The following article recently appeared in a local publication "Business First". Both the publisher and the article's author, Dr. Monica Diochon have generously allowed us to share it with you. It has some very important messages about the power of online consumer generated content. Dr. Diochon is the Chair, Department of Business Administration, Gerald Schwartz School of Business at St. Francis Xavier University.

Is your online reputation building trust?

Monica Diochin, Ph. D.

Have you noticed an unexpected decline or rise in your sales and wondered why? As more and more consumers are looking to buy goods and services from a business they trust, they are increasingly relying on the business’s online reputation when making purchase decisions. How important is an online reputation? In a survey conducted by Opinion Research Corp., 84% of respondents said that online reviews influenced their purchase decisions, while Nielsen Co. reported that online reviews are considered second only to personal recommendations as the most trusted form of advertising.

Irrespective of whether a business is online, large or small, it needs to pay attention to “consumer-generated media” - a term coined by Peter Blackshaw. As a recent Northern Colorado Business Report article states: “To succeed in a world where consumers now control the conversation and where satisfied customers tell three friends while angry customers tell 3,000, companies absolutely must achieve credibility on every front.”

Consumers have no shortage of options when it comes to communicating with those three to 3,000 people via the internet.   Some make short videos for YouTube that share poor service or faulty product experiences, some keep it short (and sometimes sweet) on Twitter, some write blogs, while others post reviews (some good, some bad) on social media or community sites. For example, community sites like TripAdvisor that post reviews of previous users are increasingly being relied upon when choosing accommodation.  Not only do consumers benefit from such online word of mouth, they also consider the information from users to be far more trustworthy than that provided by the business.

As the number of business review sites grow, the sites have been increasing their credibility by reviewing the people doing the rating as well as the business. For instance, with Yelp’s model, a rating is provided for the business and the consumer decides whether (s)he trusts that rating based on the reputation of the people providing the reviews, with the best reviewers belonging to the “Yelp Elite”.

So how can you begin to manage your online reputation? One way is to focus on measuring, analyzing and interpreting consumer-generated media. The information posted on relevant community sites can provide you with valuable information regarding a range of issues, such as how consumers perceive product or service quality.  Start by finding out what is being said about your business, using popular search engines such as Google or Bing. By doing so on a regular basis, you will then be in a position to respond to the online chatter whether it is positive or negative (ie. complaints or misinformation). If you have a need to respond to negative reviews, be sure to do so with facts and evidence, if you want to have a chance to regain old customers and attract new ones.

If you’d rather outsource the management of your online reputation, that is now possible through companies such as Dun & Bradstreet’s (D&B) spinoff, Credibility Corp. With D&B's largest competitors being Google, Facebook, and Twitter, they have a vested interest in moving beyond credit ratings. For a fee ranging from $300 to $900 a year Credibility Corp. will collect comments and reviews from sites such as Twitter, the Better Business Bureau, Yelp, and Citysearch in developing a more complete and trustworthy profile of your business.

Whether you outsource the management of your online reputation or take on the challenge yourself, one thing is certain – online reputations cannot be ignored.