense and “sentiment analysis.” I speak from personal experience: At the time of this writing, even the very best technologies miss critical posts, misjudge “sentiment”–and lack the “human element” so important to effective brand management. Your brand is too important to leave to chance. Put human eyes on this stuff.

3. Engage with Grace and Humility.
You cannot control the conversation, but you can be part of it. If someone posts something negative about your brand, even if it’s not accurate, others will pile on in a mob-like fashion. For every moment you allow that to continue, you risk permanent damage to your brand. But, you cannot barge in. Again: you may work for a $50 million corporation, but guess what? You come to the social media table with one vote, just like everyone else. Engage like a person, not a corporation – lest you merely fan the flames of public discontent.

4. Unlearn What You’ve Learned.
Gone are the days when you can issue a press release to respond to crises—and be done with it. “Corporate statements” are now not only largely ineffective, they can be counterproductive. If I were advising Bank of America amidst their debit-card-disaster, I would have said, point-blank: “Look, you were being greedy. $5 a month to use a debit card? Come on. Consumers are already spitting-angry with banks. So, do something unprecedented. Set a new standard for banks: admit it. Apologize (and mean it). And, commit to treating customers like family. If you do that, you will win the hearts of millions. If you keep doing business-as-usual, you will continue to get pummeled–with increasingly devastating blows.”

You can turn your most vitriolic critic into your most vocal evangelist if you have humility and listen. Remember: social media is not a media. It’s not marketing. It’s a human relationship. Treat it as such, and your brand management strategy will be more effective than most.

As Oliver Blanchard says in his must-read Social Media ROI (Que, 2011): “Never get defensive, never take attacks personally, and never allow yourself to be drawn into an argument. Present the facts calmly and professionally, monitor the impact of your activities on topics relating to your brand and overall sentiment, and either press on with your response or move on.”

5. Do the Right Thing.
When you engage in social media, be honest, care about your customers–and do the right thing. This is Business 101. Social media, with its new-school technologies, has ushered in a return to old-school business practices. I love that. If you make a mistake, acknowledge it. Offer to fix it—and then, do it. It’s not good for business; it’s great for business. Bring “old school” to “new media.” Shakespeare aptly summed up effective brand monitoring and reputation management: “Mind your speech a little lest you should mar your fortunes.”

An effective online reputation management strategy is not something you can put off until tomorrow, because guess what? An army of empowered consumers are defining your brand. Today.

Eric Harr is the new Social Media Expert for CBS News and the Founder & President of Resonate Social, a boutique, integrated marketing agency in San Francisco. He is the author of “The REAL TRUTH About Social Media: 8 Timeless Truths Uncovered & 8 Monumental Myths Revealed” now available in Barnes & Noble nationwide and on the REAL TRUTH Website. [Use code “GIVEBACK” and receive 10% off. Proceeds benefit CARE, to defend dignity and fight poverty worldwide.] He is the co-creator of SocialSee, the first technology that shows True ROI from social media in a real-time dashboard. It goes live: March 15, 2012. And, it’s truly something.

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