In early 2006, Michael Fertik was in Louisville, Ky., finishing a clerkship at the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, when he noticed that people and companies were increasingly being pulled online without their consent, through cyberbullying and theft of personal data. We’re supposed to control our experience on the Internet, Mr. Fertik said he thought, “but instead we’ve become the objects of the Internet.”
While an undergraduate, Mr. Fertik had co-founded and sold TruExchange, a software company that set up online marketplaces. While completing his clerkship after graduating from Harvard Law School, he started to think that creating a company that helped people and businesses control their online reputations and data might be his logical next step. He turned down the legal job he had lined up in Washington, and moved to Silicon Valley.
In October 2006, he started Reputation.com. Originally, he thought his biggest customers would be parents concerned about their children’s online reputations, but it turned out to be white-collar professionals worried about their own reputations. Later, after customers began to tune in to social media, the company added social media monitoring and management tools. Since it started, Reputation.com has raised $67 million in venture capital and attracted more than 1.6 million customers. It generally charges small businesses $1,000 to $4,000 a year, Mr. Fertik, 35, said in a conversation that has been condensed and edited.
Helping companies protect their online reputation:
The No. 1 thing we do is help them collect real reviews from real customers. Then we help them publish them on the web in a variety of places and ways. Companies understand that 90 percent of consumers are looking at reviews and relying on reviews when making a purchasing decision.
If a former employee is attacking you in a blog and that’s the third thing people see about your company online, what we’d do is take the other stuff people could see online and move it up in the search ranking. You sponsor a Little League team; you’ve been in business for 10 years; you’re voted the best place to work in your town. It’s like a cousin of search engine optimization. There’s no reason that the damaging content from the former employee has to be the first thing people see.
Handling Negative Feedback:
Our customers are hungry for constructive feedback, positive or negative. They tend to take action, and they tend not to deny the substance of negative feedback. The receptionist at your medical office or the bouncer at your bar is rude. The business owner wants that feedback and takes action on it. What they don’t like is that a year later it’s the only thing people see about their company. That’s the part that really bothers them. And that’s the part I understand.
How can small-business owners encourage reviews from customers?
Only two categories get a lot of reviews, lifestyle and hospitality/entertainment. But in dry cleaning the only kind of strong reaction you get tends to be negative. No one goes online and takes the time unless you burn their garment. So you have to ask. And you have to make it easy. You can email them at home. Or one of the applications we offer is a tablet so people can enter a
When should a business that has been attacked online in reviews or on social media sites respond?
The first thing you do is breathe. Some of this stuff is written for an audience of one: you. Unless it’s very visible, it’s not worth a response. If something that they are saying is unambiguously false, you do want to consider a response: “These people do not serve lasagna.” “They fired their key person who handles accounting.” Those are examples when it’s very easy to correct the record. In a very sanitized, polite way, you can say, “In fact, so-and-so still works here.”
What if the owner really did screw up?
The only thing you can do is reset and make a sustained effort to bring humor, light and grace back into the discussion. “Yup, sorry, major screw-up, totally learned our lesson, here’s some humor about ourselves, thank you for the feedback, we’re going to work hard to regain the standing we had.” And you touch it every month or every few weeks for a year. You don’t let it go.
How much time should business owners invest in social media?
Social media is often a waste of their time. A rule of thumb: If you’re selling cupcakes, useful; if you’re selling power tools, not useful. So: pleasurable, joyful items? Probably yes. More female-facing? Probably yes. Power drinks? Sure. Orthopedics? No.
Identifying the best social media options for small businesses
If your customers are basically women, Facebook is a good bet for you. You don’t need to have multiple platforms and there are easy tools that can amplify your reach by rebroadcasting your stuff on Twitter. If you’re trying to reach professionals or those who are going to pay north of $500 to $1,000 for a product, LinkedIn is the way to go. For your standard small business, Twitter is a good place to be.
By IAN MOUNT