New Delhi: Aleading private bank was recently in the eye of the storm because of its high-handedness with some of its customers. While it put its customer care, public relations and corporate communications team in action to address public concerns at large, it found itself unable to manage the problem online.
“ There were numerous negative entries (on the issue) across diverse blogs, discussion fora, websites, online journals and social networking sites. Some people even launched hate websites in its name,” recalls a person who was part of the team that the bank then set up to manage its “online reputation”.
Members of the team joined the blogs and discussion groups addressing, and sometimes challenging, issues raised by other consumers. It launched some of its own discussion groups where doubts were cleared with the help of the customer care team of the bank. The bank even began advertising its services on such sites.
Image-conscious: Companies have begun paying attention to what’s being said about them online
While common in the West for a while now—a basic Google search comes up with 971,000 links as well as a Wikipedia entry—online reputation management (ORM) is becoming more of an issue in India these days as more people access the Net to obtain and share information. According to a March survey by New Delhi-based online research firm JuxtConsult, around 49 million people in India access the Internet on a “regular” basis. The survey found that 43% of this group regularly participate in social networks, while another 27% are regular bloggers.
And it is this growing group that companies are increasingly focusing on when it comes to their image.
“Social networking sites and blogs have emerged as a potent medium for common consumers, who thus far had no means to be heard or seen, to communicate their views on companies and brands, like any other issue,” says Mahesh Murthy, managing director, Pinstorm Technologies, a digital marketing firm. “These people have made sure that corporate or brand communication is no more a one-way process managed by the company or the brand managers.”
As a result, online reputation management is becoming a new discipline at some companies both as a way to monitor and do damage control if needed, but also to build positive buzz on the Internet.
“Of our 40 clients, only two were using ORM services until six months ago. Today, we provide this service to 15 of them and many more have evinced interest,” says Sidharth Rao, chief executive and co-founder, Webchutney Studio Pvt. Ltd, an online advertising agency.
According to industry experts, online reputation management is now becoming an integral part of the media plan of most aggressive advertisers, and companies are spending anywhere between Rs25 lakh and Rs1.5 crore to invest in their online image building. Some names, say industry experts, include Bharti Airtel Ltd, Virgin Mobile India, ICICI Bank Ltd, HDFC Bank Ltd, Tata Motors Ltd, Infosys Technologies Ltd, General Motors India Pvt. Ltd, Microsoft Corp. and United Spirits Ltd.
A dedicated team typically surfs the Internet—including through Web alerts—and gathers all instances where the company or its brands find a mention. It participates in blogs, forums, discussion boards, wikis, search engine results and social media websites on behalf of the company, though not always identifying itself. Such efforts could also involving creating own forums and blogs to disseminate positive news and also to counter sites that may be causing damage to the company’s image.
“Many a time, we build our own blogs and websites and drive internal traffic to them in a bid to push the negative sites down from the top links on popular search engines such as Google and Yahoo. Once our website is on the top in such searches, it inevitably starts getting outside traffic as well,” says a member of one such team, on the condition of anonymity.
Such aggressive reputation management could also pose ethical issues, especially if the bloggers, forum participants or websites don’t identify themselves as representing the firm that they are discussing online. Agencies providing such services insist, though, that they don’t mislead consumers.
“We only deal with uninformed discussion or misleading criticism,” claims Sandeep Singh, business director at online interactive agency Quasar Media. “We rectify perceptions when they are incorrect. We don’t mislead people by providing wrong information.”
Adds Mohit Gupta, chief marketing officer, MakeMyTrip.com, a travel site that does online image building: “ORM is just an extension of what we call public relations. Just that the medium has changed to the Internet.” Along with being present on blogs and forums, MakeMyTrip.com has also established a travel community on social networking site Orkut.com, with some 600 registered members.
In addition to image management, such efforts “can also help in pushing sales”, says Rajesh Lalwani, founder, Blogworks, a communications and marketing solutions company.
“Earlier, there weren’t too many sources to gather information on a brand. Today, consumers first go to the Net to gain some intelligence on the product and brand they want to buy before making a final purchase decision,” he added.