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Small businesses without national brands are perhaps most vulnerable to rumors, complaints, and bad blood spread about them through blogs, online review sites, and Webzines. But some entrepreneurs are unaware of what their customers—and critics—are saying about them on the Internet. They should get better at monitoring their online reputations, says Tom Kurz, co-founder with Alex Macris of a The Escapist, a 39-employee video gaming Web site based in Durham, N.C. Edited excerpts of his conversation with Smart Answers columnist Karen E. Klein follow.
Technology, and particularly social media, has evolved so quickly that many small business owners are struggling to keep up with the task of managing their company's presence in the conversational marketplace.
All companies—large and small—want to know what people are saying about them. Large companies are putting together teams that focus very specifically on monitoring their online brands. But even small companies can still sort of keep track of what's going on. The thing is, if you don't control the message, somebody else does.
What's the danger for entrepreneurs who are oblivious to their online reputation?
If they're not paying attention and something does go awry, your market cap could go down. For a small company with $1 million in sales, when a rumor flies about their product or service, it could sink their entire business. Even products that are skewing towards an older demographic—where you might think the customers aren't as active online—they are still doing their homework and searching and reading reviews online. I can't imagine how anybody in business is not paying attention to what people are saying about them. I google myself to see if anyone's flaming me!
What tools can businesses use to track their name and brand online?
There are so many free tools and assets that you can use to monitor what people are saying about you, using Google Alerts, Google News, Yahoo Alerts, Technorati.com, BlogPulse.com. You just plug in your name. BoardTracker.com measures what's going on in the world of online forums. Keotag.com monitors what's going on in the social arena. And then there are paid services like BuzzLogic.
What do you do in terms of monitoring the Web on behalf of your brand?
We built our own service that pools these various free options. When somebody posts something about us, it comes up like an alert. What we want to know is if people are talking positively about us, so we can link to it. If they're talking negatively, we want to address the issue right away.
How do you deal with an unflattering review or comment about your company?
Oh, we've had to do some major damage control. I can't tell you how many times someone will post something and blame us for something we had nothing to do with. If we get there pretty quickly, we can address a negative comment directly with the person who made the post, or we can go to the site itself and make a post.
If you go to the source and explain truthfully where you're coming from, you buy good will from people who were flaming you. There's nothing better than to turn an adversary into an advocate, but of course you're not going to have a 100% success rate.
Can you think of an example of a negative situation that you dealt with proactively?
All of our content is exclusive to The Escapist, and we're very protective of it. We guard our content like a bear guards her cubs. So one time, a parody site did something using one of our intellectual properties, and they put it on YouTube (GOOG). We proceeded to call YouTube and ask them to take it down, but they took the entire parody site down, not just our content.
That was not our intent, and it crushed them for a while and resulted in a lot of negative feedback about us. So we went back to YouTube and retracted everything, we apologized to the parody site, explained to the owners and their community and our community what had happened and turned them into fans.
How much time does it take to monitor and respond to all the input that you must get?
I have a community manager who is knee-deep in managing this stuff full-time. I liken it to a workout regimen; it becomes part of your lifestyle. We have to deal with this stuff in real time, so everyone gets the feeds and when stuff happens, we're all alerted.
As soon as something happens, if one person isn't barking about it, someone else will. It's almost like a badge of honor in the company to find out something and deal with it first.
How has managing your brand closely helped your business?
We just won the Webby for best interactive games Web site for a second year in a row. We compete against huge companies with resources like Disney (DIS), Viacom (VIA), and Vivendi, so to come out on top two years in a row is a huge win. We also were nominated for a People's Voice Award and we came in second, losing by a thousand votes to a site eight times our size and owned by CBS. That's something incredible that we can take to advertisers that demonstrates how much our community loves us.
Karen E. Klein is a Los Angeles-based writer who covers entrepreneurship and small-business issues.