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From: Food Quality & Safety magazine, August/September 2009

ONLINE EXCLUSIVE: The Dark Side of Social Media

Food manufacturing and service businesses have several tools to protect their brands in cyberspace

by Joe Dysart

Financial analysts have attributed falling share prices to particular campaigns, noting that some domains claim a regular audience of 20,000 to 50,000 visitors and that information on those sites has been accepted and echoed by the mainstream media.- Bruce Arnold, Caslon Analytics

Web marketing experts say that any reputation monitoring strategy for the food service industry must encompass social media in all its forms, including video sites like YouTube, networking sites like Facebook and MySpace, and micro-blogging services like Twitter.

While many food service businesses are enraptured with the promotional power of social media, they also need to grasp its perilous darker side: its ability to damage or destroy a business with a few choice mouse clicks.

Domino's Pizza learned this lesson the hard way in April when a video depicting its employees smearing mucus on sandwiches was posted-and went viral-on YouTube .

The video, a joke staged by two of the pizza maker's employees with nothing better to do, was tossed up on the online video sharing service as a lark.

For Domino's, it was anything but.

Within days, the damaging video had been viewed more than a million times, had became topic du jour on the micro-blogging service Twitter , and had shown up numerous times in the top 10 Google search returns for keyword "Domino's."

"It sickens me that the actions of two individuals could impact our great system," says Patrick Doyle, Domino's president, who made his apology about the incident in a video that Domino's posted on YouTube.

Bruce Arnold, founder of Caslon Analytics , a Web marketing firm that counsels clients on managing business reputations online, says that no company is safe from social media's dark side.

"Some [posts] are little more than a repository for juvenile humor: graffiti, comments that 'X' is the devil, animations of creatures urinating on the corporate logo," Arnold says. "Others feature detailed and sometimes persuasive critiques, including 'insider' documentation, and are associated with newsgroups.

"Financial analysts have attributed falling share prices to particular campaigns, noting that some domains claim a regular audience of 20,000 to 50,000 visitors and that information on those sites has been accepted and echoed by the mainstream media."

Embrace Reputation Management

For food manufacturing and food service businesses, the takeaway from Domino's rude awakening is to develop a reputation management strategy proactively and be ready to pounce when a silly joke-or worse-threatens to go viral.

Indeed, according to an April 2009 study from the Aberdeen Group, companies that embrace reputation management not only guard their brand against ne'er-do-wells but are also much more likely to increase shareholder value as compared to companies that simply ignore the social media space.

Specifically, the report, "Brand Reputation Management: Using Online Monitoring to Protect the Company's Crown Jewels," found that companies with top-notch reputation management are 12 times more likely to increase shareholder value year over year as compared to their counterparts.

"The benefits of online monitoring and analysis in the context of brand reputation management are clear and compelling," says Jeff Zabin, the report's author and a research fellow in Aberdeen's customer management practice.

Such monitoring is especially critical to food service businesses, because so many of the industry's clients are the same type of people most often visiting social forums on the Web: educated, highly articulate Web users who have well-founded opinions and are not afraid to express those views.

Another major industry demographic that is not shy about using the Web includes the young-or nearly young-and wealthy people who are often found posting ideas and poking around on the various and sundry social networks, as well as becoming the earliest adopters of the Next Big Thing in Web communications-whatever that happens to be.

Therefore, Web marketing experts say that any reputation monitoring strategy for the food service industry must encompass social media in all its forms, including video sites like YouTube , networking sites like Facebook and MySpace , and micro-blogging services like Twitter .

Fortunately, there are several tools and service providers food service companies can use to guard their brand image.

Do It Yourself

One of the easiest ways to get a general idea about what is being said about your business on the Web is to monitor the major online communities, mailing lists, and blogs-places where those looking to shape public opinion tend to congregate.

The quickest way to begin the process is to sign up for Google Alerts , which enables you to track mentions of your business name, including those on YouTube.

You will also want to set up a Twitter account, which you can use to monitor the posts there. Establishing an account will also prevent someone else-including a dissatisfied customer-from grabbing your brand name and masquerading as a company representative.

One caution: If a company representative does begin to post on Twitter for your brand, make sure he or she knows the neighborhood. You need to be transparent-you cannot be disingenuous. If your company rep is simply posting puffery, there could be a backlash. You only get one chance to be who you really are.

Meanwhile, blog posts can be tracked with the free blog watch service Technorati , which has been around since the blog phenomenon went large. The service monitors what is being said and keeps track of newly created blogs. And Boardtracker , a free service that monitors buzz on the countless Web discussion boards, is another essential do-it-yourself tool.

It is also a good idea to monitor anything that may be cropping up about your business on any of the podcasts or grassroots radio show-type productions that are beginning to emerge on the Web. PodcastAlley offers an excellent overview of what is going on in that space.

Other free reputation management tools to check out include:

  • BlogPulse , which tracks blog posts;
  • Keotag , which tracks keywords, including business names that are being used as info tags on the Web;
  • SeekingAlpha , which tracks the postings of conference call transcripts on Web sites;
  • Yahoo's Upcoming , which tracks notices of upcoming new conferences, by keyword;
  • Google Trends , which tracks the most popular keyword searches on the Web; and
  • Compete , which tracks the top Web site referrals for any keyword search.

Reputation Management Service Providers

If do-it-yourself daily monitoring becomes overwhelming, services like BlogSquirrel by CyberAlert will automatically monitor blog postings containing your business name and/or other keywords and send you daily e-mail reports about those postings.

The service also offers tools to ensure that you will receive fewer alerts about posts you consider irrelevant. Plus, you will be able to maintain a "digital clip book" with the service, which you and any other appropriate member of your firm can refer to when necessary.

Webclipping , a long-established service, will also track what is being said about your business on the Web, keep you apprised of competitors' activities, and send out alerts about copyright or trademark abuses.

And Nielsen Online will monitor blogs, as well as postings and activity throughout all social media forms, including discussion boards, YouTube, Facebook, and similar sites.

In addition, Nielsen Online combines the auto-monitoring of blogs with human analysis to help companies avoid potential public relations nightmares. One especially interesting feature: Its software is programmed to include "natural language" analysis so that you can find positive or negative posts about your business even if those posts are rendered in poor grammar.

Factiva Insight's Reputation Intelligence offers a more comprehensive look, monitoring what is going on with your brand across virtually all media. Offered as a joint venture of Dow Jones and Reuters, Factiva tracks company mentions in mainstream media such as radio and TV and in posts on Web sites, blogs, and discussion groups.

The firm also employs a "reputation analysis tool," which automatically sifts through all mentions of your company and churns out reports about potential problem areas.  Reputation Intelligence can also portray such public opinion data in graphical form for easier company-wide dissemination. Other reputation management services providers such as Radian 6 and Visible Technologies are also worth checking out.

Generate Own Positive Buzz

Meanwhile, extremely proactive food service businesses may want to start generating their own positive buzz on the Internet by contracting the services of an online review service provider. Essentially, these firms provide turnkey solutions for business Web sites that enable customers to post positive reviews of their experiences for the entire Web to see.

Popular for the past few years, online review domains really began turning heads last year with the release of reports like the one released by Opinion Research in June 2008, which found that 83% of all online consumers confirmed that online evaluations and reviews influence their buying decisions. The company also found that 32% of the same sample group said they had personally posted a product or service review online.

"We expect online reviews to get more sophisticated in the coming years, giving rise to new features like social navigation, review syndication, personalized reviews, and review-based quality metrics," says Megan Burns, lead author of Forrester's January 2008 " The Design Guide for Online Customer Reviews ."

Genuosity's KudosWorks solution, for example, solicits positive testimonials from your customers via contact tools it places on your Web site and in your marketing e-mails. Customers who take the bait are directed to a post-your-own-testimonial module, which includes tips on how to write a humdinger of a fan letter that will be posted on your Web site.

Another service provider is the keep-it-positive route space Zuberance . Taking a somewhat different approach, Zuberance specializes in building an entire cyber-community around your Web site, which it says will eventually become filled with naturally occurring "evangelists"-people who are truly jazzed about your service.

Zuberance's governing principal: Devote your energy to providing as many online/offline tools as possible to enable these evangelists to express themselves positively about your business, and the rest will take care of itself.

Food manufacturing and service businesses that opt for the Zuberance approach should find that it is often easy to entice reviews from people who stop by. Some businesses using this approach, for example, have had great success singling out star reviewers with special titles, such as "power member" or "community greybeard." Others offer to donate a dollar or so to charity for every review that is posted. Still others create special sub-domains for their star reviewers, where they allow the reviewers to be cast as community experts-complete with their picture, bio, and a link to their personal or business Web site.

Yet another reviews solution provider, BazaarVoice , takes a decidedly different approach to image building via social media. Essentially, BazaarVoice's founders believe firms should allow customers to post both positive and negative reviews of a firm's products and services.

While painful in the short run, this ethic of complete transparency will earn a business much deeper credibility with both existing and new customers over time, according to BazaarVoice's founders.

Its flagship product, "Ratings & Reviews," is designed to solicit unvarnished reviews about an organization's performance, which are published on the company's Web site-although all reviews are subject to organization approval. "Ask & Answer," another popular review tool from the company, enables consumers to swap info about goods and services in an equally straightforward question and answer format.

Another inexpensive solution is "the good, the bad and the ugly" review space available on PowerReviews Express , which offers users a turnkey Web site review system for $35/month. Like BazaarVoice, PowerReviews Express allows customers to post both positive and negative reviews. A key system feature is its Product Reviews Summary; for each product or service, potential customers can quickly glean the average customer rating for a product or service, its pros and cons as identified by all reviewers, and the product or service's best uses. The summary also allows reviewers to describe themselves, so the reader can decide if a specific reviewer is "like me" and should be taken seriously.

You can see PowerReviews Express in action on eBay's ProStores.  "Over and over again, we hear from small businesses that online customer reviews not only help them attract and convert customers but also compete against larger, more well-known players, as customer reviews immediately establish credibility and trust," says Andy Chen, PowerReviews' CEO.

The bottom line: No doubt, the perils of the Wild Wild Web appear to be an inherent part of its nature. But thankfully, there are already a number of tools food service businesses can use to help domesticate the beast-at least in their corner of cyberspace.

Dysart is an Internet speaker and business consultant based in New York City. Reach him at joe@joedysart.com or (646) 233-4089.

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