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.