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Manage Your Company's Online Identity -- Or The Competition Will Manage It For You

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Your LinkedIn profile is diligently maintained, your blog is free of comment spam, and you tell your kids to wipe their Facebook pages clean of party photos. You work hard to maintain control of your personal online identity. But do you give the same attention to how your business is portrayed online?

The online identity, or "o-dentity," of your business can help or hinder its bottom line. Yet, too many executives fail to safeguard their company's online reputation. If you allow disgruntled customers or bloggers with a grudge to speak out unhindered about your company, rest assured your competitors will pounce on this opportunity to spread the (negative) word. Following are the five most common mistakes top executives make regarding the management of their company's o-dentity, and some advice on taking control to prevent a downward spiral.

1) Delegating o-dentity and holding steadfast to the "it's not my job" attitude. Many top executives see managing the link between CEO voice and corporate brand as something their PR and marketing firms do, along with managing a blog and the company's Twitter feed - that's why you hired them, right?

However, control of a company's online reputation can no longer be outsourced without further thought -- or worse, kicked downstairs to IT and the SEO management team. Noise from the online world is too loud, complicated, and fast-moving to delegate this task. CEOs need to proactively communicate with potential customers or investors in social media outlets such as blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

If you're not making a connection between your voice and views as a CEO, and your company's brand, you'll become a corporate dinosaur. Think of Steve Jobs and Apple Computer, or Jeff Bezos at Amazon, execs who truly live and breathe their brands. The presence and voice of the CEO is now more important to branding than the right logo, tagline or campaign.

2) Clinging to one-way communication with customers. In the old days (that is, before 2003 or so), you talked to your customers and they didn't talk back - or at least they didn't talk back in a way that could result in a crisis in a matter of hours. If customers were unhappy, they called customer service, their problem was solved, and the CSR rep closed the file - end of the story.

Nowadays, customer communications has morphed from a one-way street into a multi directional super highway, and CEOs who ignore this fact do so at significant peril. Top executives who are engaged with customers and online influencers on a daily basis can rectify problems before they turn into crises.

To get a handle on the dialogue surrounding your company, you need to spend time reviewing the top 10 thought-leader blogs and Twitter feeds covering your industry - don't rely on summaries from assistants or wait until they tell you about the negative buzz. You and your company should be engaged daily in two-way conversation with the top influencers in your industry, whether these are executives of other businesses or vocal customers.

Granted, this won't be an easy transition for executives who aren't comfortable with such direct (and possibly confrontational) contact with influencers - it's easier to deliver a speech and be done with it.

Nevertheless, you need to ask questions and listen to what influencers are saying. Don't talk "at" people -- talk "with" them.

3) Underestimating the power of insights from unhappy customers. Building on the last point, not all CEOs are willing to accept the fact that today the power of one voice - that is, a customer - can provide valuable insights on products and services. Before social media changed the world, a disappointed consumer could only tell a handful of other people about their experience. Today, one viral posting about lousy service (like the infamous recording of an AOL member's argument with a customer service rep) can result in thousands of social media posts or even stories in The New York Times or Wall Street Journal.

Learn from Dell's example of retooling customer service: After getting hammered in the blogosphere about poor response to online customer complaints, Dell created a "social media swat team" that monitored blogs for negative posts about Dell's products. The posts are routed to this team, which can then quickly respond before the negative post gains traction.

And be proactive: Don't wait for complaints to come in through the toll-free number before you do anything about them - contact unhappy customers before they can negatively influence other customers. Airlines, often roundly criticized for poor service, are getting smarter about fast response to customer problems via Twitter and other social networks. Delta Air Lines now has a special team, @DeltaAssist, that monitors Twitter for passenger complaints.

4)
Believing that customers understand the difference between The Wall Street Journal and a blogger. Executives think consumers can differentiate between a respected media outlet like The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times - whose staff are governed by a code of ethics, and whose lawyers ensure reportage is fair and accurate - and a blogger with a few readers who could be backed by your competition.

Today everyone with a Internet access can be a "journalist," regardless of whether they have had training and answer to a team of editors, or simply started a blog using free software. Don't assume consumers can discern the nuances of journalism - if your customers take bloggers or Twitter users seriously, then you should too.

When Sean Parker, an entrepreneur and the first president of Facebook, was concerned at how his portrayal in the movie "The Social Network" was damaging his online reputation, he didn't just sit still. He reached out to Henry Blodget, CEO of the online business publication Business Insider and a Huffington Post columnist, to tell his side of the story. Thanks to Blodget's posts, as well as tweets to his 24,000+ followers, Parker was able to present an alternate picture of his life and accomplishments.

5) Sending out inconsistent messages to external and internal audiences. Do you tell customers that you pride yourself on exemplary customer service, then fail to offer them a toll-free number for questions so they can speak with a real person? Do you proclaim your company as an innovator, yet tell your employees that you're pulling back on R&D?

You need to represent the company internally in the same way you do to your customers. Two excellent examples come to mind: Nordstrom and Gilt Groupe. Nordstrom is legendary for its in-store customer service, and has successful extended this experience to the web. Likewise, Gilt Groupe, the discount designer fashion website, projects an image of exclusivity and stellar customer service. Both embrace consistent messaging. There's no disconnect, because the image is reality.

When you make a mistake -- like shoe retailer Kenneth Cole did recently by tweeting, "Millions are in uproar in #Cairo. Rumor is they heard our new spring collection is now available online," -- quickly apologize and communicate that the message is at odds with the company's image, both inside and out.

Cole tweeted: "I apologize to everyone who was offended by my insensitive tweet about the situation in Egypt. I've dedicated my life to raising awareness about serious social issues, and in hindsight my attempt at humor regarding a nation liberating themselves against oppression was poorly timed and absolutely inappropriate."

Avoiding the "don'ts" above can help you gain visibility into and control of the online dialogue surrounding your company. Remember, if you don't take charge of your o-dentity, the competition will be happy to do it for you.