Five Ways to Ethically Manage a Brand's Online Reputation

03/25/2015 09:53 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2015

The Reputation Institute has declared businesses now compete in "a new marketplace reality in which people buy products, take jobs, and make investments based primarily on their trust, admiration and appreciation for the companies and institutions that stand behind them." One might contend that reputation has always been the cornerstone of any business -- 30 years ago we were introduced to the phrase "nobody ever got fired for buying IBM" -- but there is no dispute that the nature of reputation-building has changed.

What once was built on direct, personal interaction is now largely developed via a series of online and often anonymous interactions. What's more, the proliferation of consumer feedback sites like Amazon, Yelp and TripAdvisor has made product or brand feedback travel farther, faster and with more volume than ever. All of this has made the task of managing online reputations a big business for dozens of vendors who promise to give digital makeovers to everyone from small business owners to politicians to big brand marketers.

Many of those organizations offer credible services to help brands source authentic content from happy customers. But others engage in unethical practices that attempt to suppress negative content by either flooding search engines with favorable -- but fraudulent -- on-brand stories or even trying to eliminate unfavorable content about a brand. Adding complexity to the issue is the sophistication that is now employed to pump up a brand's reputation. Some vendors use clever tactics to evade detection by anti-fraud systems, and there is now a cottage industry of enterprising individuals who are looking to make a quick buck by posting fake reviews, comments and stories about a brand or its competitors.

All of this has resulted in a degradation of consumer trust. In fact, a Bazaarvoice survey showed that 70 percent of U.S. consumers have questioned the trustworthiness of product or service reviews across the web.

In an environment where consumer confidence in a brand's digital presence can make or break business success, approaching online reputation management ethically is a core strategy. Here are some best practices in managing online content for a strong reputation:

Improve Search Traffic and Ranking with Dynamic Content
Most consumer feedback is positive. In the Bazaarvoice network, more than 85 percent of reviews are four and five stars. That means the overall rating for a product tends to increase along with the volume of reviews it receives. Volume also plays a critical role in Google's algorithms, so a steady stream of fresh content about a brand will be rewarded with higher search results. Word-of-mouth programs like product reviews are one of the most powerful ways to impact search rankings. In fact, adding reviews to a product page typically results in a 15-25 percent increase in search traffic.

Embrace Negative Feedback
Nobody wants to see negative feedback about their business, but even negative feedback can be good for business because hidden within it are opportunities to make a business better -- whether it's a product, service, operational process or even marketing materials.

At the 2014 Bazaarvoice Summit, Gap, Inc. shared why using negative reviews to root out product flaws can be an extremely valuable exercise, especially considering the company maintains more than 20,000 products on its site. For Gap, reviews can help identify issues with the fit, quality and material of specific items, allowing them to make adjustments in production.

Other brands, like The Container Store, discussed their decision to use reviews as a source of content to improve marketing materials. In one example, feedback on one of the company's products -- a small moving trolley -- revealed that product owners were most excited about how small the trolley folds up for storage. This was previously a feature the brand hadn't even considered, or included in the product copy. Taking consumer feedback into account, The Container Store rewrote the copy to match those positive reviews, and shot new product photos to better visualize the trolley's transformation in size.

Build Positive Brand Associations Through Responsiveness
When brands respond to feedback or questions, they score points with consumers. Data from the Bazaarvoice network shows that shoppers who saw a brand response to a negative product review were 186 percent more likely to purchase than those who didn't. What's more, those brand responses increased consumer product sentiment by 157 percent, and helped build positive brand associations for the consumer. Nearly 71 percent of consumers changed their perception of a brand after seeing a brand response to a review.

If a business makes a change based on customer feedback, it's a great opportunity to respond. Be sure to communicate to your consumers the impact that their feedback had on product iterations -- it will encourage additional engagement down the line.

Strive for Full Transparency
Brands should have full transparency about any incentives offered in exchange for someone to leave feedback in a public forum. It's ok to offer discounts or rewards to customers who leave feedback -- just disclose it. In fact, 35 percent of U.S. consumers say they would be more trusting of reviews knowing that companies disclose an exchange of this kind.

Transparency also extends to what brands disclose about the consumer-generated content displayed on their websites and other marketing properties. Savvy but skeptical consumers are no longer satisfied with platitudes such as, "we have a filter" to weed out fake content. Rather, 44 percent of U.S. consumers say they would be more trusting of reviews if the company presents a trust mark accompanied by a description of anti-fraud policies.

Find a Like-Minded Partner
A vendor committed to fraud prevention can be a business's secret weapon to stop the submission of fake content from any source. In fact, 81 percent of U.S. consumers say they would feel more comfortable with online reviews if they are captured, monitored and displayed by a neutral third-party. The right partner will have invested in the technology and personnel necessary to intercept disruptive or "trolling" behavior, commercial messages, automated submissions (like bots and scripts,) and even illegitimate content from a competitor.

But remember, fraud prevention is more than watching for fake reviews; it's also means pledging to leave all content untouched -- both the good and the bad. The commitment to not altering or cherry-picking consumer reviews is as much a responsibility of internal stakeholders as it is for outside partners. The positive side of this is that consumers today tend to view a page with only positive reviews as suspicious, so the presence of negative reviews may actually have a positive impact on sales. This is precisely why Bazaarvoice operates under an Authenticity Policy that not only helps protect content from fraud and spam, but also guides processes to help ensure reviews are free of edits, classification, or other alteration and transparently identify incentives.

Even with mixed feedback in public online forums, a business can earn a great reputation with a steady stream of authentic content and thoughtful responses. It requires a commitment to invest in the right combination of people, processes and technology. Because, ultimately, while brands can be managed, reputations must be earned.