Corporations put reputations online

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When David Gee, VP-marketing for Hewlett-Packard Co.'s management software business, started a Weblog earlier this year and talked about customer satisfaction, a reader posted a critical comment about his experience with HP service. The remark appeared initially under Gee's commentary but was then removed. Within a day, bloggers around the Web began to comment about the removal and HP's heavy-handedness.

Meanwhile, Gee had already reposted the comment, along with a note admitting HP made a mistake and explaining that the company was still figuring blogging out, said Scott Anderson, HP director-enterprise brand communications, who related the story.

The result? Prompt appeasement for the bloggers, who briefly continued to talk about it but, more important, respect gained for Gee's candor. The original complainer detailed the experience on Slashdot, saying in part: "HP picked up a lot of credibility in my book."

HP's situation is not unique. Many businesses that set up their own blogs report as many negative comments as positive ones. But even more common, and potentially more damaging, are negative comments that are posted on sites not under companies' watchful eyes.

Those "unseen" negative discussions get embellished and evangelized, and disallow prompt responses like HP's in averting a bigger crisis. Recent corporate "victim" Dell Computer spent a tough summer learning this lesson.

B-to-b on weblogs

Weblogs, online personal diaries, are a rapidly growing means of communicating in the digital world, and the impact bloggers can have on your brand can be powerful. While the majority of communal comments, both positive and negative, seems to be so far mainly focused on consumer companies and their products, b-to-b corporations are also being affected.

"We haven't seen nearly the traffic around b-to-b as we have with consumer companies, but clearly it will rise," said Outsell VP and lead analyst Chuck Richard.

The idea of negative customer comments being able to damage a brand is not new. People complained by mail, by phone, by airing complaints to local TV stations' consumer watchdog reporters, by e-mail and by posts to forums and bulletin boards. What has changed is that blogs not only move and spread information faster than previous media but they also tend to pick up additional discord along the way.

"Blogging creates communities around complaints," said Steve Rubel, VP-client services for CooperKatz & Co. and author of the Micro Persuasion Weblog.

Jonathan Paisner, brand director at CoreBrand, said, "You need to be aware of what's out there, and not monitoring blogs is setting you up for some kind of surprise down the road-and surprises are usually negative."

Today there are many sources for helping a company monitor corporate reputation online. The resources range from specialist PR practices such as Rubel's Micro Persuasion practice to paid information services companies such as Factiva and LexisNexis to free Web sites that search blogs and track mentions, including Technorati, Feedster, Blogdigger, PubSub, IceRocket and Intelliseek's BlogPulse.

And while only 21% of Web users read blogs, according to Outsell, the danger or bonus is that those readers include mainstream media like BusinessWeek, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal , which all regularly run articles born on blogs.

Sun Microsystems depends on its own network of 1,500 to 2,000 employee bloggers and their monitoring and linking to Web sites to advise of any significant Sun chatter. Tim Bray, Sun director of Web technologies, checks his search blog feed every morning for mentions of himself or Sun.

"We are a b-to-b company, but we're just one `b' and the other `b' we're talking to includes a whole lot of developers that we care about," he said. "This is a tremendously efficient channel to reach them. I suspect for most b-to-b companies there is some commu nity, specific to them, out there that they want to reach."

Not surprisingly, tech companies such as Sun, HP, Microsoft and IBM are forging the way in b-to-b blogging communications. They're in the business of providing technology, so they should be up to date and engaged in whatever tech tools their customers are using.

But that doesn't mean nontechnical b-to-b companies don't need to be involved in the blogging community. Industry watchers say no industry can afford to simply sit on the sidelines. They agree that any company that ignores blogging is not only missing the chance to respond to negative comments but also missing opportunities to connect with customers and stay up to date on their industry and competitors.

Bray listed several benefits from Sun's blog involvement, including being able to use a global, direct channel to put out the company's message. Blogging has also boosted Sun's image, he said.

"Instead of being this monolithic company, people see us as an interesting, engaged, passionate group of people who are trying to make computers work better," Bray said.

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