Online reputation management

An article in yesterday’s New York Times on General Motor’s use of social media to respond to its ongoing ignition switch crisis raises an interesting question: why, when the mainstream media, the company’s Facebook page and other online channels are full of complaints has its broader online reputation barely been impacted (according to data from Crimson Hexagon)?

General Motors ignition recall crisis social media

If you were in GM’s shoes, which would you regard as the more accurate and useful reflection of its corporate reputation at this tricky time: online reputation or mainstream media coverage (irrespective of concerns about the quality of social media sentiment data – though, to be fair, it is in my experience better than most at Crimson Hexagon)?

Social media’s role as a real-time focus group of thousands sounds valuable and useful.

Your online reputation, after all, is your reputation.

Or so it is said.

But whilst this is a nice marketing phrase, it is also highly misleading.

Here are six reasons why online reputation needs to be treated with caution as a measure of broader reputation:

  1. Reputation is the sum of how many different stakeholders, from customers, employees and investors to government, investors and suppliers, view a company
  2. These stakeholders often have different interests and talk about different topics in relation to the company
  3. A company’s online reputation is almost always dominated by discussions by customers and prospective customers about its products, especially if it is a consumer goods or services player
  4. While many customers now like to communicate with companies via social media, the great majority still prefer to use conventional channels such as call centres to register and resolve customer care queries and complaints, meaning many negative perceptions never make it online
  5. Some stakeholder opinions are rarely voiced in social media. When was the last time you heard a high-level regulator actively discussing a company on Facebook? Ditto for pension fund managers or buy-side analysts on Twitter?
  6. The relative importance of different types of stakeholders varies over time. During its current recall crisis, GM’s core audiences will be the government, its customers and investors, and it is on them that it is most likely focused as an organisation.

‘Online reputation’ (however measured) is a reasonable and timely indicator of a firm’s broader reputation from a customer or general public perspective. 

But it should not be treated as an accurate or comprehensive reflection of the full range of views or, necessarily, of the relative importance of different stakeholders to that organisation, at any given time.

In this regard, mainstream media is often a more useful gauge of non-customer stakeholder audiences, including government and business opinion-formers.

Companies would do well to listen closely to both social and mainstream media for different if complementary reasons.


Just as companies are getting comfortable managing their customers and their reputations on Facebook, Twitter, Sina Weibo and other forms of social media, they must now consider their approaches to mobile chat platforms such as Whatsapp, Weixin/WeChat and Line.

The numbers are certainly compelling: Whatsapp boasts over 250 million active users, WeChat and its Chinese bigger sister Weixin together count over 300 million users, some 100 million of which are outside mainland China, Line claims over 200 million users. Growth of mobile chat services is fast outpacing other social media forms and with the integration of payment solutions are likely to become a key marketing and communication channel.

Currently, the most powerful marketing applications of these services appears to lie in promotions (eg. Starbucks), customer service (Durex) and loyalty management (Coach). But what are the implications of mobile chat on managing corporate and brand reputation?

On the surface, the impact would appear limited. After all, mobile chat platforms are essentially about private conversations between friends. Content and dialogue are essentially limited to those directly engaged in the conversation and mobile discussions are not indexed by search engines.

On the other hand, research shows that while companies most often talk online about their products, they underestimate the importance of high-quality online customer service and overlook or avoid how they treat their own people and respond to negative situations. Anecdotal evidence suggests that mobile chat customers are weary of the volume of content being pushed at them by brands on mobile chat. Accordingly, WeChat has stated that it may limit the frequency with which official accounts can broadcast messages.

Mindful of this, organisations must ensure that the mobile chat touchpoints are professionally managed and user expectations met lest their audiences complain to their broader networks, especially on the open internet.

Specifically, they must:

  1. Not spam users with content and conversations that are irrelevant or are seen to intrude on their time and privacy
  2. Be seen to be proactively listening to users’ ideas and concerns
  3. Ensure that online customer service is fast, helpful and trustworthy, with potential issues escalated and resolved quickly and personally
  4. Develop a policy on which employees are allowed to participate in and respond to mobile-based conversations, and ensure these people are properly trained
  5. Prioritise and handle appropriately important category, company or product stakeholders and influencers, especially those with large ‘open’ networks
  6. Include mobile chat platforms when preparing for and responding to crises.

Fundamentally, the approach to managing reputation on mobile chat platforms needs be no different than for other social media. Yet given that mobile devices are highly personal and mobile chat apps are about one-to-one and/or one-to-many relationships amongst people with strong links, they are arguably more truly ‘social’ platforms than many others.

As Ford’s Scott Monty notes “The challenge for marketers is how we can continue to retain the trust that we’ve built and not squander it with activities in mobile that we might do just because we can.”

Companies must place particular emphasis on ensuring that the mobile user experience, not least dialogue, is treated with an especially soft touch.


First published on ClickZ

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