Watch Your Rep on Social Networks

Dec 14, 2006 8:04 PM  By

(Searchline) Last month I planned a trip to Italy to visit a friend in Florence. Snagging a cheap fare to London proved painless; all I needed to complete the junket was a frugal flight from London to Italy. My friend told me there were inexpensive fares via Ryanair. While I had never heard of the airline, I was eager to check out their prices. Soon I found a fare for a single British pound plus taxes. (Sounds unbelievable, but it’s true).

But before booking my ticket, I did a little research on this unfamiliar airline. My first stop: the Yahoo! Answers community site. Boy, did this community have a lot to say about Ryanair. Based on what I read, it’s no wonder it was voted worst airline according to a recent TripAdvisor poll. Though there were some positive messages about the airline, one comment stands out in my mind: “Why is Ryanair such a crap airline?” Needless to say, I thought twice about booking my ticket with it and started to look into alternative air carriers.

Such is the power of online collaboration and sharing among the Web community–also known as Web. 2.0. In a word, it spells influence. Sites such as YouTube, TripAdvisor, and Digg.com are perfect examples of Web 2.0 in action, where users can freely share their opinions with the community.

Obviously I got a far better sense of Ryanair from my Yahoo! searches than I would have from just reading the airline’s Website. If a friend gives you a glowing endorsement or a negative review of something you’re considering purchasing, it usually carries a lot more weight than generic marketing messages. And while the user comments on these community sites are technically not from friends, in the end, the feedback and opinions from numerous, independent, fellow consumers can amount to the same thing.

But users aren’t the only ones interested in these venues; such sites are very much on the minds of online marketers, especially as they relate to search. Traditional search engines have already found a way to carve out their respective niches in this changing paradigm that defines Web 2.0. And most search engines have also found a means of inserting the results from their respective “Answers” areas into the natural-search results pages. Yahoo! inserts Answers results “post-emptively” (essentially at the bottom of search results, rather than ahead of them). This placement can actually be advantageous to a marketer, since a comment isn’t always something you want the public to see. Alternatively, though, a positive comment can boost your bottom line, as it can translate into sales from users looking for validation of your brand.

But what does all of this mean to you as a marketer? In the constantly shifting world of search optimization, it’s increasingly important to monitor and optimize not only your organic- and paid-search efforts but also the ways your brand is being affected by the growth of these communities. Quite simply, monitoring the post-emptive answers results is now another essential piece of your search marketing campaign.

But monitoring is only the first piece of the puzzle. It’s even more important to communicate positive messages and counteract any negativity. As tempting as it may be just to dive in and write your own reviews in these answer-based communities, don’t. Doing so could cause a negative reaction within the community. This is exactly what happened to a hotel marketer in Scotland. Ultimately he was exposed for posting glowing reviews on TripAdvisor about his establishment near Loch Ness. Trust me: A quick scan through these communities and it’s easy to smell a rat. In the end, fabricating favorable reviews will only prove detrimental. There’s a better way.

The key to capitalizing upon this social answers phenomenon is to leverage your positive “fan base” by enticing them to write about their interactions with your brand on these forums. If you’re in direct communication with your customers, there are ways to make it easy for them to post there. But as the saying goes, no one does something for nothing, so be sure to wield your arsenal of perks and perhaps provide incentives to customers with coupons, future discounts, free shipping, or similar offers.

The bottom line for marketers is that online answers communities can be potent influencers, with the ability to affect your brand both positively and negatively. Moreover, their placement into the search results changes the game. Smart marketers will closely monitor their brand in these venues and encourage their constituents to actively participate with tales of their positive brand experiences.

In the end, I booked my ticket with Ryanair. My buying decision was based not only on what others had to say but also on my needs. And my flying experience was pleasant enough, and not nearly as poor as I had expected. But not every consumer would make the same decision after seeing the results–that is, the Yahoo! Answers–that I did.

Erica Schmidt is client services director at search marketing firm iProspect and is responsible for overseeing the activities of a number of client-facing search teams. She can be reached at e.schmidt@iprospect.com.