Recently in Reputation Category

RulerplaneI think I've figured out the source of the difficulty—and controversy—in some of the measurement discussions around social media. It all starts when we talk about measuring things that can't really be measured, because they can't be observed. If we called it what it is—modeling—we'd see that differences in opinion are unavoidable.

Take influence. As a concept, it's not all that hard to define, and I don't think there's a lot of disagreement on what it means. But have you ever seen a unit of influence?

What did it look like? A lot like persuasion? What does that look like?

How about reputation? Have you seen a good one lately?

How about engagement? That's all about attention, and interest, and emotion, and focus, and—well, nothing that you can actually see, even with the best instruments.

Measurement requires observation
We don't argue about the definitions of all online metrics. Many of the basics—page views, unique visitors, even hits—have precise definitions, so the discussion moved on to their relevance and the reliability of available data. The shared characteristic is that they're based on observable events. A web browser requests a set of files from a server, and the computers exchange information that can be tracked.

In survey research, the survey itself provides an observable moment. You might question the validity of the questions or sample, and interpretation is open to—um—interpretation, but you do math on people's responses.

We have discrete events in social media, too. People connect to each other on social networks, they like, tag, or share things, and they publish their opinions. These are all actions that can be observed, though what they mean can be the start of a heated discussion. The frequently misleading labels can confuse the interpretation of the data, but the starting point is a set of observations.

Enter the model
With influence, reputation, and engagement, we're dealing with the abstract. None is particularly hard to define, but none can be observed directly. When you can't measure directly what you need, you look for something you can measure that relates to it somehow. You need proxy data, and that's where disagreement begins. What's the right proxy?

Models can be simple or complex, but they all have this in common: each represents the modeler's estimate of how measured characteristics relate to the desired property. Models are abstractions—equations that use measurements to derive values for characteristics which can't be observed or measured.

A model might be based on someone's intuition or extensive research, it may be strong or weak. But here's something else they have in common: the model is not the thing.

The map is not the territory.
—Alfred Korzybski

The reason we don't have standard metrics for such desirable commodities as influence, engagement, and reputation is simple. We can standardize measurement, because we define what is being observed. Modeling defies standardization because it seeks to measure that which cannot be observed, and in the process of defining a model, we incorporate elements that do not apply to every situation.

Modeling for a reason
Models reflect the opinion of the modeler and the objectives they support. Because apparently simple concepts might be used for different purposes by different specialists, we end up with diverse models using the same labels. In essence, we talk about the labels, because they represent familiar ideas (influence, et al), but the models represent what we really care about (such as positive word of mouth, leads, and sales).

If you understand that the label is just a convenient shorthand for a model that takes too many words to describe in conversation, it's not a problem. If the model generates useful information, it's doing its job. Just don't assume that any one usage of the label is the correct usage. Modeling requires judgment, interpretation, and prioritization in context, which are incompatible with standardization.

Photo by gilhooly studio.

Why is it that so many people talk about the effects of social media on reputation, but so few mention the more interesting models for measuring reputation? Instead, we argue over how to read the sentiment mood ring, or which media-oriented measurement tracks reputation. In most cases, I don't think we're measuring reputation at all. Instead, we're measuring media coverage.

Media analysis reports on published statements. In the recent past, it focused on media created by professionals, but even as it includes media created by everyone else, it's still mostly about reporting aggregate data based on coverage. The usual metrics—volume, sentiment, topics, and voices—reflect that media-centric view, which is now adapting to summarize consumer's opinions in online media. It's good data for some applications, but it's the shallow end of the pool for understanding reputation.

Wading into the deeper water, we find some companies that take a more nuanced view of reputation. These models start with survey research and are typically calibrated to focus on the relevant attributes for a specific company or industry.

  • Reputation Institute: RepTrak
    Measures 23 attributes of 7 dimensions: products/services, innovation, governance, workplace, citizenship, leadership and performance.

  • Harris Interactive: Harris Reputation Quotient
    Measures 20 attributes of 6 dimensions: emotional appeal, products & services, social responsibility, vision & leadership, workplace environment, and financial performance. Harris recently released its 2009 report (PDF).

  • APCO: Reputation Insight (PDF)
    Multi-factor models customized for each client.

  • Millward Brown: BrandZ (more)
    Evaluates the financial return attributable to the company's brands, based on an analysis of financial data and consumer research.

I know that these models can be incorporated into routine measurement programs, but I almost never hear about that. I don't hear about these models in the usual PR and social media measurement discussions, either. Why is that?

Is this stuff not accepted? Is it too advanced? Maybe too confidential? Or is it just above the social media paygrade? The audience in the room where I first learned about this was rather senior.

Hat tip to Leslie Gaines-Ross for pointing out some research I hadn't seen.

Everyone says that listening is central to social media success, but over time, we've fallen into a too-narrow interpretation of the metaphor. Think about it: if listening means monitoring, then we have too many words. Fortunately, they don't need to mean the same thing. We just need to expand the way we think about listening.

Here's the definition of listening implied by many posts and presentations:

Defensive keyword monitoring of social media for customer problems and complaints that need a communications or customer service response.
In the social media buzzword compendium, that's a great example of listening. But as a working definition, it leaves a lot out. Almost every word imposes a limitation on finding all of the value in a listening strategy. We can do more.

How can we expand the definition of listening?

  • From a defensive posture to developing valuable market intelligence.

  • From keyword monitoring to applying all of the technologies available to discover and analyze relevant online content and activity.

  • From monitoring to metrics, mining, and interpretation. It's a metaphor, so there's no reason to be stuck with the word's literal meaning.

  • From social media to all media and customer communications.

  • From a focus on problems and complaints to an interest in all relevant conversations.

  • From PR, marketing, and customer service to anywhere the information has value to the business.

  • By collaborating across measurement silos to find the right methodology for the task.
More formally, I think of listening as the application of intelligence and analytics to social media (and other sources), but that's so many syllables. If you don't mind, I'm going to continue to say "listening," and when I do, you'll know that I'm talking about a lot more than monitoring Twitter for your brand name. 'k?

The Conference Board's new report, Managing Reputation Risk and Reward (press release, via Leslie Gaines-Ross), reveals that intensive social media monitoring and engagement are still early-adopter activities. In order for these practices to move into the mainstream, business leaders must first be convinced of the relevance of social media to company reputation. Then comes the opportunity to apply metrics and modern tools to the perceived challenge of monitoring media activity.

Social media for early-adopter businesses
Almost two years after Business Week published Web Attack, the fear motivation hasn't made the rounds (greed is less prominent in a study on reputation). While 82% of respondents in the new report say their companies make substantial efforts to manage reputation risk, most don't think social media have a large impact on reputation.

As much as everyone inside the social media bubble is tired of hearing the same old stories, a significant population hasn't learned the lesson yet, and so shouldn't be a surprise that they're not doing much to manage their reputations online. Only a third of the companies in the survey have extensive social media monitoring programs in place, and 75% report little or no active participation in social media.

Monitoring media, but wanting more
Beyond the relevance of social media, many companies are stuck with dissatisfying, simplistic media monitoring models (replaying a hundred Katie Paine comments in my head as I write this). While most companies in the survey monitor traditional media, they were less likely to use automated systems in the effort, and simple metrics predominate.

Ironically, almost half listed "monitoring media coverage" as a very significant challenge.

The boss agrees, reputation is critical
CEOs agree on the importance of corporate reputation, though most think they don't have enough information about it. In the PriceWaterhouseCoopers 12th Annual Global CEO Study (via Jennifer Rice), 63% of CEOs surveyed rated strength of the company's brand and reputation as a critical source of long-term competitive advantage, while only 31% think they have the information they need about them. A similar gap exists between CEOs' knowledge and the importance of customer preferences and needs in the market.

Applied listening strategies
I see three related challenges here: lack of understanding of the impact of online activity, inadequate media analysis practices, and a need for new sources of market insight. Especially as social and traditional media become indistinguishable, I see these as closely linked. Listening strategies will help with each.

  • Understand the reputation risk potential in social media.
    Review the oft-told tales of reputation crises that started or developed online. Notice how many online crises ended up in traditional media news coverage. Perform an initial audit to discover the company's current online reputation and its impact on company reputation in general.

  • Upgrade monitoring of traditional media to measurement of all media types.
    The media monitoring and measurement market is evolving rapidly. If your current methods don't deliver useful and timely information, look at new options. Pay attention to the types of media sources they track to ensure that you find current developments that affect your company.

  • Evaluate online sources for customer/market insight.
    Social media blur the boundary between media and social activity; evaluation of social media provides insight for both sides of the disappearing line. Measure online content for what your customers are saying to each other online, not just for general sentiment but for discovery of important topics.
Inside the social media crowd, some of the buzzwords are in danger of wearing out. This new report from the Conference Board tells me we're going to be teaching the basics for a long while.

Thanks to Frank Tortorici at the Conference Board for sharing the report with me.

BackType Tracks Blog Comments


BackType.pngAdd BackType to the list of useful, free tools for monitoring social media (via IntelFusion). BackType, which launched this week, is a search engine for blog comments. The web site provides a convenient mechanism for finding comments by an individual or on a topic, with a social network-style "follow" feature and the now-standard RSS feeds for any search. This looks like a solid addition to the toolkit, useful for tracking your own mentions and for developing an understanding of interesting individuals.

Some ideas for first steps with BackType:

  1. Search for comments about your company and products. Subscribe to the feeds.

  2. Create an account with your usual handle and complete the profile. You want to give the right impression to people who search for your comments (and use the link to send them to your blog/site).

  3. Develop a better understanding of individuals by searching for their comments. What blogs are they reading? What other topics do they find interesting? Influencer profiling is one application; hiring is another.

  4. Follow a thought leader (subscribe to the RSS feed if you want to be stealthy) to discover new sources.
It's unclear, so far, how thorough BackType's search is, but this looks like a tool with interesting possibilities, especially in source discovery and profiling. It's also a reminder that everything is searchable online, and your contributions in different venues will eventually be rolled up into one big profile.

Bloggers who complain about their bad experiences with airlines: outspoken but unrepresentative, or the tip of the iceberg? When one blogger details the kind of travel day we all hope to avoid, what purpose is served? Is any airline learning anything from all this, or is it just the new way to escalate a customer complaint?

It's been almost 18 months since stranded passengers incidents started making headlines (and passengers started organizing online). Since then, the conventional wisdom has accepted that the U.S. airline industry is broken. The new standard is to be thankful if the airline can get you to Point B, never mind on time or with a smile.

David Ignatius writes about the problems in his column in today's Washington Post. He included an amazing quote from Robert Crandall, the retired chairman/CEO of American Airlines:

Our airlines, once world leaders, are now laggards in every category, including fleet age, service quality and international reputation. Fewer and fewer flights are on time. Airport congestion has become a staple of late-night comedy shows. ... Airline service, by any standard, has become unacceptable.
—Robert Crandall, 10 June 2008
It's nice to see a top airline exec—even a retired one—state the obvious. Solutions, of course, are more difficult (Crandall has suggestions, of course). I'll resist the temptation to turn this into a post on the airline industry. Instead, let's think about the increasingly popular, blow-by-blow, travel nightmare post. Two recent examples:
In each case, a business traveler had a particularly unpleasant day of travel with his chosen airline, and neither airline satisfied him through the normal channels. Enter the complaint post.

Why complain?
Aside from the interesting reading about the bad luck of others—and face it, it's painfully fascinating stuff—what's the purpose of the complaint post? What are the benefits of complaining, in general as well as specifically about airlines?

  1. Escalation. One possibility (explicitly stated in Jaffe's post) is that the blogger is still looking for a resolution of the complaint after the failure of normal methods. A side effect of company listening is that blogs can become an alternative channel for customer service, which bloggers now know. Delta noticed Jaffe's post; so far, there's no sign that Continental saw Evelson's.

  2. Warning others. It's hard to think of a U.S. airline that doesn't have similar examples recently, but in less challenged industries, complaint posts can warn others of potential problems. From the blogger's perspective, it can be a valuable contribution to a community.

  3. Ulterior motives. Commenters on Jaffe's post make an issue of his work on behalf of American Airlines, which he discloses in the post. I don't question his motives (nor do I care), but it does raise the point that some may complain because of an interest in a competitor.

  4. Craziness. Complaints aren't always rational (not implying anything about the example posts!). Some people make a hobby of it and don't necessarily have a valid complaint.

  5. Venting. Sometimes, you just have to let it out at the end of a bad day. A blog provides a public spot for a very visible primal scream.
Company response to complaints
Regardless of motivation, companies need to know what's being written about them and be prepared to react appropriately. The response should be defined, in part, by an understanding of the motivation behind the complaint.
  1. Customer satisfaction. If customers are blogging in an attempt to receive service (escalation), companies need to decide whether and how to respond. Companies in the computer industry are answering this with formal links between customer service and social media monitoring activities. However, as David Churbuck points out, listening for customer service has side effects worth considering.

  2. Insight. Complainers have been known to have a valid point. Monitoring and analysis of online discussions can identify issues (or opportunities) that you're not aware of. While you're busy defending yourself, don't miss the opportunity to extract the insights that are available in both quantitative and qualitative forms.

  3. Online reputation management. After dealing with customer complaints and extracting insights, what's left is managing the fallout. Online reputation management combines a variety of strategies aimed at influencing search engine results, online conversations and, generally, opinions in the company's favor. This post is already too long to go into the details, but ignoring online complaints is not usually the recommended strategy.
Will McInnes says we're in a transitory Age of Snark, between the Age of Control and the coming Age of Dialogue. Customers are complaining publicly, because companies are too hard to reach. Regardless of the motivations behind the complaints, companies would be well served to pay attention and to respond appropriately.

As for the airlines, I think we're past the point of worrying about the reputation of any individual U.S. airline. The anecdotes cover too many companies. Now, the whole industry is the before picture in a turnaround story.

Research vendors: Is anyone working on an analysis of online discussions and airlines? I would think it could make a good source for the next industry-in-distress article in your favorite business publication.

Reputation by Technical Committee

For a word that's so concerned with appearances, reputation sure gets around. In an online context, it plays with PR, search and e-commerce, showing different personalities in each setting. So when someone says "reputation," it's not always clear what they mean. But now, there's an effort to define standards around reputation metrics and their use in online interactions. Depending on how the project's scope shapes up, social media analysis companies might want to pay attention.

Defining reputation
You know what your reputation is. It's what people think of you. Which is actually very close to the dictionary definition and close enough to how corporate reputation specialists in PR describe it. You can aggregate reputation into a metric, but it doesn't fundamentally change the definition. Your reputation is what people think of you.

Throw it on the Web, though, and reputation shows different personalities. Search guys will talk about search engine or online reputation, meaning what shows up in the search results for your name. Auction sites and, apparently, peer-to-peer networks have their own systems based on your track record of good behavior in their specific contexts.

Like social media measurement, reputation is an interesting and useful concept that has different meanings depending on context. So the first thing I wonder is which version(s) people are talking about when they suggest creating standards.

Last week, OASIS (Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards) announced a new Technical Committee (TC) on Open Reputation Management Systems (ORMS).

OASIS, the international open standards consortium, has formed a new technical committee to make it easier to validate the trustworthiness of businesses, projects, and people working and socializing in electronic communities. The new OASIS Open Reputation Management Systems (ORMS) Technical Committee will define common data formats for consistently and reliably representing reputation scores. ORMS will be relevant for a variety of applications including validating the trustworthiness of sellers and buyers in online auctions, detecting free riders in peer-to-peer networks, and helping to ensure the authenticity of signature keys in a web of trust. ORMS will also help enable smarter searching of web sites, blogs, events, products, companies, and individuals."
At first glance, the specific examples are transactional, suggesting that this effort won't affect social media analysis companies. The emphasis on trustworthiness isn't the major point of listening to social media, either.
That last line, though, comes a lot closer to social media analysis. Notice the specific inclusion of blogs. That's getting out of the transactional context and closer to more general definitions of reputation.

Depending on how the TC defines its scope, this project could turn out to be relevant to social media analysis companies. The first meeting is on 1 May in Santa Clara, with a dial-in option for those too far away to attend.

A Better Influence?
I don't usually see reputation as a metric in social media analysis, but influence analysis is common. It's helpful for weighting and prioritization, so it's not going away (though it could do with some agreement on definition, itself). A readily available reputation metric could figure into an improved influence metric, and it could be an important part of site/participant profiles.

Gartner says that ORMS is worth watching, but don't expect it to lead to anything for a while (via Dion Hinchcliffe).

Thanks to Joseph Fiore at Repumetrix for the tip.

Let's play a quick game of word association.



Did you say "PR"? Certainly, that's one group that has a major concern with reputation in business.

If you spend too much time online, as I do, you might have come up with "search engine," especially now that mainstream media have picked up on the existence of search engine reputation management.

Our grandmothers might have thought about what the neighbors think, but these are all the same thing. They're concerned with what others think about us.

Turn it around
What if a company were to apply reputation-monitoring techniques in evaluating potential business relationships? They could use reputation, not as it reflects on themselves, but as a source of insight into the other party.

Enter Ecofact, a Zurich-based consulting firm that advises clients, mainly in the financial sector, on business risks associated with global issues: the environment, social issues and human rights. Their new RepRisk service is a web-based due-diligence tool that evaluates potential reputational risks associated with proposed business deals.

reprisktrendchart.jpgYou've probably seen charts like this based on sentiment or message volume. But this chart indicates the target company's negative associations with major issues as an indicator of the risk involved in a particular deal or project. The metric incorporates quantitative and qualitative views of exposure on pressure group web sites and in the media (social media evaluations are more experimental for now).

Imagine you're a commercial bank evaluating a loan prospect, or a manufacturer looking for offshore production partners. If Human Rights Watch or the National Labor Committee had targeted your potential borrower/supplier for its practices, would that factor into your decision? Reputational risk is contageous, you know.

Media analysis, but not marketing
RepRisk is an example of something I think we'll see more of: practical applications of media analytics for market intelligence outside of marketing functions. The source data and analytical techniques have much in common with typical practices in social media analysis—the difference is in the customer base and objective of the analysis.

In the end, an appreciation for reputational risk in business decisions means that the traditional concern for one's own reputation—and its potential financial impact—has been fully internalized. RepRisk is an application for businesses who've realized that one way to protect their own reputation is to choose carefully the company they keep.


A little SEO-related reading will temper any naiveté you may harbor about how social media will make marketing everywhere all clean and shiny. While the advocates promote transparent, honest, personal new ways, someone else is figuring out how to game the system. Rand Fishkin just introduced a new term for a very distasteful idea (which he doesn't endorse): social media poisoning.

The practice involves proactively generating spammy comments, posts, links, etc. from a competitor's domain in order to make bloggers, social media contributors, forum owners, journalists, etc. view that brand in a negative light.
It's a weird twist on online reputation management, isn't it? Suggests we may need a little counter-sabotage in our social media kits.

Dirty pool meets social media marketing... What's next, crude suggestions and URLs in truck stop rest rooms?


Tracking your product reviews

Today must be the day to think about online product reviews. With all the buzz about blog monitoring, it's important to remember other ways people share their opinions online. Monitoring product reviews is harder to automate than monitoring blogs, but their relevance is all but guaranteed.

Riva Richmond's article in today's Wall Street Journal points out the importance of online reviews to small business: Look Who's Talking. The key lesson here is that you don't have to have a high-profile brand to be reviewed online. Customers are reviewing local service businesses, too. The article includes practical advice on dealing with negative reviews (starting with fixing the problem).

Meanwhile, Greg Howlett relays key points from JC Whitney's Geoffrey Robertson in four things you should know about collecting user reviews:

  1. User reviews have a huge impact on sales.
  2. Companies need to aggressively solicit reviews.
  3. User reviews do not necessarily improve customer loyalty.
  4. User reviews do not necessarily drive more organic search traffic.
Go read Greg's post for the longer version of each point. The one that grabbed me was the part about JC Whitney measuring the sales impact of reviews—both positive and negative. In an environment with immature metrics standards, anything that correlates to sales is worth watching.

I wrote about an unhappy example of what you can learn from product reviews last October. Hasbro discovered a serious product problem by monitoring reviews on Amazon. At the time, the social media analysis vendors I was talking to generally didn't track product reviews. I still don't know of any tools to automate the process for do-it-yourself monitoring (aside from web-to-RSS services), but a number of companies in the Guide will monitor them for you.


About Nathan Gilliatt

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  • Voracious learner and explorer. Analyst tracking technologies and markets in intelligence, analytics and social media. Advisor to buyers, sellers and investors. Writing my next book.
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