They say that 2008 is lining up to be the year of ‘online reputation management’. I agree. The consumer review, whether clustered in online review sites or splattered through blogs all over the web, has turned conventional marketing on its head – and most operators don’t even know it.

Right now, we’re seeing the rapid growth of ‘online reputation management’ solutions – tools and consultancy services designed to roam the web and harvest what people are saying and suggest ways of countering negative feedback.

We’re interested because ‘mu:kaumedia seems to be working at the opposite end of the process – launching a package designed to stop consumers punishing organisations through the use of the damning review in the first place.

Watch this space. ORM is what the social networking revolution is all about.

When 5 stars = 0 stars

Our business is about using feedback to develop ourselves and our organisations, so you’d expect us to be sticking our noses into all kinds of feedback and review systems. Here’s one I came across recently. ‘The Good Garage Scheme”.

This feedback scheme is ostensibly about driving up the standards of workmanship and customer service in garages across the UK. However, the first thing that struck me about this scheme was that every garage listed (and there appear to be several hundred at least) seems to score 5 out of 5 stars. The written feedback (where supplied) also appears to be exclusively positive.

I then learned that the scheme is operated by Forte – a company supplying high-price, high-margin ‘emission-control’ fuel additives to the garages in the GoodGarageScheme system.

The absence of balancing feedback undermines the value of any 5-Star rating but that’s not the only issue for me here. The fact that it’s clearly in Forte’s interest to have as many 5-Star-rated garages as possible recommending its products to a trusting public leaves the whole thing open to criticism.

Google serves porn to kiddies (allegedly)

So apparently Google’s filtering system went doo-lally and started serving up hard core images on its front page results. I don’t know why anyone is surprised. We create the internet so that anyone can fill it with anything and, in its default mode (i.e. unfiltered) anyone can access anything. Then we get upset when the clunky filtering systems we invent to try to oh, er… stop certain people (i.e. kids) seeing certain things don’t work properly.

What bothers me more is the internet’s underlying ‘pornography’ – its capacity to supply endless, necessarily shallow, amoral, 2-dimensional chunks of increasingly visual material for the pleasurable consumption of everyone from pre-school upwards.

It astonishes me that we’re outraged that Google serves up a jpg of genitalia to our kids but we’re completely comfortable with them spending their lives constructing their self-esteem around how many Bebo friends they have acquired – or them spending hours ‘consuming’ 2-dimensional people on ‘Hot or Not’.

You might think I’m being over the top but if – for a moment – you could stop identifying porn with a ‘thing’ (the picture, the stage show, the DVD, the private shop)- then you could only describe it in terms of what it does to / for people and how we relate to it.

What is porn, then, if we can’t name the ‘thing’ we usually label it as? Its a way of looking; a way of using ‘things’ to feel something; a way of relating to the world. Its a way of representing people and things. How does porn treat people? The portrayed? The consumer? Aha. Now we’re getting somewhere.

Difficult? Deep? Heavy? Yes. The girl on the front page of Hot or Not when I clicked through is there for what reason? To know how hundreds of anonymous viewers will judge her. Her what? Why is she there? To try to build her self-esteem based on how many men find her attractive. How is that different from what we call pornography?

Long tale…

I recently read ‘The Long Tail’ by Chris Anderson in which he outlines the new ‘niche’ economy. It’s definately worth a read – because the basic principle is important. Put simply:

• The old material economy puts a premium on physical space – hence it’s all geared to creating ‘hits’ and selling large volumes of a limited range of things (movies, products, services etc).

• The new digital economy does away with the constraints of physical space and connects niche buyers with niche products, enabling a market for niche products. These technologies are able to capitalise the fact that there is greater overall volume of ‘stuff’ in the tail than in the peak.

This new economy, Anderson says, is shaped by 3 key forces:

1) The aggregators (those who bring together lots of virtual, niche, stock – like Amazon

2) The connectors (those who connect niche markets to niche products) – like Google and

3) The niche content producers.

What I find interesting is that in this model, the aggregators and the connectors win because they’re fed by an endless stream of content / product from niche producers in pursuit of good old-fashioned ‘hit’ status.

This is the main contradiction in the book for me. The examples that Anderson cites of niche content producers benefiting are in fact, the opposite. They’re niche content producers using social media (like YouTube and blogging) to infiltrate – guess what? – the mainstream ‘hit’ economy. Their motivation? To become mainstream, to sell mainstream and to make money mainstream.

That for me is the weakness of this dream of ‘win-win-win’ techno utopia. Not only is this argument inherently slanted towards digital content (where do toilet rolls fit in?), it claims a paradigm shift which, on very mild inspection, turns out to be rather more like ‘paradigm-as-usual’.

Got some bad news for you, business.

You’re not in charge of what people say about you.

Interesting article in the Institute of Directors’ newsletter about ‘Web 2.0′. Blogs, podcasts, forums and social networks are all very attractive add-ons for business it says, however:

“…you should also steel yourself for negative or even harmful feedback. Hackers and disaffected staff can use blogs and social networking forums to post negative feedback about your business.

And you need to be confident in your product or service before allowing customers to review it openly on the web. If they do highlight problems – be ready to fix them quickly.”

The idea that you can in some way control customers reviewing your products and services openly on the web is completely stuck in 20th century thinking. Put a blog on your site or don’t, it makes no different to the power of online customer feedback & reviewing. The beauty of this information revolution is that it’s going to force you to do one of three things:

1) Provide great service

2) Provide great customer service when you fail to provide great service or –

3) Lose customers

New ads

These ads were hot off the drawing board last night for inclusion in next week’s Bartercard ‘Trading Times’.

Meantime, we’re developing Cultivate Marketing’s ‘Last Friday Club’ audioblog; negotiating providing feedback services to, and a link up with, the Plymouth + Exeter Diaries; partnering with Optix in Exeter, Slightly Different in Falmouth.

And we’re providing feedback services for a major West Devon hotel – as well as providing a blog and feedback service for the Tavistock campaign to challenge Sainsbury’s proposed store development on a particular out of town site.