Where there's a challenge, there's also opportunity.
"Every single day, someone, somewhere is discussing something important to your business."
This is a quote from Andy Beal's "Online Reputation Monitoring Beginners Guide," and I couldn't agree more. Ask any local business owner how she's grown her company and you'll inevitably hear "customer referrals" or "word of mouth." Customers have always played an essential role in business success. But with widespread adoption of the Web, what has changed is the increased speed of dissemination and the expanded scope of influence customers have.
All-Important Customer Reviews
Your customers' opinions -- good and bad -- can have a significant effect on your bottom line. If you don't believe me, just ask any business owner who's suffered the wrath of a disgruntled blogger, experienced an ex-employee venting negative complaints online, or had a not-so-pleasant customer post a negative review.
Customer reviews have become an instrumental piece of the online local search experience. Instead of opening the big yellow book to find a local service provider, people now go online and use services like Judy's Book, Insider Pages, and ServiceMagic.
Judy's Book has more than 500,000 consumer reviews and over a million unique visitors every month. Insider Pages describes itself as "a neighborhood word-of-mouth resource." ServiceMagic encourages users to submit reviews on professionals they've hired so other clients can make better-informed choices. In the travel industry, TripAdvisor has made a name for itself based on traveler reviews and opinions.
Don't forget local search engines, such as Yahoo Local and Google Maps. Ever notice the stars listed next to some businesses? On Yahoo, searchers can sort results based on customer reviews, putting the five-star listings at the top of the list. Yahoo encourages customers to review businesses directly from the Yahoo Local site. Google incorporates reviews from Citysearch, Judy's Book, DiningGuide, and others.
Online Reputation Management
There's no doubt consumers are increasingly in charge. Yet, according to Chris DeVore, COO of Judy's Book, "most local businesses are asleep at the wheel."
Online reputation management is something every business should understand and become involved in. Specifically, every local business owner should:
Monitor the Conversation
The first step is to listen. Get tapped into the conversation. Monitor what's being said online. Track information on your company, your competition, your industry, and key people. With the number of blogs doubling every six months, the volume of possible sources is daunting. Here are a few tools to help local business owners find relevant information:
Jennifer Laycock, editor of Search Engine Guide and author of "Small Business Guide to Search Engine Marketing," reminds local business owners to also keep an eye on their own Web logs. Oftentimes, a spike in a particular referrer means someone's talking about you and linking to your site.
Help Influence Opinions
OK, so if you can't totally control what others say online, what can you do to influence people's opinions about your business?
Certainly the information you provide on your own Web site is critical. Regularly post your own opinions and responses on the site. When you find a positive comment or review about your business on a blog or review site, link to this from your own site.
Laycock offers this advice to local business owners: "If a customer is happy about something you did, ask them to take the time to post a review on Yahoo Local or another site. Then, thank them with a coupon or another customer benefit." Restaurants have been hanging reviews in their lobbies for years. In a similar fashion, local businesses can print and promote positive online reviews.
You can't influence the conversation if you don't participate. Contribute to relevant blogs and forums. Take steps to create your own blog or message board and regularly issue optimized press releases.
Responding to negative comments can be tricky, but most experts suggest businesses think before they act. Investigate the situation first. Be honest and admit mistakes. Explain what actions are being taken to rectify the situation and offer to resolve any complaints personally.
Embrace the Opportunity
Consumer-generated content is a scary proposition for many businesses due to the lack of control. But where there's a challenge, there's an opportunity. Local firms that embrace online reputation management, enlist their customers, and get involved in the conversation have a real opportunity to influence public opinion and positively affect their bottom line.
Your formula for success: Listen. Engage. Influence.
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Patricia Hursh is president and founder of SmartSearch Marketing, a Boulder, CO, based SEM agency established in 1999. The company specializes in interactive solutions designed to generate leads, acquire customers, and build brands online.
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