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Whether you're aware of them or not, conversations regarding your brand are happening online. In fact, there are plenty of online social review sites out there dedicated exclusively to fostering such conversations. Some, such as Yelp and CNET, are well known and highly trafficked by the masses. But other lesser-known niche forums offer equally valuable insights for brands that know how to tap into them.
That said, such forums are built for consumers -- not brands. Thus, marketers are expected to walk a fine line when it comes to listening to and participating in these conversations.
So, what can and should brands do to monitor -- and perhaps even influence -- their reputations on online product and service review sites? What are the pitfalls, advantages, and opportunities to look for (or avoid)?
We posed these and other questions to a number of industry experts, including analysts, ad agency heads, and others, and asked them to weigh in with their digital two cents.
Here's what they had say.
There are a lot of online forums out there, including countless product and service review sites, where relevant consumer conversations regarding your brand are taking place. It simply isn't feasible to monitor and participate in every one. So how do you decide where to focus?
Much of this comes down to being familiar with the types of sites out there and your brand's relation to them. For example, retail companies are likely to find monitoring social networks and community forums particularly useful because consumers regularly discuss their purchases and experiences on such sites. And of course, peer reviews dramatically impact purchase behavior. These forums, as well as price comparison websites, are the ideal place for marketers to engage directly with consumers who care the most, says Andreas Roell, who heads up digital marketing agency Geary Interactive. Consumers in these forums routinely take the time to write comments, so if a marketer can cultivate a relationship with these individuals, they have an opportunity to create a loyal, influential customer base.
Message boards are also good resources for marketers, though they can be hard to monitor due to the sheer number of them. Thus, marketers need to find ways to simplify their searches. BoardTracker.com is one of the biggest players in this field, currently tracking more than 37,000 forums. Similarly, Copernic Inc. offers software that searches for new content on web pages (including product review sites) as often as you like. When a change is detected, the tracking software notifies you by sending an email, including a copy of the page with the changes highlighted.
While automated solutions can be useful, marketers should invest time in familiarizing themselves with the communities that have the greatest relevance for their brands. In this regard, Rob Enderle, president and principal analyst at emerging technology advisory firm Enderle Group, says that marketers need to be on the lookout for sites that cover areas in which their companies operate. These are the best places to find insight into how others perceive your company, your industry, and your customers, as well as the trends and news that surround all three. "These will give you a sense for how your brands perform against others in the same space, and whether folks are thinking more positively or negatively over time about them," Enderle says.
One of the first steps in tapping into the conversations taking place on product and service review sites is determining a method for monitoring such conversations. In general, the internet can be viewed as a great divide -- one between content that search engines like Google index and content that engines are not allowed to index. Marty Weintraub, president of internet ad agency aimClear, notes that it's the forums that go unindexed that pose particular challenges -- as well as opportunities -- for marketers monitoring the buzz surrounding their companies.
"Locked off behind non-searchable walls stand entire sites, small and huge communities, pockets of user engagement and other content," he says. "These 'walled gardens' are more difficult because they most often require a human to log in and search. From corners of Facebook to small forums, [you should] monitor sites not indexed by Google based on what folks are interested in and chattering about."
On the flipside, when it comes to indexed content, finding reviews and conversations surrounding your brand has never been easier, notes Miguel Salcido, vice president of operations for internet marketing agency eVisibility. For example, free services like Google Alerts will notify you via email when a word or phrase you specify, such as your brand name, hits its index. Likewise, Twitter Search enables you to track mentions of your brand on the "live web."
"There are other paid services that scour the web, detect negative or positive intent, and map things out in nice graphs," Salcido says. "But Google Alerts and Twitter Search will serve most people just fine, and since Google carries the large majority of traffic on the web and Twitter is so popular, they are great places to look."
Although brands should be actively monitoring forums for conversations regarding their brands, as well as competing brands, diving straight into the conversation when your name pops up is not always the way to go, says Crosby Noricks, social media strategist for Red Door Interactive. Forums are micro-communities, and each has its own protocol, culture, and influencers (often moderators or those with the most posts). As such, brands need to understand the community first by spending time monitoring before engaging. In addition, she advises, make sure to check the site's terms of service to see if there is any policy regarding brands operating in the forum.
"You may want to send an email to the powers that be at the forum to ask permission to post -- explain in what capacity and what kind of information you want to share," Noricks says. "Commit to becoming an engaged member of the community and not operating as a sales machine."
And if you get the "all clear" from the needed authorities, create an account that is fully transparent -- with your name and a signature that includes your company name and title. If you find a conversation occurring around your product that would benefit from product information, launch dates, or clarification of use or functionality, introduce yourself as a representative of Brand X and provide the information requested.
"This is not the time for sales-speak; this is the time to become a trusted advisor, partner, and friend," Noricks adds. "Do not jump into conversations that tout the benefits of your product or bash competitor products. Most often, forum members will be glad to have an official representative available to answer questions."
Gaetan Fraikin, founder of ad strategy firm Audacity, agrees that brand participation on online product and service review sites can be a tricky issue. In that sense, he notes, there are only two ways to go about it: openly or disguised.
"Transparency with honest disclosure and identification of who a brand is when joining the conversation on a forum is critical," Fraikin says. "Although everyone knows that their input will be somewhat biased, the art is in the control of the tone and content. Any input should be informative, objective, and accurate."
If your brand is receiving a lot of negative buzz in online forums, then you have much larger marketing problems, says IdaRose Sylvester, a management consultant and former IDC analyst now with Silicon Valley Link. And odds are those problems need to be solved at the top-line brand management level, following a comprehensive analysis of brand image.
"If your brand is receiving negative, but true, criticism, it is a perfect opportunity to reengage the customer base and truly address the issues in a public forum, turning a disaster into a success story," Sylvester says.
Roell notes that it's impossible for a brand to eliminate or delete negative buzz within online forums. However, he adds, if companies adequately monitor what's being said about their brands -- good and bad -- they can take advantage of the opportunity to turn critical consumers into brand fans.
"Responding to criticism with something as simple as, 'Thank you for your comments, your concerns have been brought to our attention' goes a long way with consumers because it shows you care," Roell says.
While it can be beneficial to have brand representatives respond to conversations happening on review sites, they must not be defensive. They should focus on conveying positive messages, while assuring reviewers that the brand considers their feedback very important.
But brands should never seek to completely eliminate negative buzz, says Melani Gordon, founder of digital marketing agency gWave Consulting. After all, Gordon says, critical reviews demonstrate the "true human factor" of a brand and enable consumers to weigh the opinions on both sides.
"It's important for consumers/clients to see a clear view from both sides and generate their own opinion," Gordon says.
In addressing criticism, it's imperative that brands do so factually, says Prasad Tagat, founder and chairman of India-based Turnaround Marketing Communications Pvt. Ltd. Even if criticism is untrue, be courteous. "Always respond in a polite way and try to keep the focus on the positive parts," Tagat says. "But also accept the negative parts and assure [them] that you will try to work on these."
In addition to responding to criticism, marketers should try to learn more regarding the roots of the negative feedback. In that respect, Jeff Donnelley, president of marketing and advertising agency 760 Media, recommends building your own focus groups by offering incentive-based test marketing. Brands can use online software like SurveyMonkey.com or ConstantContact.com to find out more about where negative buzz originated and how they can combat it better in the future.
"This can also be perceived as a sign of good will, if conducted properly," Donnelley says.
Another newer tool for monitoring and combating negative online buzz is called StepRep, notes Brandon Fishman, president of interactive marketing agency Internet Marketing Inc. An online reputation management tool, StepRep is designed not only to monitor your results but also to enable you to combat criticism from one central location. StepRep also monitors social platforms like Twitter and Facebook for negative chatter. After all, while many companies are turning to social networks to promote their products and services, this strategy opens them up to a lot of potential criticism.
"Oftentimes, by the time you become aware of negative press, the damage has already been done," Fishman says. "The longer you allow any negative press to anchor itself into a search result for your brand name, the more difficult it will be to move down the road. StepRep allows 100 percent real-time monitoring so you can quickly react and respond to any negative buzz associating your business."
Of course, monitoring and contributing to forums can be very time consuming (and thus costly) for a company, Fishman notes. Nonetheless, some companies are able to dedicate employees to do just that. Some even hire reputation management consultants to boost their brands' reputations via consumer review websites. These consultants' tactics often consist of simply posting false reviews revering their products -- and even criticizing competitors as well.
"While this may help on a small scale for some companies who rely heavily on these product review sites, the best (and more ethical) way is to ask a satisfied customer to write a review for you and post it on different links you send them," Fishman says.
When trying to rally your brand advocates to sing your praises online, Salcido says marketers should focus their efforts on social networks. Setting up a blog, for example, is one way brands can encourage their fans to participate.
"But the brand has to be serious about running these accounts and dedicate resources to it," Salcido says. "It has to be done right because people will sniff out the fakers in a heartbeat, and it could turn negative very quickly."
Encouraging reviews on sites such as Yelp can be as simple as adding a "Review Us" button to your company's email newsletter, or at the bottom of a receipt, Noricks says. Incentives can work well here. For example, "Review us on Yelp and get $10 off your next service/lunch/refill."
Fraikin adds that this is where social media optimization comes in handy. By participating in conversations on social media sites such as MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, and blogs, brands gain opportunities to direct traffic to additional locations, such as review sites.
The effectiveness of advertising on review forums will vary greatly depending on the site, as well as the type of product or service being advertised. Similar to other media placements, Fraikin recommends crafting a media plan that precisely targets your audience, secures a dominant position from a "real estate" standpoint, and includes a series of test steps to make sure that the ultimate ROI will be positive.
"One element to add to the value of advertising, but that will not be part of the ROI, is brand equity building," Fraikin says. "This is difficult to quantify but should be taken into consideration when developing a media plan."
As with most advertising, relevancy is key. If the product or service being advertised appears on a relevant review site (i.e., a digital camera brand on Sazze), then the placement absolutely makes sense, Fishman says. After all, consumers who enter such sites seeking reviews on electronic devices likely have an interest in buying something. Thus, an advertisement for a camera and a link to a corresponding website or landing page can be effective for a brand and useful to the consumer as well.
"While advertisements can boost your online presence and perhaps drive traffic to your site, they do not necessarily improve your reviews on these sites," Fishman notes. "But a greater online presence is beneficial either way."
Neal Leavitt is president of Fallbrook, Calif.-based Leavitt Communications, an international marketing communications company.
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