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Frank Remarks: Sticks and Stones, Sugar and Spice

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Customers, clients, and the competition are talking online about your company. How can you find out what they’re saying, and what can you do about it if it’s negative?
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"Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me." That brings me back to my childhood on the streets of Brooklyn. Too bad it doesn't apply to the Internet.

People Will Talk (and Type)

E-businesses are glad to solicit attention on the Net, but not the type that can damage their reputation. This kind of attention you didn't count on—and even worse, you may not know you're getting it! Over the years, the web has been both an ally and enemy of business. Hundreds of anti-corporate web sites have sprung up, detailing in no uncertain terms their dissatisfaction with an industry or company policy.

Don't believe me? Take a quick stroll through this Yahoo! listing and see them all—literally—from A to Z. The linked web sites—many of them anti-industry and/or anti-company—range from the very slick and sophisticated, such as The Truth, an anti-tobacco site funded by the American Legacy Foundation, to the incredible, like PETA's (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) new campaign that promotes eating whales to save cows, chicken, pigs, and other animals.

Dismiss these sites at your peril—even the antics of PETA. For example, their aggressive online and offline campaign against fast food chains such as Burger King (which they call "Murder King") and Wendy's has produced results. Burger King reached a cease-fire after the fast food chain announced its new animal welfare standards.

But anti-company web sites are old news. Besides, it takes some work to set up a believable and somewhat credible site.

That's why a new breed of web site has emerged that allow individuals to express their opinion about particular products, services, and even companies. That means that your customers and potential customers are comparing your business to the competition and telling stories about you according to their experiences.

One very popular opinion site is Epinions.com. Although much more civilized in their controlled discussion of products and services than the anti-company web sites, the opinions stated—both good and bad—by actual users can be just as damaging as the ones listed on the anti-company sites, and maybe even more damaging, since they represent real experiences with a company. You do have to hand it to Epinions.com, though. They go to great lengths to highlight the people behind the reviews so that you know exactly whom to trust. By using "tickets" to flag users who have violated their User Agreement, consumers can discount certain members' advice accordingly, and stop seeking advice from these members.

A similar site is ConsumerREVIEW.com. Like Epinions.com, this site offers an organized process for consumers to write reviews on products or services, helping others to make smart buying decisions. Both sites enable consumers to post raves and rants about their experiences at stores, both on and offline.

Like I said, a very civilized process. If your company's product or service gets rave reviews, then you're in the money. If not, you'll have to do some quick damage control.

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