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TMCNet:  Protecting online reputations is a growing enterprise

[January 03, 2011]

Protecting online reputations is a growing enterprise

Jan 02, 2011 (The Kansas City Star - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- In mid-November, Motrin released a short commercial on the Internet poking fun at baby carriers.

The spot suggested the bonding benefits of the devices might bring some back pain and thus a reason for you to buy the company's painkillers.

A rough glance at Internet traffic could suggest a viral success. People were looking at the ad and talking about it.

But, led by mommy blogger Crunchy Domestic Goddess and others, Motrin was actually getting a thorough online lashing from baby carrier devotees who felt they were being mocked.

"Because they didn't know about it," the Internet discussion blew up over a weekend and "things just got worse," said Benjamin Hagedorn, the vice president of business development at Infegy in Kansas City, North. Infegy specializes in digitally tracking and analyzing Internet conversations.

Motrin quickly pulled the ad, but not until it had angered some of the very mothers the company wanted as consumers.

Whether you're hip to the Internet buzz or not, it's out there.

There may be an online discussion about you or your company or your product. The volume goes up and down, trills through blogs and Twitter posts, pops up on comment boards, appears on news sites and in customer reviews at places like Amazon.com.

As the din spreads, your online reputation moves with it.

"What do people like or not like about a product? Are they saying good things or bad things about you? You need to keep track," Hagedorn said.

His company is but one example of the newly sophisticated ways to keep your ear to the ground. Infegy's Social Radar constantly trolls through some 8 billion Internet posts, ranking not just the rise and fall of volume on a topic, but also the tone of discussion and the words that resonate.

Likewise, people whose name stands in for their brand have particular reasons to make sure their far-flung Internet presence reflects their resume rather than the gripes of some former associate.

Businesses are willing to invest heavily in the technology that eavesdrops on conversations about them and in the techniques that make the banter more flattering.

Long gone are the days when the public square was dominated by three television networks or a handful of newspapers and magazines.

Instead, we've split into small groups across the Internet, comfy in our topical and ideological niches.

That has meant a diffusion of influence and a new class of businesses springing up to capture and move the online chatter.

At stake is the success of a product, the value of a brand, perhaps even democratic elections. (One possible explanation for why the public, or government, option wasn't part of the president's health care reform might be that it was rarely mentioned positively on blogs at the peak of legislative debate.) Infegy's Social Radar aggregator can tell you whether the discussion on a topic is more positive than negative and what language drives the conversation, and identifies -- using devices such as how often other people link to a post and whether a Twitter feed is forwarded by other people -- which sources are most influential.

A recent Social Radar search for buzz on the Xbox Kinect -- this season's breakout electronic game platform -- produced results that were both predictable and surprising. The conversations are overwhelmingly upbeat about the Microsoft product.

Positive conversations -- words such as "fun," "best," "good," "great" -- are used most commonly. The few negative posts, less than 10 percent of the total, are marked most often by the words "problem," "bad," "doubt" and "risk." The most influential websites, predictably, are Engadget and Gizmodo.

But let's say you sell an Xbox accessory and you want to turn the conversations at those gadget-centric blogs to your product. Going straight to them might be hard. Their very popularity means you'll be competing with plenty of others for their attention.

There's an option. The more obscure site Pocket-Lint.com, it turns out, is almost as influential. In fact, it has clout with Gizmodo and Engadget, so if you're looking for a place to send a Kinect accessory product demo, maybe Pocket-Lint is a good choice.

"Marketers," Hagedorn said, "want to know who to broadcast to." The value of online buzz is only getting harder to overvalue. A December online survey by Harris Interactive of more than 2,000 Americans found that roughly three in four think it's important to check the Internet about people or companies before doing business with them. And almost as many say they'd probably refuse to do business with somebody after finding negative information about them online.

Some 80 percent value their online reputation as much as their real world status, the Harris survey said, and 90 percent want more control over how their virtual selves are presented to the world.

Intelius, which commissioned the survey, wants to do just that. It provides the underlying technology, and aggregation of public records, that powers people searches for Yahoo and AT&T. And for a fee, it will give you expanded searching powers.

The company also offers customers the ability to alter their online footprints. For instance, its customers can annotate their records to explain that a long-ago trespassing conviction was for nothing more than hopping a fence at a rock concert. Or someone worried about a violent ex-boyfriend can expunge a recent address.

The changes and additions would apply only to that information channeled through Intelius services, remaining unchanged on a service such as Nexis. And it remains up to further searchers to conclude whether you've been honest in the footnotes to your profile. But spokesman Jim Cullinan said that since Intelius is the industry leader, altering the record there is an effective way to tweak your online reputation.

TrueRep, the company's latest product, offers a "way to create an online reputation promoting only the information you want people to see," the website says. The service ultimately offers scores on how visible you are online and how positive your image is.

The importance of your personal reputation might wax and wane, depending on if you're looking for a new job or for a date. But a business reputation is in need of constant care.

ChannelAdvisor, a software provider to online retailers, says its research finds that 92 percent of consumers read online product reviews. Of those, just 3 percent said the reviews had no influence on them.

And increasingly, reviews are a critical element in search results from Google, Bing and Yahoo.

"If you think you can control something on the Internet, you're going to be disappointed," said Neal Creighton, the CEO of Ratepoint.

His company aspires to be the go-to rating agency for online reviews, something he likens to "the Better Business Bureau of the future." Ratepoint claims sophisticated technology that protects its rating systems from manipulation, blocking both atta-boys planted by a company about itself and sabotage criticisms from competitors.

There are no shortcuts, Creighton said. Businesses need to treat their customers well and then solicit their reviews. Then when enough feedback spills online, their work will be rewarded.

"There's just no way," he said, "to fake it." Not that there aren't efforts. An entire industry has evolved around so-called search engine optimization -- techniques that often revolve around the use of popular buzzwords to drive more traffic to a website. Some people and companies also try to flood the Internet with upbeat posts about themselves, hoping to crowd out more negative mentions from the first screen of an Internet search.

In the same spirit of trying to game the Internet, Thomas Weber at the Daily Beast found in an experiment last month that 1,300 people, a smaller crowd than many high school basketball games, were enough to punch a New York Times story to the top of the newspaper's "most e-mailed" list.

Indeed, while most analysts say real world conditions are almost impossible to hide or obscure on the Internet, there are ways to change the perspective.

Consider the position of a physician.

"Whether they're aware of it or not, their reputations are being improved or degraded online," said Tobin Arthur, a Seattle-based consultant who advises doctors to blog, tweet, anything to bolster their image on the Internet.

To sit out the online discussions is to increase the odds that the person who waited too long in your lobby or who wasn't satisfied with a nose job will be the main thing that prospective patients run across when they go physician-shopping.

Arthur suggests physicians first Google themselves to see what pops up. Then check rating services such as Vitals.com, HealthGrades.com, Yelp.com or AngiesList.com for a taste of the buzz.

"People are increasingly looking online," he said. "You want some control over what they find." The fast-growing world of social media marketing often advocates that businesses respond to even obscure mentions of a brand -- reaching out online to a disgruntled customer one-on-one to resolve a complaint. Adrienne Lenhoff, the president and CEO of Buzzphoria and Shazaaam marketing firms, says winning those people over can go a long way to silencing criticism.

Still, she acknowledges that can be expensive, because it requires much labor to keep track of, and respond to, what might pop up in the millions of Internet niches available for spleen-venting.

"We're looking at the relevancy of the comment, the influence of the person making the comment," Lenhoff said. "For some companies, we answer everything. For others, it depends on how many eyeballs they've got on that comment." To see more of The Kansas City Star, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.kansascity.com. Copyright (c) 2011, The Kansas City Star, Mo.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services. For more information about the content services offered by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services (MCT), visit www.mctinfoservices.com.

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