Tips to guard your online reputation
Another company to experience the flame of Australian bloggers last year was the US online auction site eBay. Users were hostile to planned changes that would make eBay's PayPal service the only method available for settling transactions. They vented their anger on discussion boards and blogs and called for an ACCC investigation.
eBay Australia spokesperson Daniel Feiler says the company has subsequently created systems to ensure that it is more consultative, and engages in a greater number of face-to-face meetings.
When it does discuss issues online it chooses to keep the conversations within its own discussion boards, rather than engaging on blogs, to help control the conversation.
"The internet has shown that if people are going to complain they've got plenty of ways to do it," Feiler says. "And whereas once the lobbying that took place was potentially localised, it's now for all the world to see. So companies need to make a decision of - do they want to engage in that, and if they do, then they need to engage on the platforms that the people are complaining from; or to create their own environment and make sure they are using that regularly to communicate.
"If you choose not to do that then you run the risk of your story being told by people who are really outside of your control, and you have no opportunity to influence that conversation at all."
The chief executive of the Adelaide-based internet service provider Internode, Simon Hackett, says he spends roughly 10 hours a week on the Whirlpool site posting comments and answering questions. He says his motivation comes from genuinely wanting to be there to participate in conversations that affect his business.
"By side effect of my involvement, Internode's business is also enhanced by increasing its credibility," Hackett says. "By being accessible to our customers, in this open and honest way, we gain huge benefits out of the resulting two-way street."
He says the company has been able to find and fix a huge number of minor bugs in its service thanks to customers pointing them out, as well as implementing suggestions for new services. Internode now has the highest customer satisfaction ratings in the entire Australian broadband industry, according to a survey last year by Roy Morgan Research.
One of the most prominent examples of a company being trashed online happened to the US computer manufacturer Dell. Poor customer service led to prominent blogger Jeff Jarvis posting his experience online in 2005. That theme was quickly picked up by other bloggers. The resulting discussion was subsequently referred to as "Dell hell".
According to Dell's small and medium business marketing director Jay Turner, his company has implemented a comprehensive social media strategy, including communicating directly with bloggers, creating its own blogs, and soliciting feedback directly via the web. Turner says Dell also launched a local version of its "Small Business 360" advice service, and has invested more than 90 local articles to it. He is also keen to start local blogging.
"As we are moving towards the blogging and the social media space, we are finding that it's a real efficiency driver and a benefit to Dell," Turner says. "It's resulting in hundreds of thousands of call reductions to Dell, and speeding up people being able to get specific resolutions from questions that they have."
That has meant savings of more than $5 million for the company, while improving customer satisfaction.
"We've seen a 30% decline in negative commentary," Turner says. "And the feedback we are getting is fantastic."
How to monitor online chatter
The senior account manager and social media expert at Edelman Digital in Melbourne, Con Frantzeskos, says numerous tools are available to help companies track what is being said about them, from free tools such as Google Alerts to numerous paid services such as BuzzMetrics by Nielsen Online.
Once you know what is being said, and where, it is worthwhile to stop and listen for a while.
"We'd suggest what we would call ‘building factors for engagement'," Frantzeskos says. "In plain English, what are the issues you want to talk about? What are the main spaces you want to talk in? And then what is the actual process to get out there."
Only then should they engage in the conversation.
Turner says Dell also uses tools for tracking what is being said about it and topics that relate to its business online, and tracks about 5000 conversations each day.
"If something does turn up on a blog that's quite beneficial for us, because it ends up straight back with the centralised team and we are informed quickly that a customer has an issue," Turner says. "Because if someone has gone to the trouble to make a positive comment or has an issue, they have it regardless of whether we know about it or not - and we'd prefer to know about it."