Apr 282011

“Things published on the Internet live forever.” Most everyone has heard that maxim. In the earlier days of the Internet it meant be really careful about what you publish online, because it will never go away. That of course remains great advice.

As the Internet has become more central to our lives the term has taken on a darker meaning. Now there is a connotation of fear and uncertainty, of “what bad things are people saying about me online?” There is no distinction between your real world and cyber reputations — they are now one and the same. Someone can slam you online and, fair or unfounded. that criticism can be found by friends, prospects and competitors.

This has led to a growing business niche filled with companies promising an “online makeover.” Two such companies, Reputation.com (formerly Reputation Defender) and Metal Rabbit Media were profiled early this month by Nick Bilton in the New York Times. In essence it boils down to better SEO via accelerated content publishing combined with attempting to game the search engines.  As I’ve written about on content farms, that seems like a slender reed to build a business model on to me.

So what about if you’re not anxious to outsource this function? Some solid DIY suggestions come from an article by Jaime Fairbairn in MarketProfs.com, titled “Seven Ways to Take Control of Your Online Reputation.” If you click you’ll be asked to register, and you should because it’s worth it. Ann Handley is chief content officer of MarketingProfs and its content is consistently good.

I’ve known Ann since way back in the pre-bubble days when she founded ClickZ with Andy Bourland, grew it into the best source of online marketing intelligence and sold it to JupiterMedia in 2000. It was a feel good story at a time of great excess since they really built the site up by hand without outside capital – here’s a story on Ann and Andy published prior to them selling.

Anyway, Jaime provides a clear and concise list that begs the question — why don’t more people do this themselves? Speaking for a lot of my clients in the b2b and b2g markets, the answer is they can’t. They don’t have the time, the inclination or the understanding of online etiquette to follow all the steps effectively.

So where do the problems lie? Here’s my take on Jaime’s seven habits for maintaining an excellent online reputation:

1. Set up Google Alerts

OK, no problem here. A chimpanzee should be able to set up Google alerts, no excuses.

2. Monitor mentions of your company name on Twitter

Same as above, although the providers are not nearly as well known as Google. I use SocialOomph (formerly TweetLater), and find it works well.

3. Write optimized blog articles

Here’s where the trouble begins. Have you ever asked a busy executive to write interesting copy about their area of expertise? With very few exceptions, it just isn’t going to happen. They just don’t have the time, plus there are lots of very intelligent people (especially in technology) who are shockingly poor writers. That’s why they need to hire excellent firms like Strategic Communications Group.

4. Register for industry and consumer forums

Again, sounds simple but can become a major time investment. Plus many of my clients are not ready for the rapid give and take of forum conversations, nor for separating their personal opinions with those of their employer.

5. Appear in the press and industry publications

It’s only natural most need help here. Traditional media relations is still a part of many of our engagements, though very much eclipsed by helping clients leverage social media channels.

6. Write and distribute press releases online

This one is easy enough, and demonstrates another reason why the good old press release today is much changed, but not dead.

7. Respond quickly and professionally to criticism

The larger the organization, the more challenging the “quickly” part becomes, and many organizations are too close to their product or service to respond appropriately online. More than once I’ve been told to “get that lie taken down,” and have to explain that’s not how it works. And worse, you can draw more attention to criticism with a heavy handed response.

I can add value by being very much “on the team” but at the same time providing a more objective viewpoint since I’m not a full-time employee. This type of counsel requires a strong relationship with the client and a deep understanding of their market niche.

One final takeaway for me was the central role publishing quality content plays in maintaining a good online reputation. Helping clients publish such content is a big part of what my firm does. Our goal is to use the content creatively to achieve mutually agreed to tactical business goals. But it’s nice to see confirmation that by doing so we’re also helping to strengthen and protect their online reputations.

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