Accord­ing to Jupiter Research, 90% of B2C compa­nies believe that moni­tor­ing their online repu­ta­tion is impor­tant. But how many of those actu­ally have a concrete strat­egy or proce­dure for moni­tor­ing? My guess would be very few. Beyond that, how many have a strat­egy for not only moni­tor­ing but also moder­at­ing and engag­ing the chan­nels that they’re moni­tor­ing? Even fewer.

Having a strong online pres­ence is a crucial piece of a company’s overall brand. Your consumers are online, and they’re talking about you. With the wide­spread use of social media, engag­ing your customers through these chan­nels is not only a neces­sity, it’s an opportunity—an oppor­tu­nity to connect with brand loyal­ists, to do damage control, to give your company a voice, to grow your busi­ness, to increase traffic, to preserve your repu­ta­tion online and off. It’s about being trans­par­ent and authen­tic, but it also gives you the chance to get to know your audi­ence and what they’re think­ing. It provides the chance for busi­nesses to high­light problem points or opportunities–it’s a direct line into the thoughts of your audi­ence. It’s also impor­tant to note that review sites like Yelp rank highly in organic search results for many busi­nesses, so these sites may be the first impres­sion of your busi­ness that a poten­tial customer gets. How could you ignore that?

People are going to find your brand online in places you can and cannot control. While conver­sa­tions on your own blog may be easier to manage, most of the talking is happen­ing on social media and ratings sites that you don’t have full control over. What does this mean for your brand? What are the dos and don’ts?

Online repu­ta­tion manage­ment at its core is the prac­tice of moni­tor­ing and moder­at­ing your brand’s online repu­ta­tion online. It’s more than just knowing where your audi­ence is talking and what they’re saying– it’s about engage­ment. Brands often seem to be hesi­tant to reach out through these (some­what) new chan­nels, but I think that many are missing a huge oppor­tu­nity by staying quiet. Not every review merits a response, but moni­tor­ing your repu­ta­tion daily and respond­ing to impor­tant reviews within a few days is a good start.

Contact­ing review­ers should be approached with care. Online methods of contact­ing your customers are blunt by nature, so some­times good inten­tions come across badly. The way you speak on behalf of the company while respond­ing to real-life customers is of utmost impor­tance.

Keep these three things in mind as you’re craft­ing a message to review­ers:

  1. They are paying customers
    1. They are human beings– with feel­ings!
    2. They are vocal and opin­ion­ated (other­wise they would not be writing reviews!)

Public vs. Private Responses

Regard­less of whether a comment is posi­tive or nega­tive, the first step is to decide whether your response to the comment should be public or private. Some sites may not give you the ability to privately message review­ers, so be extra careful handling reviews when your only option is to go public. Remem­ber these guide­lines apply to Face­book and Twitter too: the message on Face­book and the direct message on Twitter are your private options, while wall posts and @ replies are your public response tools. Here are some guide­lines to use when decid­ing how to respond.

Use public responses to:

  • Tell your audi­ence and the public what you’ve done to address a specific concern raised by a reviewer.
  • Provide correct infor­ma­tion when a review contains some­thing inac­cu­rate or out-of-date.
  • Provide your version of a diffi­cult situ­a­tion when you’re unable to resolve a dispute through private messag­ing.

Remem­ber to be polite and stick to facts since your comments are public and can be seen by poten­tial and current customers.

Don’t use public comments to:

  • Make personal attacks. Avoid name calling or belit­tling. Even if the orig­i­nal review was offen­sive, customers expect you to take the high road. You want to repre­sent your busi­ness maturely and in a posi­tive manner.
  • Adver­tise. This is not the place for promot­ing unre­lated offer­ings or promo­tions.
  • Offer incen­tives. Don’t offer gifts or other incen­tives in exchange for a more favor­able review. Even if it’s well-inten­tioned, it can be perceived as dishon­est.

Use private responses to:

  • Address a specific, one-time issue or bad expe­ri­ence. Apol­o­gize and say what you will do to prevent it from happen­ing again.
  • Reach out to a rogue reviewer for the first time. If a review is partic­u­larly off-the-wall, inap­pro­pri­ate or vulgar, this is the place to start to try to get them to remove the review.
  • Thank posi­tive review­ers for their input. In most cases, just a simple “thank you” does not need to be broad­cast to the entire web. It’s fine, however, to publicly post a thank you to show that you are respon­sive to both posi­tive and nega­tive reviews.

Respond­ing to Posi­tive Reviews

Respond­ing to posi­tive reviews should be easy, right? It seems that way, but it’s also surpris­ingly easy to get this wrong.

When contact­ing a posi­tive reviewer, your purpose should be simply to deliver a human thank you and let them know you care. That’s it. No gift certifi­cates. No event invites. No reac­tions to the minor complaint in their review. No requests for them to tell more friends about your busi­ness. Letting them know you’re here for any further service or ques­tions is fine, though— you can even leave them your personal email address or the link to subscribe to your newslet­ter or email program, but do not push extra things on them directly.

This may seem counter-intu­itive, but just try to put your­self in the reviewer’s shoes and think about whether you would really want anything other than a simple thank you. While a gift or invi­ta­tion sounds like a nice idea, it can also be misin­ter­preted as a bribe or payment for the review. Remem­ber, this customer already likes your busi­ness — just use this oppor­tu­nity to thank them and intro­duce your­self.

Respond­ing to Nega­tive Reviews

The first step to dealing with nega­tive feed­back is deter­min­ing what type of feed­back you’ve received. Figure out which cate­gory the nega­tive review falls into, and then decide how to react with these tips.

Customer Issue – Someone has an issue with your product or service and has simply described the problem in their review. While these reviews may be hard to stomach since they point out prob­lems with your busi­ness, but keep in mind that reviews like this are fair for the customer to post.

How to respond: a response is almost always merited. Use the scope and seri­ous­ness of the problem to help you decide if you should respond publicly or privately. The impor­tant thing is to acknowl­edge the problem exists and to apol­o­gize if the fault does lie with your busi­ness. Use these reviews as a way to iden­tify prob­lems and improve your customer expe­ri­ence.

Construc­tive Crit­i­cism – These reviews are similar to customer issues, but they include sugges­tions of how your busi­ness could improve. They seem less nega­tive than straight issues, so think of them as an oppor­tu­nity to really listen to your customers and their prob­lems. This is a direct view into the percep­tion of your busi­ness from an outsider looking in– take advan­tage of it.

How to respond: Although the customer’s sugges­tion may not always be some­thing you want to imple­ment, you’ll build loyalty and trust by respond­ing to crit­i­cism with a posi­tive message. Thank them for the time they took to leave the review, and say that your busi­ness is always concerned with customer satis­fac­tion and you appre­ci­ate the suggestion(s).

Warranted Attack – While the attack itself may not be merited, the issue that catalyzed it does merit this nega­tive feed­back. Essen­tially, you or your company did some­thing wrong, and they’re letting you know about it.

How to respond: These are a bit tougher to deal with because they’re more likely to feel personal. It is best to respond in a timely manner and to take respon­si­bil­ity for the mistake or issue. This is the only time I would consider offer­ing a partial refund or future discount. Do not in any way give such an offer in conjunc­tion with a plea to remove the review– that is the oppo­site of being trans­par­ent. An offer in this case says to me as a consumer that the busi­ness values my satis­fac­tion and will accept respon­si­bil­ity when it warranted.

Unwar­ranted Attack – Unwar­ranted attacks  include spam, trolls and real review­ers without a real reason for writing a nega­tive review. These could include irate ex-employ­ees, competi­tors or simply unruly customers.

How to respond: Don’t. It’s as simple as that. Take the appro­pri­ate measures offered by the review site to try to remove the reviews (if any are avail­able). For example, Yelp has a contact form for busi­nesses to report reviews that violate Yelp’s content guide­lines, and Google Places also has a (consid­er­ably less helpful in my expe­ri­ence) Help Center for their busi­ness list­ings to address these issues.

What Now?

There is no one-size-fits all solu­tion to manag­ing your online repu­ta­tion, so have key players decide on what makes sense for your company. Impor­tant things to consider include:

  1. The volume of conver­sa­tions going on about your brand online
  2. The number of outlets where the conver­sa­tions are happen­ing, and which are most impor­tant to monitor
  3. The resources you have to dedi­cate to online repu­ta­tion manage­ment (time, person­nel, etc.)
  4. What depart­ment or employ­ees can respond on behalf of the brand
  5. Any approval process neces­sary before respond­ing and inter­nal best prac­tices
  6. Legal consid­er­a­tions

All of these will help you shape an online repu­ta­tion manage­ment strat­egy that makes sense for your brand.  Most impor­tantly, be consis­tent, trans­par­ent and timely.