Small, local businesses must always make a great first impression. Look at this scenario: Joe is on the other side of town for a meeting, and wants to stop and grab a burrito. He whips out his phone, starts the Yelp app, and searches “mexican food”. With 10 options in a 4 block radius, why would he ever pick a restaurant with less than 4 star reviews?
Sites like Yelp, Google reviews, Foursquare, and Merchant Circle make it possible to avoid negative dining experiences. These sites aren’t limited to restaurants. With sites like Angie’s List and Kudzu, you can read reviews about retail stores, salons, and virtually any other service. Small business owners are sensitive to their customers’ feedback but, just like high school, what people say to your face might be different than what they say behind your back (or online). Your online reputation is all about first impressions. The higher the competition in your industry, the faster your potential customer will have to sort through options before making a decision. And when you do earn their business, it may seem like you have very little control over the kind of review they leave you online.
Online Reputation Management (ORM) services can be a valuable and worthwhile investment for small businesses. It’s all about highlighting the positive aspects of your business, and getting to a place where the positive reviews outweigh the negative.
Google is King
50 years ago, when someone wanted to find a good restaurant, plumber, or hair salon, they relied on word of mouth referrals. Today, the first page of Google is the single most important thing for your business. It is your business card, your word of mouth marketing, your billboard, and your news article. It is everything. Here is an example of what I mean. Flowerama is a flower shop in Plano, TX. What do you think of their Google presence? Yelp?
You can control the first impression people get on the web. You can monitor sentiment, feedback, and ratings across all local sites. You can respond to criticisms and negative comments on social media. You can communicate changes to your services, pricing, or location.
There are plenty of other sites that rely on online reviews. Airbnb has disrupted the hotel industry with the general trust that guests will be candid in their reviews of Airbnb hosts and properties. Though Google is still king for general searches, 44% of consumers start their product searches on Amazon. Amazon reviews have become a critical proxy for product quality. In other words, the higher your ratings are on Amazon, the higher your chance of success. Angie’s List, Zoc Doc, even Rate My Professor: all of these sites help consumers make more educated decisions. But all of this change can be pretty intimidating for small business owners. There is a whole new set of rules.
Putting out PR Fires
You know that saying about a bad apple? It’s also true for review sites. Reviews tend to work as averages. For example, if you receive 1 2-star review for every 4 4-star reviews, your average rating drops to 3.6 and you’re dangerously close to “below average”. One bad review can do a lot of damage.
A well-placed negative review can destroy a small business. This story from Gimlet Media’s podcast Reply All is a great example. They tell a story about Marissa Hernandez, a 21-year-old taxidermist who lives in upstate New York. She was recently the victim of a false review on “Ripoff Report”: the infamous review site that claims to report business scams as a favor to consumers. Her business was all but destroyed after the review came out. While most PR disasters aren’t nearly as dramatic as this one, they can be just as damaging.
White Hat vs. Gray Hat
Like a dream about a dream or a movie about a movie, Reputation Management sometimes has a bad reputation itself. Like SEO, some people use unethical methods for ORM. Anything that focuses on removing negative reviews instead of increasing positive reviews is considered black or gray hat.
Black hat tactics, like hacking or bribing, are becoming increasingly difficult to get away with thanks to increased regulation on review sites. However, the more common online reputation management is white hat, and completely legitimate. It’s all about highlighting the positive things your customers have to say, and pushing those reviews to the top of the SERP.
Third party review sites like TrustPilot and Shopper Approved are other great tools for boosting your positive reviews. These sites are Google approved, which is crucial. This means all reviews from Trustpilot or Shopper Approved will syndicate in the SERP. Here is an example:
Reputation management work is valuable for multiple aspects of your business. It helps you maintain transparency and establish a connection of trust with your customer. Being open to feedback and maintaining an open line of communication between yourself (the business owner) and the customer can help you gain valuable insights and inform future business decisions. This means being prompt in addressing criticisms and negative reviews, which helps reinforce a relationship of trust with your consumer.
How to Scope & Price
When you realize the importance of reputation management, it’s easy to see why helping small businesses manage their online reputation can be an incredibly valuable service. For digital marketers and SEOs, it’s a very closely related skillset. With just a bit of scoping and organization, you can begin to provide this service for your clients.
Hiring a new ORM provider is a lot like hiring a new cleaning service. The first thing that happens is the scope, followed closely by checking access points, communicating expectations, taking inventory, and of course, the “deep clean”.
You can begin by scoping or sizing up the project. Whether you’re working with an existing client or a brand new company, you’ll need to gain an understanding of what stage they’re in, and what their current reputation management efforts entail. This includes their social media and web presence in addition to their profiles on popular review sites.
It may sound obvious, but in order to fully understand the business, you must spend time with them in person! If you don’t live in the same city, leverage Skype, Apple Facetime, or Google Hangouts to get a wider glimpse into their world. The best businesses have an online presence that accurately reflects their physical presence. If you don’t know who they are in person, it will be difficult to accurately represent them online. This will also give you a better idea of just how much work there is to be done. If your client is a pizza restaurant, and the pizza is just awful, it’s better to know up front. Either you’re in for an uphill battle, or you can opt out sooner rather than later. It’s important to remember reputation management can’t fix a bad product. That’s not your job.
Understand their marketing strategy. How do their customers find them? If they have a brick and mortar location, what is the foot traffic like? If they’re web-based, where are their visitors coming from? A brick and mortar business may be less likely to invest time online, but if they’re not easily visible from the street or if they’re in close proximity to multiple competitors, their ratings on Yelp and other review sites are paramount. Here’s a useful list of the top websites that let users review service based businesses.
Another important thing you can do to begin is to do some “social listening”. This is as simple as it sounds: check into all their social media accounts. Read their tweets, check out who they follow, what they’ve favorited. See if anyone has posted on their Facebook wall and read their messages. Look at their competitors’ social profiles. Take note of what has been done well and what needs improvement. If their social profiles are ghost towns, it will be part of your job to sweep away the tumbleweed and get things going again.
Tally up an inventory of their outlets. Create a short list of forums you’ll need to check regularly. A great, free tool for monitoring sentiment across multiple forums is called Board Reader. Creating an inventory list should start to give you an idea of how many hours per week you’ll need to spend to maintain their online presence.
Do they have a blog they haven’t posted on since last year? Which social media profiles do they want to maintain? Small businesses can be overly eager in creating profiles. Maybe they have an instagram account that they never post on anymore. An inactive profile is worse than no profile at all. Part of your deep clean will be assessing what needs to be maintained moving forward and simplify by deleting anything unnecessary.
Once you’ve scoped it out, it’s time to tackle pricing. This will vary widely based on the stage and size of the client. Though this isn’t an exact science, we’ve created a pricing rubric that should give you a place to start in creating an initial contract.
The Deep Clean
You’ll notice there’s a set of services up front called the “deep clean”. When you hire a new cleaning service for your home or office, the first thing they do is deep clean everything, setting an expectation of the standard they’ll hold themselves to in the future. It might require more hours up front, but will be worth it in the long run.
Your deep clean involves anything that helps set the company up for success. If their Google listing hasn’t been claimed, that’s an easy win. When Google started pulling stars from top review sites into the SERP, it was a game changer. It’s more important than ever now to get high star ratings and be represented positively on the web. Claim their business listing, add an appropriate description, current address and phone number, business hours, and add photos.
A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words
Photos differentiate your business listing, especially for brick and mortar businesses. Maybe you recently changed your signage or remodeled inside. Uploading high quality photos to your Google business listing will help set your customer’s expectations, inevitably leading to a better customer experience.
If your client doesn’t have any high quality photos of their business, offer to take some. They don’t need to be professional quality, just use your understanding of digital marketing to frame a flattering, realistic peek inside their front door. You’ll see photography listed as an “a la carte” service on our Reputation Management pricing rubric.
A great illustration of the power of quality photography is Airbnb. One of the biggest hurdles Airbnb had to overcome was getting people comfortable with the idea of staying in someone else’s home. One of the ways they accomplished that was through honest customer ratings and high quality photography. To this day they offer free professional photography services to their hosts in select cities because they’ve seen the impact it makes on bookings. These photo tips on their website are geared toward home and apartment listings, but many of the principles are similar to taking great photos for your client.
How to Deliver
Once you’ve completed your scoping work and your “deep clean”, delivering reputation management services will mostly be about consistency and maintenance.
If the company doesn’t have anyone regularly monitoring their social media profiles, that will be included in your services. Your focus shouldn’t be to gain followers necessarily, but to maintain some activity and monitor direct outreach.
Maintaining activity can be as simple as queuing up content using a social media scheduling tool like hootsuite or buffer. Think about the customer: what type of content would be relevant to them? Find batches of relevant, evergreen content and queue up posts for weeks at a time. Additionally, look at ‘recipes’ on IFTTT (If This Then That): a site that allows you to automate actions on the web, based on API triggers. For example, every time a blog post is published on a site, IFTTT automatically posts a tweet and a post on the Google Plus profile.
Though it is against the rules on Yelp and many other review sites to explicitly solicit reviews, Yelp suggests that creating awareness of your client’s online profile will be a reminder for them to give feedback. You can accomplish this by adding links to their website, icons on print brochures or menus, as well as signs at the POS or front window. You’ve probably seen the popular “People Love Us on Yelp” sticker. You can’t print that sign, but you may be eligible. It’s part of a semi-annual award program based on certain criteria.
Dealing with Disaster or Change
As a reputation management consultant, you may be faced with the occasional PR debacle. Whether it was anticipated or unanticipated you’ll need to come up with a plan for recovering from the negative event. For small businesses, any change that affects their customers can be seen as negative. A small business that expands to a larger retail space sounds like an obviously positive thing, but when it causes confusion for their loyal customers, it can cause irritation.
For anticipated changes, communicate early and frequently. Post regularly on social media about the anticipated change, send an announcement to their email list, and put up posters in the physical space.
For unanticipated debacles, monitor social media and forum sites closely. Respond to complaints in a way that demonstrates remorse, humility, and transparency. Leverage local forum sites like EveryBlock and attempt landing some local PR if possible. Offer deals and specials to people who were negatively affected. Ignoring disaster won’t make it go away, but being transparent and straightforward in a timely manner will help regain your customer’s trust. And of course, if there is a larger debacle, your client may need to hire a full service PR firm to help out.
Keep Them In The Loop
Keep your client in the loop regularly with reports. The best advice for this is to keep reports simple and easy to digest. Small business owners have a million things grabbing their attention. If you can provide your service in a non-intrusive way, you’ll be even more valuable to them. This means delivering reports in their preferred fashion: Google Docs, Slack, Basecamp, email, or whatever medium they prefer. Being agile in this way is a great way to be a better, more vital service provider. Your work will be that much more appreciated and acknowledged because you’ve adapted to their needs, rather than making them jump through hoops to understand the work that you’ve done.
Encourage your client when they receive positive reviews. Remind them that the job of maintaining a good online reputation starts with their business. A good review starts with their day to day customer interactions. Finally, If you’re sharing negative sentiment, make sure to include something positive as well. This “sandwich technique” may seem elementary but it will go a long way in establishing a positive client relationship.