Protect Your (Online) Rep

Protect Your (Online) Rep

These days you can’t afford not to be online if you want to build and safeguard your “brand.” There are many things you can do to head off potential trouble and make sure potential clients don’t stumble upon a nasty surprise during a search.

Building a web site, launching a Twitter account, or writing a LinkedIn profile is crucial for any rep trying to craft a strong online presence. But having an online profile is just half of the game. After all, the Internet is not a one-way street. Sure, advisors control what they post on their own websites and online profiles. And a comment on their site or post on Facebook is easily removed. But what about a blog authored by an angry former client? Hardly eliminated with a single click of delete. Instead, constant monitoring is key, lest reps find their names quickly passed over on a Google search by the next generation of investors.

“Nowadays, professional reputation is tied to online,” says Don Sorenson, CEO and founder of online reputation management firm Big Blue Robot. “And you can be at the whim of anyone who writes about you. I harp on practicing how to manage your reputation. If you wait until you’re in trouble, it’s just too late.”

Owen Tripp, co-founder of the Redwood City, Calif.-based worked with one financial advisor whose client made an angry tweet about his investments not doing as well as the market—and included the rep’s Twitter handle, making the post instantly discoverable. The FA was worried it would damage his reputation.

But Tripp says it doesn’t always require a client to damage the advisor’s rep—he can do that all by himself, such as one whose constant broadcast about his support for the National Rifle Association cost him clients.

“Sometimes you’re sharing too much of your own personal life,” Tripp says. “There isn’t such a wall between the personal and professional on social media.”

Maribeth Kuzmerski, founder of the Grayslake, Ill.-based RedZone Marketing recalls one rep whose own family member posed as a client, attacking the advisor’s professional reputation until the negative content found its way into the rep’s top ten search results. Only after working hard to post positive comments and press releases about upcoming events were those negative posts pushed back down.

Reps who believe reputation control is just for celebrities are kidding themselves. And those who believe they can avoid the problem by simply refusing to create their own online presence are in the dark.

It’s a wild west out there. And as each new generation of investors turns to the web in larger numbers for information on how to invest their money—and who they can trust to advise them—advisors have to learn how to keep the gunslingers in check. One bad result in Google’s top ten and a potential client is just as likely to click on through to the next advisor listed in her search.

“You have to decide how you want to be perceived when someone searches your name,” says Sorenson. “Whether that’s a potential employer, or a client. When you’re looking at reputation management from a search engine perspective, it’s primarily played on Google. And most people don’t go past page one.”

Luckily there are steps reps can take to proactively manage how they appear to clients on the web—from simple actions that can be set up in minutes, to those that require more investment of time.

No Ostriches Here

The best place to start may be setting up an online profile—this gives you more control over your image. Even if an advisor doesn’t want to launch a LinkedIn page or doesn’t feel he has anything to tweet, he still needs to tie up the properties where his name could exist. Technically anyone can start a Facebook profile under someone else’s name. And having posts circulating under your firm’s brand name that are not actually under your firm’s control can be a real reputation killer. “You at least have to make sure you own those if you’re looking at reputation management,” says Sorenson, who has worked with clients in financial services.

Once a rep owns his name—getting online and building a presence is the next big step. Okay, bantering on Facebook or posting something pithy on Twitter may feel awkward, but it’s not much different than grabbing a drink at a networking event after work. The difference is social media can be done in pajamas, with no one knowing there’s milk instead of Chianti in that glass next to your keyboard.

Mike Langford, senior social business strategist at Socialware believes that reps who build interactive online communities create an extra layer of protection for their reputation. Someone can still come along and attack an advisor’s character. But hopefully, if that happens, there may be 2,000 comrades ready to take up arms in their defense. To Langford it’s about building online karma—ready when it’s needed.

“Being active on social [media] and having a network of people who are brand advocates for you, you will find they will come to your rescue,” says Langford who is also a financial advisor managing his own book of business.

Langford also believes that being active on social media means reps can find negative commentary when it first goes up—not only later when it’s blown up into Armageddon. If the problem is an angry client and the advisor catches it early, he can perhaps respond and even offer to take the conversation offline through a phone call, or face-to-face cup over a cup of coffee.

Yet here Sorenson advises caution. While he admits that sometimes an angry poster can be appeased, responding to them rarely works that way. It can instead land like a kick to a hornet’s nest—stirring up further anger and retaliation.

“Even an attempt to reach out with an olive branch I’ve seen come back to bite companies pretty badly,” he says. “People then blog about it, writing more. My general recommendation is if you have to say something, you say it once, and you don’t post again. It’s when people keep writing rebuttals that you get a firestorm. I’ve seen some that have gone 150 pages. And those never drop out of the top ten rankings.”

Listen. Monitor. Repeat

The ultimate weapon in managing a reputation online? The Google alert—a free tool that lets anyone create a real-time ping when a name appears on the Internet. From an award for a firm, to a disgruntled comment, an alert is an immediate way to know when the web is chatting you up.

Marissa Fox-Foley, senior vice president of marketing at LPL Financial admits that while advisors can minimize what’s being said about them by turning off comments in Facebook, or recommendations in LinkedIn, third party sites like Yelp are outside an advisor’s control. “If you’re going to have any sort of presence online you need to be fully dedicated to monitoring it,” says Fox-Foley. “Don’t step into the ocean unless you’re prepared to swim. And it can be time consuming.”

Putting the situation in perspective is also helpful for reps prone to sitting up at night, peering with blood shot eyes over pages of social networking sites. Michael Kitces, the director of research at Pinnacle Advisory Group in Columbia, MD, says that people truly intent on creating malicious attacks will find a way no matter what. The good news is most reps are unlikely to be the focus of a slam on that level.

Yet checking in is still important. Kitces’ firm maintains a site, and he himself has a Facebook page, Twitter account, and LinkedIn page which he constantly monitors. He knows that while negative feedback has the half-life of infinity on the Internet, catching it early can relieve much of the sting.

“The times I’ve heard about problems like this, they are as much about people not being aware of them, as opposed to them being irrevocable to fix,” he says. “Even if something bad is posted that you need to manage, you can pick up your phone and call all your clients if you need to. Even 200 clients can be reached in a week.”

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