Online computer retailer Dell Inc. learned a lesson about managing online reputation the hard way when a heavy-handed approach towards a blog post attracted more negative attention than the original post.
Dell reacted to popular blog The Consumerist’s article “22 confessions of a former Dell sales manager” with a cease and desist letter in June 2007. But the letter didn’t have the intended effect. Quite the opposite, in fact.
When the lawyer’s letter was posted, Dell faced the brunt of a full-scale social media rebellion.
“It was a good example of a company really flubbing interaction with a blog,” says Ben Popken, editor of The Consumerist. “Instead of allowing that article to be there, they tried to squash it, and that just doesn’t work online.”
After the issue was picked up by technology blogs from across the Internet and featured among the most popular items on social bookmarking site Digg, Dell rescinded.
They posted a blog of their own on their Direct2Dell blooging site admitting they were wrong and dropped the matter.
“They were just getting slammed,” Popken says. “If they cared at all about their credibility online, they couldn’t ignore it.”
Dell’s botching of their dealings with The Consumerist is just one story of many told of companies doing more harm than good when it comes to their online reputation.
Many firms of varying tech savvy are now turning to vendors peddling services that aim to protect a company’s reputation in the tricky world of social media.
With every consumer able to use the Web as a megaphone to voice criticisms about a product or company, that’s a tough job. But it’s a lot easier if a company plans ahead instead of waiting to react to negative comments, says Ezra Silverton, marketing director at 9th Sphere.
“Unfortunately, that’s when most of our clients contact us,” he says. So now the Toronto-based Internet marketing company is offering an online reputation management service.
The service seeks to get positive comments posted about a client on other Web sites appear higher in search engine rankings. Clients may be looking for a long-term Internet strategy, or simply to bury some negative press.
“Maybe there is a case a law firm lost and it doesn’t want publicly highlighted,” Silverton says. “If you see a search result appear right under the law firm’s Web site saying they lost a big lawsuit, that doesn’t put a positive image on them.”
But certain search engine optimization techniques, such as linking to positive reviews will only go so far, the marketing director says.
9th Sphere also creates and manages social media profiles for clients. It monitors discussions going on around the client’s brand and identifies opportunities for the latter to respond.
“Negative comments can actually still provide an opportunity to shed some light on why something happened, and then your company can correct it,” Silverton says. “Even a negative comment can be turned into a positive.”
That’s the strategy Dell has taken since their incident with The Consumerist, says Bob Pearson, vice-president of communities and conversations at Dell. The company has placed focus on reaching out to help dissatisfied customers online.
“We’re pretty candid about our mistakes, we learn from it and move on,” he says. “If you have a company of our size making a goof, you have to come clean about it.”
Companies have to accept they can’t control the discussion about their brand in social media, says Cheryl Sylvester, a Toronto-based brand guru. But they can manage the perceptions about the brand, and an online reputation service could be part of that overall strategy.
“It may damage your brand to be seen as a company that is trying to suppress a negative comment,” she says. “It could end up hurting your reputation more than the original complaint.”
Take it from The Consumerist – a heavy handed approach is not the way to deal with social media.
“When you send a cease and desist letter to a blogger with any backbone, they’re going to post it,” Popken says.
Dell has created their own blogs around the world to help manage their brand in the social media space. There are also community forums that foster online discussion, and even an avenue that allows customers to suggest ideas for Dell that are seriously considered for implementation.
Dell employees are also free to engage in social networks while at work, Pearson says. There’s also a transparency policy requiring employees to identify themselves as when discussing Dell online.
New companies that offer a service dealing with online reputation aren’t about suppressing negative content, Sylvester says. It’s more about having a sophisticated mans to deal with an online presence – especially for companies that aren’t Web savvy.
It won’t be too long until metrics are developed to gauge the positive or negative nature of a company’s Web presence, the co-founder of Yourbrandmakeover.com adds.
Measurements of the success of a social media campaign depend on what it is you’re trying to accomplish, Silverton says. But there are a few things companies can look at thanks to analytical tools available on the Web.
A company can see what key words are associated with their company, for example, and then see what other sites those searches bring up.
“You can kind of get an idea of how people are seeing your Web site among the search results,” he says. Typically, people will search for a company’s name to find them on the Web.
When negative comments are found on social media Web sites, it’s best to contact the person who posted them with some constructive feedback as opposed to a legal letter, Silverton says. This could turn what was a criticism into a resolved issue, thanks to the company’s response.
Dell has been using reputation metrics that keep tabs on negative comments made in the blogosphere over the past couple of years. The numbers show their efforts to improve their online reputation are paying off, Pearson says.
In August 2006, Dell was receiving about 48 per cent negative comments. But today that number is down to just below 20 per cent.