If you’re interested in online reputation management, you might want to watch that space
Once apon a time I was a member of Ecademy, an online business networking platform. At the time I joined (somewhere around 2006) it had an interesting mix of online and offline interactions. Like many people trying to start up their own businesses and make them work I spent too much time networking online (in various places) while convincing myself I was building some kind of foundation for my business. In my case, this turned out not to be true – however, it’s not the case for all businesses. Many people get just the start they need from that kind of activity and many use online networking in a way they can demonstrate adds value to their businesses.
Eventually I decided to let my Ecademy membership lapse. There were a number of reasons for this. Firstly (as I mentioned above) I realised that my activity there wasn’t what my business really needed at the time. Secondly, I didn’t like the cliquey-ness of Ecademy with it’s ‘BlackStar’ elite and their incessant marketing. Thirdly, I didn’t really like the management style. There was a very small power-circle (pun intended) made up of the Powers and the Watkins. If you didn’t toady to this inner circle, you were out in the wilderness. As for me, I neither agreed nor disagreed with them on anything, I just didn’t really want to be in a place that smelled so strongly of ‘Arslikhan’ (as Private Eye would have it).
I found the process of closing my account infuriating – so much so that I blogged here about it on this site. As someone who has been around social media since way before the start, I was interested to watch the fortunes of Ecademy over the time I had been a member and beyond. There’s nothing like being a social media / online networking user to know what makes an online environment work and what doesn’t. The first thing for any entrepreneur to know is that the experience is product that we may or may not buy – not the platform that the owner or the developer get so excited about. That’s just the environment stuff happens in.
The second thing to know is that ‘free’ doesn’t mean you can forget about delivering value. No matter how ‘free’ a service is, no matter how generous its owners think they are by giving it away, it still has to deliver benefits that are tangible to the user and which he/she thinks are a fair exchange for filling that world with their data and content. On top of this, too many online entrepreneurs end up believing their own list of the ‘benefits of the free membership level’ even when they are given evidence to the contrary. Facebook understand the folly of doing this and so, surprisingly, does LinkedIn. Both of these have steered a careful course and listened (if grudgingly) to their users, notably the non-paying ones.
Over the years, I’ve occasionally looked in at Ecademy to see how it was doing and it clearly wasn’t good. At one point Ecademy suddenly went from being the familiar dark-blue, visually-reassuring, orderly business site to looking like a bad undergraduate design project. I have no idea when this transition happened or why, but it was as if the maturity and seriousness had dropped out of the project overnight. The site design and new logo looked shoddy and chaotic. I have seen this happen once before to an online business networking site where two of directors fell out with a third – their IT director – with the result that he went home in disgust and took his toys and the entire site with him. All that was left was some data and a skeleton for the remaining directors to frantically try to rebuild. Perhaps something similar happened with Ecademy? I don’t know.
Something prompted me to look at Ecademy again today and I saw straight away a new ‘splash’ on the home page announcing that ‘Ecademy is changing’ to become something called ‘Sunzu – the art of business’. I learned quickly that the Powers had left the building and the site now had a new owner – a Mr. Lyndon Wood (Founder and Director of the Moorhouse Group).
I took a look around to see what was changing. I didn’t find much tangible evidence of change, but I did read quite a few posts outlining Mr. Wood’s vision and promises for the future of Ecademy. I also read a fair few comments from the last-guard of the Ecademy community, many of them ‘Blackstars’ (those people who paid Thomas and Penny Power a lot of money for ‘lifetime’ membership benefits that they now say never really materialised). These members were in dialogue with Lyndon Wood and some were challenging him on his vision and views.
Which brings me to this post.
It’s clear that Lyndon Wood has chosen to position himself visibly at the helm of what he describes as a ‘gamble’ with Ecademy and to engage the members in a publicly-visible dialogue. From a brief reading of the exchanges so far, I would say that there is the danger of a reputation storm brewing for Mr. Wood. This is fuelled both by a combative style of communication and a tendency to dismiss as unworthy the views of those who disagree with him. You might get away with this with your employees but not with your customers.
The most dangerous path for any business to tread online is the path of dialogue with one’s customers – particularly when they’re not happy. This is the real space where reputations are made and destroyed – sometimes in the space of a single sentence. To dialogue with one’s dissatisfied customers productively in the glare of online visibility takes the kind of awareness that doesn’t come lightly. To borrow from Einstein:
most people try to solve reputation problems with the same level of awareness and communication skills that created those reputation problems in the first place
I’ve every respect for someone who has built up a successful business in insurance. I tip my hat. But if you want to see a potential reputation disaster in the making, then in Mr. Wood’s own words: feel free to watch what happens next.
Managing yourself productively through this kind of dialogue where your dreams, ambitions and beliefs come up against critical feedback from paying members is an extremely tough ask and it’s that much tougher when those customers haven’t had a very good deal so far. In those circumstances, it’s all too easy to vent your feelings and your frustration in a way that can do your reputation untold damage.
What do I recommend?
I would say:
• Take the position that you’re the last person to know the impression you’re creating
• Ask others who are not involved and who aren’t going to massage your ego what they get from the exchanges you’ve already had
• Increase your understanding of your own emotional reactions in this dialogue; invest in some new skills to stay out of reaction in such difficult dialogues
It’s the unconscious reaction that costs every time.