Friday, November 16, 2007

Reviewing Reputations - Advertiser Generated Content

I was doing some research on the many Reputation Management companies that exist to help national brands and small businesses quantify and qualify what’s being said about their brands and then counter balance if and where necessary. While this work has traditionally been the job of a PR agency, the blogosphere brings complexity to the issue.

The sheer volume of information that requires tapping, analyzing and monitoring and real time management as a result is the driving challenge. Changing the title from Public Relations to Reputation Management implies a more appropriate sense of urgency.

One of the sketchier departments of the new “Reputation Management” organization is the area that recruits review writers en masse thereby creating a network for national brands to tap into for content generation. Writers can get paid anywhere between $10 to $200 on while advertisers are charged double for the luxury of accessing the network with content that for the most part, is quite positive (shocker…).

Most of the other reputation management companies position themselves as PR agents online but 9 times out of 10, their service listings reveal that they are simply SEO specialists that have a team of copy writers that post positive reviews in as many areas online as possible. That means everywhere from Bebo and Buzznet to any other site that is viewed as a consumer forum.

Some of the content generating services disclose themselves as such in their writing but others try to be stealth about it. In both cases, brands could be jeopardizing trust with their consumers.

Media savvy consumers are developing intolerance for breeches of trust and advertorial spamming. In some cases, consumers post colorful comments about their feelings towards businesses that have clearly hired copywriters to persuade a purchase or shift an opinion about a brand.

Small businesses should also be concerned about their reputations.

Last year a Kelsey Interactive Local Media report indicated that the traffic on local social search sites built on reviews, such as Yahoo! Local, Judy’s Book and Yelp, collectively grew 44% from August 2005 to August 2006 (compared with flat growth among the top five IYPs) and to at least partially justify this growth, according to Hitwise, a September 2006 Harris Interactive Poll showed that 67% of respondents are “likely to post reviews,” while 79% are “likely to be influenced” by them.

To respond to this trend, publishers are struggling with the concept of launching review functions without well-established content (I thought users were supposed to post them??). The assumption here is that users will break their loyalty to one directory and move to one that offers richer content.

While no content generating service would admit to working in this area, some of the tip off’s that look fishy in newer local search services include:

  • Reviewer Profiles that reveal over 500 reviews posted within a short time frame (under two weeks)
  • A disproportionate volume of reviews on national brands for a local tool
  • Reviewer profiles that are focused on one vertical (like 50 reviews in one food type category)
  • Uni-sex reviewer profiles that comment on gender-specific businesses

There are more, but these are some of the more blatant ones that I have come across in my research.

To get around this content issue some directories, including Google’s, are aggregating reviews from outside sources. While this doesn’t eliminate the existence of fraudulent reviews, it helps to dilute their paths.

Business is built on reputation and building a reputation takes time. Consumers know this. So why has the online channel turned this into a race? I guess word of mouth will start to trump anonymous reviewer profiles in any case so this may be a moot question answered through social networks.

In the meantime I’m trying to decide who should be more concerned about their reputation – the national brand or the publisher that may or may not be telling the truth about them.


David Reich "my 2 cents" said...

"Business is built on reputation and building a reputation takes time."

You are so right. There are no shortcuts to building a reputation, and it must be backed up by something real. The public, as you say, will know when it's a sham.

I'd never go near one of those firms that spams blogs and other media to try to build a reputation. Even in this new world of media, it just doesn't work that way.

Sonia Carreno said...

I'd love to get a sense of how many businesses have been damaged by this already. The truth always finds a way around doesn't it?