Over the past few weeks we've watched social media monitoring and brand tracking come of age and get mainstream attention. We heard rumblings of a new social tool from Microsoft called Looking Glass and saw marketing guru/legend Seth Godin try to get in on the action with Brands in Public (which I strongly disagreed with). With all the hubbub, I emailed friend and online reputation management expert Andy Beal to get his view on why online reputation management (ORM) was finally getting some respect, what small business owners can do to protect their brand, and where to get started. If you haven't heard of Andy, he's an internationally-renowned consultant, author, and speaker specializing in online reputation management and internet marketing. He's also is the coauthor of Radically Transparent and CEO of Trackur, one of the Web's first online reputation management tools. Here's what Andy had to say. Why is it important for small business owners to monitor online conversations about their brand? Small business owners are probably at the most risk of having their online reputation damaged. Many small businesses simply don't have the time, or budget, to "buy" their way out of reputation crisis. They can't afford to hire a PR firm, they can't release a slew of TV ads--any crisis is going to cause long-term damage to their brand. With this in mind, small business owners need to keep their ear close to the ground and listen for any rumblings of dissatisfaction from their customers. They need an early warning system that lets them know when someone just wrote an unkind blog review or complained on Twitter. If they can learn about it quickly--and therefore respond quickly--they can nip it in the bud, so to speak. The importance of ORM seems to be going mainstream. Seth Godin launched Brands In Public a few weeks ago, Microsoft announced Looking Glass. Why do you think it took the big dogs so long to get on board and what finally got them there? All of the little dogs! Joking aside, it's hard for the larger companies to build and launch a new product. There's shareholder value to be considered and there are generally other things that tend to be a higher priority. The big dogs have seen that there's a thriving cottage industry in social media monitoring and they want to get on board, now that they can see that it's actually going somewhere. You beat everyone to the punch with your online reputation management tool, Trackur. What does Trackur do and what's the benefit of something like Trackur in helping a small business manage the ORM process? I built Trackur because there was a huge need for a monitoring solution that was more sophisticated that Google Alerts, yet matched the limited budget of small businesses. With a price tag that starts at just $18 a month, Trackur brings sophisticated social media monitoring tools to the reach of any business--no matter what the budget. In fact, we're seeing some pretty good sized companies using Trackur because they like its simplicity. Whistles and bells are fun at first, but when you realize you're not actually using them all, they just end up creating an unnecessary--and expensive--din. What types of outlets/media does Trackur watch? How are people notified of mentions - alerts, RSS, dashboard, etc. I have very high standards for Trackur. If I'm going to use it for my own reputation, it had better cover just about every type of media on the web--and it does. Mainstream media, blogs, Twitter, images, and video are all monitored by Trackur. We're not getting 100%--but we're picking up more than Google does, so I'm happy with that! So all of that needs to be organized somehow, right? We have a very easy to use dashboard which makes it a simple task to see what's being said about your brand. In addition, users can opt to receive both RSS alerts and email notifications. We want to give the user as many options as possible. What types of mentions/conversations/keywords should people be monitoring? I put together a pretty extensive list last year and you can find it here: http://www.marketingpilgrim.com/2008/04/online-reputation-monitoring-campaign.html. If nothing else, you should monitor your company name, your personal name, and any other brands--or personal names--that are both important to your company and are in the public spotlight. If you really want to get sophisticated, monitor the reputation of your biggest competitors! Learn from their mistakes and successes. If you own a hotel--and you learn that your rival is receiving complaints because their beds have itchy sheets--make that a point of emphasis for your next marketing campaign. "Hey, we have 600-count Egyptian-cotton sheets on all our beds!" How do you think transparency and responding to criticism serves a small business? Why should they even bother? Because responding to your critics shows that you care about your business. It shows not only your detractor that you care, but also others that might do business with you. Look, if someone doesn't like the way your staff treated them, wouldn't you want to know about it? Wouldn't you want to try and fix the situation and make that customer happy? If you don't respond to the criticism, that person may tell ten other people that not only did they have a bad experience with your company, but that you didn't ever appear to care. Apologize, fix it, then make sure it doesn't happen again. Every company makes mistakes now and then, the key is how you respond. Jet Blue stranded hundreds of passengers, but it didn't stick its head in the sand. Instead it apologized, created a new passenger Bill of Rights, and has recovered its reputation as a great airline. Where should people start if they're just getting into brand management and monitoring the conversation about their brand? Well, if you'll allow me to shamelessly plug my own book, I think Radically Transparent is the first place a small business owner should turn. My goal in writing it was to provide a blueprint for reputation management that any size business--or individual--could follow. After that, just listen. Listen to what's being said about your brand. You don't have to create a blog or build a Facebook page--at least not at first. But if you take the time to listen, collect feedback on what people like and don't like about your business, you can use that valuable knowledge to build a better, more profitable business. I want to thank Andy for taking time out to answer a few questions and giving small business owners a great rundown on where to get started protecting their brand. Thanks, Andy!