We will help your brands to belong to the daily conversations, promised Mark Zuckerberg. With such a promising announcement, the eagerness to be aware of online conversations has been increasing for those brands and companies who historically have always been concerned by their visibility and reputation. Since the advent of Facebook, Twitter, and numerous platforms, both practitioners and academics have been aware of the tremendous potential of an online presence on social media. However, it should also be acknowledged that social media conversations can lead to new risks and challenges regarding brand and corporate reputation.
We intend to examine online reputation management in practice when facing the challenges posed by intensive customer participation on social media. It is not a case of stating what online reputation management could be, as is often the case in managerial literature, but of identifying what it is from within, from the field analysis of the discourse and practices of professionals (i.e. social media and community managers).
Business Management: Online reputation and brand visibility in the era of social media
An impressive range of academic literature is published relating to reputation and brand management. Concepts such as brand equity, brand image, brand loyalty, brand awareness, brand personality, brand identity and brand reputation have become established. Status is used to refer to corporate and brand levels; thus the relationship between ‘brand’ and ‘reputation’ can be confusing. Reputation is also considered to be an intangible asset. From this point of view, brand reputation is regarded as a component of corporate reputation, the most visible part of the business reputation as a whole.
Companies have many good reasons to establish and to maintain a good reputation. Antecedents and outcomes of a reputation that benefit the company and the brand have been well documented and show a positive impact, client satisfaction, trust, word-of-mouth, online loyalty and customer community behaviour.
Business Management: Online comments and online word-of-mouth
Reputation issues connected to an increasing concern about the use and impact of online comments and reviews all over the web. Numerous consumers seek and accept these online recommendations. They use them heuristically to make decisions to reduce their cognitive efforts online. They seek the opinions of others online to reduce the perceived risks through imitation, for reassurance to get lower prices, to obtain information quickly, “for fun” and because they want information before they purchase. The opinions of other Internet users are considered to be more valuable than advertising, and consumers who have used them intend to continue to do so. Negative comments appear to have a greater impact than positive feedback. Exposing a major concern for brand image and reputation.
Some experts claim that management of this online word-of-mouth is possible. Projects of “viral marketing” on the Internet, or of “word-of-mouth marketing” (WOMM), within online communities and blogging platforms are very popular today. They represent great expectation in social media management. However, beyond the voluntary and benevolent action of certain customers especially fond of a brand, it is particularly problematic to seek to regulate or manage these practices on social media. It can even be dangerous and on the contrary lead to negative word-of-mouth.
We must also keep in mind the ethical issues associated with this approach, especially while some people, usually identified as opinion leaders, are being paid in discussion groups, forums, and blogs.
Finally, these practices are considered for use in virtual communities mainly virtual brand communities and blogs, but social dynamics and rules for participation on ‘new’ social media such as socio-digital networks sites might be the difference. The aim of this article precisely is to focus on customer interactions management on social media, regarding the particular case of reputation management.
Business Management: Social media and online reputation management
Social media are recognised as remarkable tools for users to express themselves and to manage their online identities. Studies have emphasised the importance of displaying consumption tastes and practices to construct one’s digital identity. In a wider sense, they offer everyone the opportunity to talk in a positive or a negative way about products, brands and consumption experiences.
Clearly, this opportunity to comment online is not new; it has been possible for more than a decade through blogs, virtual communities and on individual commercial websites. However, the ability to « share » these comments with “friends” or “followers” and make them far more visible on socio-digital platforms such as Facebook or Twitter is a new development. Therefore, thanks to social media, brands have the opportunity to become integrated into a part of customers’ everyday lives and to gain exposure and strengthen their relationships with them. Thus, social media are considered to be fantastic tools for peer-to-peer recommendation and viral marketing. But, they can also contribute to damaging brand image and reputation.
Monitoring: the heart of online reputation management
Watching and monitoring “what was said about brands” or “about the organisation” appears to be the core activity of the SM manager. In fact, the SM practitioners consider that brands are now more visible and more fragile when faced with the everyday comments on social media. It is not a case of detecting the texts produced solely by the consumers. Messages and text published by employees or partners of the company are also sought out. Employees’ speaking out on social media is an emerging issue of particular concern to companies who fear that a tweet, a Facebook status, a comment on a forum could affect the brand image and destabilise the entire company or organisation.
To monitor what is said about the brand, the use of specific tools is systematic. Google Alerts is the most quoted tool, then Hyper Alerts (for Facebook pages). More precisely, the full range of monitoring and measuring tools developed by Google (Google Analytics, Google Trends…) and Facebook is mentioned. Control dashboards enabling the management of several accounts / profiles on social media, such as Hootsuite, TweetDeck or Seesmic, are also mentioned. The smartphone (we observed that practitioners most often used an iPhone) is also considered to be an indispensable tool for permanently staying connected “on the tram, at the restaurant … everywhere! All the time!”
The Social media manager appears here as a watchman or a radar on permanent alert.
- « it’s also the whole weekend as we need to be monitoring all the time »
- « a community manager’s work doesn’t stop at night and begin again in the morning »
- « I don’t have “work hours”, therefore yesterday I was up until 23:30 responding to people (…) I don’t have to respond at 23:30, it’s up to me to decide. The only rule that I have set is not to answer on Sundays; other than in the case of a crisis. (…) on Sundays, I just oversee… »
This monitoring activity is sometimes carried out using a specialised agency:
- « it’s also the whole weekend as we need to be monitoring all the time »
- « a community manager’s work doesn’t stop at night and begin again in the morning »
- « our agency also carries out monitoring (…) every day at 13:00, it sends us a kind of synthesis of the previous 24 hours, extracting what is said on blogs, on websites and also on video platforms (…) and that also allows me to bounce back on to social media. (…) It also plays the role of an alert system for certain important topics ».
This external monitoring may be considered as an initial phase of commitment to a strategy regarding social media and has sometimes led to the creation of a specific post of SM manager within companies:
- « before there was a year and a half of work with an agency that listened to networks, forums and who had heard what was said about (us) (…) big things emerged, what were the checks, the most sensitive subjects (…) This enabled us to have a very precise image of the company on social networks, on the Internet, during a year and a half (…) then senior management announced the creation of two accounts (on Twitter), and I was recruited. But the creation of these two accounts was preceded by a very significant phase of listening »
Content suppression and/or right of reply: from online surveillance to online reaction
Basically, two types of content are considered to be a problem and therefore are sought as a priority: content posted online illegally and negative content that undermines the image and reputation of the brand (e.g. comments or videos). The first type involves a standard procedure. The second is prone to interpretation.
- In the case of illegal content (e.g. film clips or cartoons posted by internet users on YouTube or Dailymotion without authorisation), the CM contacts the administrator of the website concerned directly and requests its deletion for copyright reasons. This generally happens without real difficulty even though the length of time taken may vary. This type of legal action may also lead to negative online comments as the brand is seen as a censor.
- For content affecting the brand image or reputation, the problem is more delicate. Should we intervene or not? Views differ. For the majority of SM managers interviewed it is crucial to react, and quickly. They supported a “right of reply” as soon as possible “to extinguish the fire”. In this case, the approach is to contact the administrator of the website, forum, web space concerned and ask him either for a right to reply or the removal of the content. But some SM managers (more rarely) consider that it is better not to react as this could amplify the negative comments and word-of-mouth. This decision appears to be very intuitive; no specific procedure has been identified.
Note that this ‘right of reply’ activity can be considered as a first step towards social CRM. In this situation indeed, SM managers accept interaction online with a real customer (or consumer). In other words, brands accept engagement in customer relationship management (CRM) on social media.
Regarding “content suppression” and “right of reply” missions, the SM manager appears either as a firefighter intervening very quickly at an early phase of a potential fire / problem or as an advocate defending the brand/company reputation.
Crisis communication management
The extreme case of “crisis communication” was mentioned by several SM managers and it appears to be a terrifying “ghost” feared by the SM managers and the brands. Several examples were given: the Domino’s Pizza employees’ video, the price of Air France tickets during the Fukushima nuclear accident, Nespresso at Montreal cafe… and in each case the quality of the SM management is underlined or criticised. Whilst press and media relations are tools traditionally highlighted in academic literature, the SM managers emphasised that the central role they now play is handling cases of crisis communication, adding that this role is not necessarily voluntary. Indeed, Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, forums etc, are directly solicited by Internet users “as soon as something happens” and also used by organisations as a polemic arena from which they gain mass media attention (e.g. Greenpeace versus Nestlé).
In short, SM management responds to one of the initial problems by helping to protect the reputation of the company on social media. This appears to be another form of delicate consumer/customer relationship management on social media. But it goes beyond social CRM, notably because other actors are involved, especially the media.
The SM manager appears here as an emergency doctor on permanent alert and ready to intervene, evenings and even weekends, and also as a crisis communication expert:
- « I don’t have work hours, therefore yesterday I was up until 23:30 responding to people (…) I don’t have to respond at 23:30, it’s up to me to decide. The only rule that I have set is not to answer on Sundays; other than in the case of a crisis. »
Crisis communication appears to be the dark side of social media in the SM managers’ discussions. Their role and their activities are well organised in order to prevent this extreme situation web monitoring is crucial here, and one of their main goals is to avoid such crises. It must also be pointed out that the evaluation of this activity is therefore very difficult, as it consists mainly of avoiding something happening (How do you value the avoidance of a crisis?).
Claims management: a further step towards social CRM
Apart from the specific case of crisis communication, (almost all) the SM managers declare that they are in charge of an “unexpected” and undesired activity: they have to take over the management of a large number of claims coming (mainly) from customers on social media. They explain that this is not a part of their original mission and is the work of the customer service department. But this department does not intervene on social media and obviously considers that the SM management department is in charge of what is happening…on social media.
SM managers consider this as a negative setback of brand presence and customer engagement and participation on social media. Indeed, brands may see their Facebook pages or Twitter account become the vehicle for complaints and customer reprisals.
“I can sort out a claim, but the claim is normally handled by our customer services team, and is not considered to be a customer service facility as such” “a page without a particular theme was placed on Facebook and is posing a real problem as behind it there is no theme. So, we put on it a flow of information, and we try to be the largest possible audience, however afterward we end up with complaints from people who are not happy and who come there because they have not found an answer elsewhere.”
“We feel that this is not a channel for complaints, which means today that we are not satisfied. (…) We are currently reviewing the strategy (…) on Facebook there will be big changes”
However, this situation also reveals that customers are looking forward to online conversations and true relationships with companies on social media: they expect companies to be more involved in social CRM.
From a practical point of view, the SM managers do not respond directly to all claims nor even to questions addressed to them. The volume can be so high that it is simply not possible (certain SM managers interviewed manage ‘communities’ with 2 million members). In other words, the traditional one-to-many model of communication is reversed to a many-to-one communication form: many (potentially millions of) Internet users to one brand/company. They, therefore, make a selection according to the potential “level of influence” of the Internet user. Attention is focused on “power users.” This is particularly true on Twitter.
Discussion and business implications
Online reputation management on social media: a five-part practice
A previous research work considered online reputation management in the era of Web 2.0 as a three-part process referring to monitoring, participating and measuring. Five core activities have been distinguished: “monitoring”, “content suppression”, “right of reply”, “claims management” and “crisis communication management”.
Participating is part of the SM managers’ tasks, but it remains quite vague regarding the diversity of roles and missions they have on social media platforms. The four other activities identified have the interest of being more specific. Two of them, “content suppression” and “right of reply”, correspond to the most common reactions vis-à-vis two undesired contents illegal content and negative content. The third reaction-type, “claims management”, was not intended to be part of the SM managers’ brief. However, it is very interesting to note that it forces brands and companies progressively to engage in some customer relationship management on social media – i.e. social CRM. The fourth and last reaction, “crisis communication management”, remains exceptional, but nevertheless, very evident in the SM managers discourses and rhetoric.
SM management and social CRM: Looking for better measures and indicators
Measuring does not appear to be a primary or separate activity but is rather included in the monitoring mission, which is slightly different from that in published works. More importantly, it appears to be an emerging concern. SM managers admit that measures used still necessary and confirming that better measurement of customer’s activities and online interactions on social media is required.
Internet monitoring, online communication and customer relationship management (CRM)
The practice of SM management in general and online reputation management, in particular, requires diverse abilities, roles, and fields of action. This research shows evidence that it is at the interface of Internet monitoring, online communication and customer relationship management (CRM).
Online reputation management and the function of the SM manager are not only about surveillance and monitoring but also involve reacting to and being part of the communication process on social media. Consumers directly challenge companies, brands, and SM managers. Thus, brands enter into a conversational relationship, which can appear to be quite daunting when faced with almost 3 billion Internet users… That is not to say that traditional marketing communication models and tools no longer exist, but that they co-exist with new processes by which customers, anonymous Internet users or any stakeholder can address themselves directly to the brand/company and believe that they deserve a personalised answer within a short time frame and is a major challenge for SM management and social CRM.
It is known that through claims management customers are looking forward to online interaction with brands on social media and expect companies to be truly involved in customer relationships. Interesting we can see that this aspect of customer relationship on social media platforms was not necessarily desired, but has to be exercised by SM managers. A new situation is encouraging companies to think not only regarding reputation management but also regarding social CRM.
The overall mission is to manage and primarily to protect the corporate reputation and the brand. The “right of reply” activity and “claims management” can, even more, be regarded on the one hand as a drawback of online customer participation, and on the contrary, as the first steps towards social CRM.
As a result, SM managers are having to play at least five roles (watchman, firefighter, advocate, emergency doctor (or crisis communication expert) and aftersales / customer service (when accepting the challenge of social CRM). Each role refers to various issues, from surveillance to CRM through reputation management, and requires varied and specific competences.
Social media management is the interface of Internet monitoring, online communication and customer relationship management (CRM).
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University of Poitiers, IAE, CEREGE Lab and ISCC (CNRS, Paris) firstname.lastname@example.org Biography
Thomas STENGER is Associate Professor (PhD, MA, Bsc.) at Poitiers University Business School (IAE), member of the CEREGE lab and associate researcher at the National Institute of Communication Sciences (CNRS, Paris). His research is dedicated to e-marketing and e- commerce, in particular social media management, online shopping and digital youth consumption. He has published more than thirty referenced articles and book chapters as well as five books including E-marketing & E-commerce (Dunod, 2011, 2014), Identités Numériques (L’harmattan, 2013), et Digital Natives & Consommation (EMS, 2014). http://www.thomasstenger.kiubi-web.com
Andzulis, J. M., Panagopoulos, N. G., & Rapp, A. (2012). A Review of Social Media and Implications for the Sales Process. Journal of Personal Selling & Sales Management, 32(2), 305–316.