Managing Your Business’s Online Reputation

HootSuite | BCBusiness
Ashley Jane Brookes of HootSuite advises companies to be part of the conversation before the customer walks in the door..

Whether or not it does business online, a company’s reputation in the virtual world can make it sink or shine

“If your reading this telus you suck and your mothers a terrible cook.”

The tweet by “Thomas” isn’t that unusual in the Twittersphere: disgruntled customer goes public—and personal—to complain about a corporate behemoth, most likely assuming the big machine isn’t going to respond. But only a few moments later, Telus did, in fact, tweet back at Thomas. “Beg to differ!” it said. “Her meatballs are delicious. If you’d like to discuss issues you may be having, perhaps try @TELUSsupport.”

From purchasing decisions to technical support to customer service, a company’s interactions with its customer base have changed. People reach out on social media first: for help, to complain, to connect with others in the same predicament. No longer is the company the expert; the wisdom of the crowd reigns. And that poses challenges for organizations whose brand reputations increasingly live online.

While a company’s online reputation has long been important, how that reputation is managed is evolving quickly. In just a few years, “community manager” —a job once considered a lower-than-lowest-rung gig for a junior staff member—has become a strategy-focused position that centres on building brand fans from networks of other brand fans. And that playful, human-centred response from Telus about its mother’s meatballs is just one of many new strategies that engage denizens of the online world and both promote and protect a brand.

Kim Peacock, general manager for Edelman Canada West, whose clients include global giants such as Starbucks and Microsoft and local organizations such as the City of Vancouver and YVR, says Twitter conversations like these reveal a major shift in how companies are operating. “The way brands once used media or advertising, it was command and control, a one-way channel,” says Peacock. “You controlled your message and got it out there through press releases and advertising. Now it has to be a dialogue and a conversation.”

While the previous model looked more like a triangle—the top-down influence of the CEO on a wide audience—Peacock refers to the new model as a “diamond of influence”: two triangles of power that represent a combination of top-down messaging from the company and its CEO and bottom-up influence from social activists (fans of the brand—or even not-so-much fans). “If you’re not part of the conversation, the conversation is still happening,” she says. “You have a choice to be a part of it or not, and if you’re not there—everybody else will be controlling it.”

It’s an idea that resonates not just for the Teluses of the world, but also the small businesses that don’t have social media departments or an ad budget—those that couldn’t reach their audience with a single top-down message even if they wanted to.

A customer’s first interaction with a brand—before they get to complaining about service or lauding a brand-new product—is the purchasing decision. For the customer who wants to find a moving company in Vancouver, he or she starts with a quick Facebook post to friends, reads a few Yelp reviews, Googles for any relevant blog posts or BBB complaints—but all this before contacting the company itself.

“Seventy per cent of a buyer’s journey is now complete before they ever reach out to the organization directly,” says Ashley Jane Brookes, senior brand and content manager for HootSuite, the Vancouver-based social media relationship platform used by over eight million people worldwide. “This leaves a huge gap where potential customers have the opportunity, through word of mouth, online research including blogs or website material and social banter, to make decisions without any influence from the company itself. Companies need to find ways to be present during that 70 per cent of a buyer’s research.”

So how does a company connect with both its potential and current customer base? “Becoming available is the first step,” says Peter Chow-White, associate professor at the school of communication at Simon Fraser University. “Increasingly, people are expecting to find not just a website, but a channel where it’s not just one-way communication—to have a conversation. They can be reached, but they can also have some feedback at the same time.”


Image: Adam + Kev
For small-business owner Craig Boyd,
online reputation is everything.

Online tools such as HootSuite or Radian6—a paid service from the social marketing company Salesforce that monitors and measures buzz around a company’s brand and finds both brand advocates and critics on social media—can help a company stay on top of the online conversation before it spirals in the wrong direction (or add momentum to one that’s heading in the right one).

“You want to start by listening,” says HootSuite’s Brookes. “You need to understand what your audience is talking about before you can expect to engage with them. Look for questions, complaints or general dialogue about topics related to your brand. Then you have a basis for the content that your audience will care about, and you can respond more effectively. If people mention your brand in a positive way, thank them. Offer additional insight through links to resources if they’re talking about products or services. Be helpful. Be relevant. Be interesting. Think of it as social media ‘high-fives’—don’t just look at it as a sales opportunity—it’s all about relationship building.”

Essentially, your best brand ambassadors are those who are already engaged and motivated to talk about your brand—and you need to nurture that relationship. “The best way to get new customers is when you have your most loyal followers tell their network how great your brand is,” says Edelman’s Peacock. “Your best and most loyal customers are more likely to forgive you if you screw up, as long as you make it right.”

Nurturing that relationship with your loyal followers can take a number of different forms: HootSuite, for example, gives its brand ambassadors discounts on its Pro membership and “ambassador swag” for those who organize “HootUps”—meetups of HootSuite users to network and share best social media practices. And smaller businesses, perhaps even more so, need to nurture that relationship too. Craig Boyd, co-owner of Precision Athletics, a small personal training and fitness studio on Beatty Street in downtown Vancouver, says his team resources can’t compete with larger fitness chains; together with his business partner, Pepe Picco, he employs 10 personal trainers on a full- and part-time basis. Because his company is so small, his online reputation is one of his primary means of driving business to the club, along with their online training programs. “Getting ranked at the top of Google Places is always our priority,” Boyd explains. In fact, he says, his company has managed to maintain top ranking for the search terms “personal trainer Vancouver.”

Boyd credits that ranking with positive reviews from clients, though garnering those reviews isn’t necessarily a straightforward process. He regularly holds contests for clients who post on Yelp and Facebook: those who write a review, positive or negative, are entered into a draw for a few gift certificates to local spas and restaurants, or a free month on their membership. The multiple reviews keep his company name active before it slips in the rankings. “We used to be reactionary, but now we’re proactive,” he says. “Two to three times a year we run a review contest to get fresh reviews.

“It doesn’t have to cost a lot. You want perceived value—a free month of training, a $50 gift certificate. Compared to other forms of advertising, it’s very cost effective. $100 isn’t going to get me an ad anywhere, but 20 new reviews might boost my Google Places profile to the number one spot.”

The trick is getting his fans to his Yelp page. Emailing the link directly to his customers will backfire, as Yelp filters out reviews its algorithms deem to be potentially the result of solicitation. Instead, says Boyd, he encourages clients to search for his business on Yelp on their own, and posts a Yelp link on his Facebook page.

Boyd also publishes an e-newsletter and a blog (four of his staff contribute to the blog, and two contribute to the newsletter), and the company maintains a lively Facebook page with the help of a social media expert—and while he doesn’t have a team of staff to monitor every comment that Precision gets online, his tactic is to try to prevent the negative reviews in the first place. “I think the amount of effort it takes to make a negative review, the user is only going to post if they’re really pissed off. Your best response is to deliver good service. We try to address it in-house before they’re angry.”

The fact is, despite a company’s best efforts, a lot of consumers are still left angry—or at least, unsatisfied—with their social-media interactions. According to a study released by Insights West in November of last year, one in three British Columbians said they used social media to criticize and complain about products or services—but only one in four was happy about how the grievance was handled.

“It comes down to basic communication skills,” says SFU’s Chow-White. “It’s not just with the individual—other people are watching. How you brand yourself in terms of the image of your company is going to be affected by how you conduct yourself in public communication.”

The Insurance Corporation of British Columbia is one local organization that’s put great effort into joining the online conversation about its brand. “We’ve been active on social media since 2006, when we started our YouTube channel,” says Tracy Bains, manager of digital marketing for ICBC. “Being able to dialogue with customers, that’s been a key reason to be active in this space.”

For a while, they had just one staff member managing their social media. It was a problem, says Bains, as more and more customers began approaching ICBC via Twitter—particularly popular with those who were under 25. “Our resource was tapped,” says Bains. “That one person couldn’t possibly know all the ins and outs of all the customer scenarios that might crop up.”

Instead, the company shifted to a hub-and-spoke model in 2013, training nine staff members from digital marketing, customer relations and media relations to monitor, respond and program its social media feeds (one to two of those staff are on the feeds at any one time). “It allows us to really draw on their years of experience to resolve common questions and difficult questions,” says Bains. “These folks have been doing it year after year, so there’s an opportunity for us to tap into that hive mind.”

Now, when a user tweets #ICBC sucks, someone from customer relations responds immediately. “We respond to anything, positive or negative,” says Kate Pasieka, a senior communication specialist for ICBC. “Even when people are swearing or starting out in a very negative vein, we sometimes see them turn around. Sometimes they’re surprised we respond in the first place.” Most importantly, they’re engaging the customer in a dialogue where it wants to dialogue (namely, on Twitter)—and not pushing them into more traditional forums.

It’s this same strategy that Telus put to use when it countered the “Thomas” tweet with its meatball joke. “We see the opportunity, when folks on Twitter are negative about the company, to come back in a friendly way in an attempt to disarm them, help them and hopefully win them over,” says Erin Dermer, director of media relations and social media for Telus, where 18 full-time team members engage with customers on the company’s social channels.

The Telus user community is so active online, in fact, the company had to create a new platform for it. When their service is interrupted or their PVR instructions prove too mysterious, many Telus customers turn to Twitter—but, as is the nature of the beast, responses with advice from Telus often cycle off the page before other needy customers have the chance to benefit from it. Last summer, Telus addressed this problem by launching Telus Neighbourhood, a dedicated interactive website organized around forums for customers to ask—and answer—questions, sometimes with the help of a moderator, sometimes just among each other.

The launch of the site was heavily promoted through the company’s social media channels and its own website, though it seems to have become self-sustaining: more than 2,000 forum threads—in subjects ranging from everything from monthly usage to “PVR skipping to end of show when I hit skip”—have been developed by over 11,000 users. “The content is driven by the community,” says Dermer, who notes that, as of March, the site had reduced calls by more than 28,000, saving the company more than $235,000 in operating expenses.

And that, increasingly, is the key message about managing your reputation online. It’s not just a soft skill, but something that translates into hard numbers: reduced calls, fewer make-goods and money saved. Of course, social media isn’t a magic bullet—as SFU’s Chow-White points out, a company needs to analyze what the online efforts mean. “We need to think, ‘What are the things that work, and what didn’t work?,’ rather than just jumping on everything,” he says. “You need to take an objective view of how to connect your activities in social media—like your sales or staffing.”

HootSuite’s Brookes agrees. “Businesses should look to track analytics that tie directly to their goals. The fact of the matter is, social is not a layer independent of other business goals,” she says. “It is a powerful driver of these goals, and should be set up accordingly.”

Social media engagement also offers companies an opportunity to get a deeper understanding of both their business and their customer—the so-called “big data” analysis that’s become the buzzword in both classrooms and boardrooms. By becoming familiar with tools such as Google Analytics, says Chow-White, companies have the opportunity to analyze what’s working (and what’s not). “If you’re asking simple questions when you send out a post—like who reads it, where did they read it, the nature of the content you write and when is that content successful—it can say a lot about where you are and who you are.” That means more than just measuring the number of retweets of one of your posts, but really looking at what kinds of posts are working, who your most loyal customers are and engaging them.

ICBC’s Bains notes that her company has used its social media feed as a way to better understand how they need to improve their information dispersal. “It’s a great opportunity to get insight into customers’ minds and what we could better address,” she explains. “Is there content that’s missing online, or FAQs we should be addressing? It definitely started out as brand management, but now we’re better prepared to address the concerns of our customers.”