Andy Beal is co-author of Radically Transparent: Monitoring and Managing Reputations Online. In this interview, Beal draws from his experience as an Internet marketing consultant specializing in online reputation management, illustrating the growing importance of online reputation for all businesses, and the role of company reputation in overall marketing program. How has Web 2.0 transformed business as it’s traditionally been practiced? Well, Web 2.0 is a collective term for blogs, social media, video imagery and citizen journalism. Web 2.0 enables individuals to upload photos, post Amazon.com reviews and talk about products and services with their peers. This new interactive phenomenon has ushered in what we call radical transparency, which means that your reputation is being discussed by your customers in a number of different online channels. So the Internet now enables individuals to connect with others, thus forming a new type of online discussion that businesses must pay attention to. Are you saying this is a completely different playing field? Absolutely. This is a big shift in power for consumers. In this new environment, companies need to monitor these new, emerging online channels. We now see bloggers who build huge followings. They can post a rant about a company, thus encouraging other bloggers to chime in. Next thing you know, people are talking about the rant in online message boards, which can then cross over into the mainstream media, because mainstream journalists now use social media, blogs and online forums to find new story ideas. Can you bring this into specific terms and illustrate the challenges and opportunities in this new worldview? A classic example is Dell, the computer company, which inadvertently became the poster child for radical transparency. It started when blogger Jeff Jarvis blasted Dell for poor customer service. While it initially appeared he was just one blogger with limited influence, his criticism became a catalyst for dissatisfied customers. They rallied around Jarvis and created a storm of controversy for which Dell had no mechanisms in place. Initially, Dell played ostrich and didn’t respond. The company even shut down its customer forum because complaints were piling up, which resulted in severe damage to Dell’s reputation. Fast forward eighteen months. Dell finally realized it could not control its public reputation, which ultimately rested in the hands of its customers, the media, investors and employees. In a radical move, Dell joined the conversation by creating new blogs and discussion forums, where it responded to Jarvis and embraced the feedback. Ultimately, Dell’s move toward transparency turned the negative sentiment around because the company immersed itself in the online world of its customers. Dell’s example illustrates how Web 2.0 tools allow consumers to pass along both positive and negative feedback with their social networks. Studies show that consumers trust recommendations from people within their peer group. That’s why many companies realize that it no longer pays to spend millions of dollars on advertising to influence their public reputation. Those days are gone; company reputations are now in the hands of the public. Though Web 2.0 allows companies a say in that conversation, they can no longer spend their way into full control. How do companies, both large and small, begin building and maintaining an online reputation? You must gain an understanding of how your company’s reputation exists in the online world. You must first take stock of who’s talking about your company and whether the conversation is positive, negative or non-existent. Search Google to determine whether the conversation is positive or negative, and monitor Technorati for how often your company is mentioned by bloggers. These steps will help you benchmark your reputation to determine how to move forward. With this understanding, you need to set goals. What are you trying to achieve? Are you trying to raise the credibility of your CEO? Do you want to offset criticism about a recent product launch? When a company has clearly articulated goals for advancing its online reputation, tactics naturally emerge, such as issuing a white paper or creating a blog that helps a CEO get more publicity. In an era where everyone turns to search engines to evaluate individuals and companies, what’s the role of cultivating a powerful virtual first impression? It’s very important. Google is not just a search engine, but a reputation engine. Studies show that online searchers believe that companies that rank number one in Google are the top brands in their category…even before they visit the company’s website. Google is very influential, to the point where online reputation management is synonymous with creating a better image in Google. It sounds like developing an understanding of the influential online points of entry to your marketplace is key It is essential to understand the online centers of influence for your business. Where is your reputation is being defined? If you’re a doctor, there might be specific medical networks or sites that rate and review doctors. Whereas for a technology company, customers might be more likely to use Google or Technorati to research a company’s reputation. Regardless of your particular company, you must find your centers of influence and make sure your reputation is portrayed positively. For example, which bloggers in your industry are often quoted by traditional media? Who’s most likely to influence your stakeholders, your customers, and your investors? Don’t forget your goals. For example, if you’re trying to raise venture capital, your reputation goals might be different than your goals for a new product launch. How does your advice apply to smaller businesses, such as consultants or home-based service businesses that cannot buy exposure through advertising because it’s cost prohibitive and often not effective? Web 2.0 leveled the playing field for small businesses, creating free tools to present yourself as an expert. In many ways, online reputation management is more beneficial to smaller businesses, because the cost of entry is very low. For example, I created my own blog at a minimal cost, which established my platform as a global expert in reputation management, which eventually led to a book contract. Thought leadership is a big idea behind Get Slightly Famous. Why is that so critical to businesses, both small and large, to position themselves as leaders in their particular industry or niche? Establishing your company as a leader in your industry means you’ll be top of mind when someone makes a purchasing decision.For example, I see a lot of people speak at conferences, which can raise your credibility, improve your reputation, and help you to get Slightly Famous. Individuals who don’t hold back and even give away valuable information ultimately earn trust as an expert. The more information you give, and the more you’re willing to share, the more your target market will trust that your company is worthy of their business. Let’s discuss your Action Plan for a radically transparent company Step One: Identify your stakeholders. Step Two: Benchmark and establish your goals. Step Three: Do an internal audit of your assets and liabilities. How does your blog look? Are your media relations efforts reaching out to bloggers? Do you have a media room on your website? Step Four: Write your goals. What are you trying to achieve? Are you trying to improve consumer opinions about a particular product? Are you trying to raise the credibility of your CEO as a thought leader? Step Five: Involve your tactical action plan. If you’re a mortgage broker, this might involve a blog in which you present yourself as a leading mortgage broker. Or, create a social network where your customers can talk about your products. Step Six: Implement your plan. What’s your timeline? How will you delegate tasks and allocate your time? What are you going to accomplish over the next ten days? You need a plan for building and sustaining your positive reputation. This will reduce your advertising budget, increase customer loyalty, and maximize your profits. It’s a different mindset. It’s important to emphasize that these efforts are very cost- effective, especially compared to advertising. Instead of spending money to gain attention, you join the conversation already taking place within your target market.