Avoid Ambush by Damaging Online Reviews with 5-step Strategy, Says Veteran Social Media Coach

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Fierce competition among online consumer review sites this summer underlines the growing importance of online customer reviews in consumer decisions on products and services. Small businesses can avoid being ambushed by reputation-damaging posts by adopting a five-step strategy, says veteran social media coach Jon Donley.

A company may not need a Facebook page... but it can’t opt out of social media. A business almost certainly already has listings on review sites, whether it asked for them or not.

Fierce competition among online consumer review sites this summer underlines the growing importance of online customer reviews in consumer decisions on products and services. Small businesses can avoid being ambushed by reputation-damaging posts by adopting a five-step strategy, says veteran social media coach Jon Donley.

Increasingly, consumers head to search engines and review sites before deciding on purchasing products and services. Customer reviews often provide the first – and potentially strongest – impression of a business. The growing value of review sites, and complaints by competitors that Google Places was stealing review content, culminated recently in Google’s decision to eliminate outside reviews from its own listings.

Unfortunately, many business owners have not done the same research on themselves, and they are shocked when they discover what people are writing about them.

“Many of our clients are stunned the first time they Google their practice,” said Donley, owner of San Antonio-based media consulting, marketing and public relations firm Jon Donley Media LLC. “What they often find is a series of customer reviews stretching back months or years. And the bulk of reviews are often bad – even vicious.”

Today’s consumer has powerful tools to sound off on Google, CitySearch, Yahoo Local, Yelp and hundreds of smaller or local directory sites, bulletin boards and online forums. And the ability to read and post reviews on the fly is enhanced on mobile devices. It’s vital for businesses to monitor and respond to this aspect of social media, Donley said.

“Social media strategy isn’t just about being on Facebook or Twitter,” he said. “Social media is the whole range of tools that help people share ideas and information online. A company may not need a Facebook page - although I strongly advise it - but it can’t opt out of social media. A business almost certainly already has listings on review sites, whether they asked for them or not.”

While they may not have the budgets to hire consultants, Donley says, small businesses can work on their reputations with a five-point strategy: acceptance, awareness, analysis, approachability and avoiding shortcuts:

1)    ACCEPTANCE – Accepting that the company is on the social media grid, like it or not, is the starting point in addressing online reputation. And rather just than being a defensive battle, the situation shifts as soon as the company commits to social media and joins the conversation. It’s now a two-way conversation. Many companies – even those began their social media activity to counter smears – have learned to turn it into an important company resource, leading to an overall improvement in customer relations.

2)    AWARENESS – An essential first step is an immediate inventory of major review sites to find out what people have already said. Then you must regularly monitor your listings. It’s important to know about negative reviews immediately; the more quickly you can take action, the better.    

3)    ANALYSIS – It’s important to be dispassionate and to do “triage” when a negative review is posted. Your realistic options are: 1) let it slide, 2) post a response, or 3) appeal to the review site or take legal action in extreme cases (and this is a long shot). Questions you should be asking include: Is the criticism valid? Many have discovered real problems in their office by reading bad reviews. Is the criticism bogus? You may need to set the record straight, in a professional manner. Is it worth a response? In some cases you may do more harm by responding to it.

4)    APPROACHABILITY – The best place to deal with customer problems is at the office. Many reviewers complain of rude staffers who refuse to listen to complaints. This may motivate customers to head directly to a review site to lash back. On review sites, it’s critical that businesses respond publicly to appropriate reviews, both good and bad. Many review sites allow businesses to “claim” their listings, and then reply to reviews as the owner. Or the business can create a consumer account clearly labeled and transparent, and use it to participate on the forum. Businesses should take the opportunity to send the message on that review board that it values customers, is paying attention to complaints and praise alike, and wants to nourish an ongoing relationship with the review community. Even on a site with multiple complaints and low rankings, this gives your business credibility and gives readers a reason to give you the benefit of the doubt.

5)    AVOID SHORTCUTS – Businesses should use caution in hiring reputation management consultants who promise quick and easy fixes. While many use legitimate strategies, others use questionable methods, misleading sales tactics, and even actions that may backfire on the business. Companies promising to remove bad posts or post large numbers of good reviews to drown out bad reviews through special relationships with review sites often are misrepresenting what they can do. And both review sites and a growing number review site regulars are quick to identify and take action against businesses faking accounts or reviews.

About Jon Donley Media LLC
Jon Donley Media is a full-service media consulting firm providing web strategy, internet marketing, public relations, web design and web development, search engine optimization, social media, commercial writing, and other broadband services for professionals, businesses and oranizations.

About Jon Donley
Jon is owner of Jon Donley Media LLC. His 30-plus years of journalism and online experience include founding and managing market-leading news and community sites in San Antonio and New Orleans. He pioneered and expanded local social media networks on NOLA.com that were credited with the rescue and reunion of thousands of Hurricane Katrina victims. This factored into his share of the 2006 Pulitzer Prizes for Public Service and Breaking News.

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