“Optics,” in Wall Street parlance, means how something looks or appears on its face (without a lot of detail).

It’s so appropriate that the phrase comes from the investment community – because said community really stinks at it!geckomag.jpg

I submit to you the following:

1. AIG using taxpayer money on sales retreats, replete with spa treatments.  Then AIG used taxpayer money on deferred comp for the top 5% of its executives.

2. The CEOs of GM, Chrysler and Ford flying to Washington DC in private jets to plead for taxpayer money before a Congressional committee.

3. James Cayne, the former CEO of Bear Stearns, was busy playing bridge in Tennessee without a cell phone or Blackberry while the financial community struggled to save (or sell) his firm.

On the flip side – with good optics – is The Nielsen Company who just canceled its 2009 client meeting, citing economic concerns.

In times of significant oversight, the last thing an organization should do is something (anything) that would instantly be absorbed as inappropriate.  And – suspending belief for a moment – even if the action is “legitimate” (a surprised AIG executive told me this past weekend that he could not understand how anyone wouldn’t understand the just cause of deferred comp), it is wholly irrelevant.  Because even if you are “right” you won’t have the chance to prove it:  the market will have passed judgment and moved on.

Poor optics – particularly those we’ve witnessed since the failure of Lehman Brothers – can be a symptom of two diseases.  The first illness causes a historically successful individual to somehow believe that she is untouchable and, perhaps, even super-human.  Just as troublesome is the disease that causes one to believe that anything he does might in fact be seen, but that the seers will determine the person’s true, positive intent and will defer.

Both illnesses bring down companies.  As senior marketing executives frequently run PR/communications, we can only counsel senior management in their best interest but, too often, these voices are eventually silenced.  Any CEO playing cards in Tennessee without a phone while the market is tanking is accustomed to such behavior, and is unlikely to accept advice to the contrary.  And in that case, the potentially hundreds of thousands of employees, retirees and communities who rely on that organization better hope that the card game ends early.   

A version of this post can be found at www.reputationgarage.com.

The teenage jury is in: Abercrombie & Fitch’s cross-channel marketing/ hype machine leaves just about everyone else in the dust.  Launched in 1892, I suspect that former shoppers Teddy Roosevelt, Ernest Hemingway, Amelia Earhart and Clark Gable would scarcely recognize the clothier whose soft-core porn advertising/experience that has turned the chain into a cultural icon (well, maybe Gable would feel at home…).

Since rebooting the brand in 1988, A&F has broken from the teen pack by courting controversy everywhere it goes.  Let us count the ways…

Because just about every retailer has a catalog and everyone’s catalog is free (ho-hum), A&F created a separate lifestyle magazine full of black-and-white photographs taken by Bruce Weber, the photographer best known for highlighting “the beauty of youth in male nude photography” (as taken verbatim from his own website).   There were so many protests over A&F Quarterly (which the company sells – further stoking desire among teens)  that the company suspended publication for awhile; it’s hard to say whether it was the magalog’s porn star interviews or the b&w shots of Santa and Mrs. Santa Claus in flagrante that pushed thousands of parents and a few governors and attorneys general over the edge… who’s to say?

Such outrage, of course, only pushed the Quarterly to greater, more mythical heights, stoking the company’s good-but-bad-boy (emphasis on “boy”) reputation.  Go online right now to witness the hysteria it generated in 2003. Totally un-cool Bill O’Reilly, a series of religious organizations and others called for boycotts, and articles concerned with “cultural decay” screamed out with headlines like “Abercrombie & Fitch Stops Selling Porn.”  Parental boycotts? Porn?  Thongs for pre-teens, according to Bill O’Reilly? [Don’t think too much about that one.]  All like catnip to your underage kitty.  Meee-ow!

A&F Quarterly has recently been reintroduced (in Europe, not the US) with a promise from the company that it would no longer be sold to individuals under the age of 18 and that there would be less of everything that made it hot in the first place.  Nevertheless, I wouldn’t expect any A&F articles on the virtues of abstinence anytime soon.

On the ground, it appears that the company used the Quarterly‘s hiatus period to begin focusing on customer service and the stores.  A new CEO was brought in from Gucci which – at 46,000 feet – now boasts the largest luxury store in the world right here on New York’s Fifth Avenue.  Gucci knows how to push the rags.  The CEO beefed up store staffing and there are now greeters at the front of every store, in addition to at least one employee inside covering each sales section.  But what is A&F’s spin?  A&F hires male models as greeters, who may literally be standing out on the sideway, stirring up – whatever.  The company further inflates the aspiration by “casting” for such greeters on its website, where the pages pulsate with club music accompanying a video of store events where the models are decidedly half-naked and the customers are clearly under 18.  If you are interested in becoming a model for A&F, you’re asked for a photo, your height, your weight… and the name of the mall nearest you.   ‘Cuz you may be pretty, but don’t ever forget why you’re here.

A&F’s been knocking around in my head for some time, but the impetus for this post was an experience this past Labor Day weekend.  Marketing Mojo was merrily cruising down NYC’s Fifth Avenue until running headlong into a case of gridlock at 57th Street.  What could it be?  Celebrities (pretty typical in these here parts…)?  No, it was a huge mass of people standing in front of A&F’s flagship store, waiting to get in and taking pictures of what definitely seemed to be a highlight of their day.  There were two beautiful young male models standing at the door controlling entry, and a line of people behind a velvet rope that snaked around the corner.  A velvet rope.  2008’s version of Studio 54/Limelight/China Club (all of which the Mojo’s under-18 friends snuck into) is… Abercrombie & Fitch. 

There is no question that A&F has made some wrong moves, particularly in the area of diversity.  Several years ago, the company made t-shirts that it considered fun and tongue-in-cheek.  Just about everyone else, including many college student organizations, considered them racist.  And in 2004, the company settled a $50 million class action lawsuit brought by former employees who claimed that the company was happy to hire African-Americans, Asians, Filipinos and other minorities… as long as they worked in the stores’ stockrooms and not out on the selling floor.   

Ergo, the stupid, screwed up (and illegal) side of presenting the “Caucasian, football-looking, blonde-hair, blue-eyed, skinny, tall male” as everyone’s ideal.  

Fast forward to 2008, and the company is making progress.  Today, the company claims that minorities make up 32% of its sales staff.  It also has a  huge “Diversity” section on its website.  Of course this is A&F, so the section plays a video loop that features Asians, Latinos and African-Americans – all of whom are gorgeous and (most of whom are) in some state of undress.  The company can’t give up everything!

[Nota bene: An employee recently claimed that A&F has simply shifted its discriminatory ways toward not hiring “ugly” people, with the company’s “hierarchy of hotness” dictating just about everything.  And not hiring unattractive people (across all ethnic groups) is very hard to outlaw, according to a lawyer who represented the plaintiffs in the original 2004 case.] 

Based on 20 years of business experience, the Mojo has absolutely no doubt that A&F’s lawyers and senior management are fully cognizant of what they’re doing, and believe that a nuisance lawsuit or two is worth preserving the highly profitable fantasy world they’ve created.  And by doing so, A&F taps into its target consumer’s impressionable zeitgeist like few others do – or have the nerve to do.

Abercrombie & Fitch  back to school shopping  clothing retail

I look forward to and enjoy Rob Walker’s Consumed column in every Sunday’s The New York Times Magazine.  Recent topics have included Pirate’s Booty, Safeway‘s push into store-brand organics and the magic of the Flip video recorder. 

I have found the columns to be interesting, insightful and well-considered.buying-in-cover-stephanie-fierman.jpg

So I am bewildered by Mr. Walker’s new acclaimed book.  In Buying In, Walker pulls back the proverbial curtain to reveal that there is a “secret dialogue between what we buy and who we are” because, although consumers will almost always claim they make purchases based on rational factors such as price, convenience and quality (here comes the secret), it’s not true.

He refers to a Roper Study in which only one fifth of responders claim that branding is a factor in what they buy, and then he debunks it.  He says that there is a “knee-jerk bias against logos” and uses the word “concede” to describe the emotion we would all presumably feel if we had to admit that brands, images, logos and symbols matter.  The Washington Post’s review of the book says “Walker… makes a startling claim: Far from being immune to advertising, as many people think, American consumers are increasingly active participants in the marketing process.”

And in another Buying In review, Po Bronson offers that
Walker “obliterates our old paradigm of companies (the bad guys) corrupting our children (the innocents) via commercials. In this new world, media-literate young people freely and willingly co-opt the brands, with most companies being clueless bystanders desperate to keep up.”

Who said that consumers were immune to advertising, and what kind of huge revelation is it that brands and marketing matter?  Where is the explanation that you can make research say just about anything (take my word for it)?  Why the implication that consumers who pay attention to advertising are fools and suckers, and that advertisers are “desperate?”gucci-ad-stephanie-fierman.jpg

In my experience, consumers readily admit that brands can represent something that transcends the actual products their companies manufacture.  Nike (with the swoosh), Apple, American Apparel… Pick your favorite indulgence. Would Walker say that I had been duped into wanting $250 Gucci sunglasses because of how they make me feelWould he believe that the only way to buy sunglasses is to compare the polycarbonates and chemical coatings and that, if I’d only done so, I would have surely purchased $5 street sunglasses instead?  And on top of all this, I lose $250 pairs of sunglasses in taxis just like I lose $5 ones.  This last piece of irrationality would probably give Walker a fit, but OH! the Guccis are so much more fun.  So, non-news flash: I’m not an idiot.  People love brands.  We assign a meaning and importance to them with which most of us are comfortable, and certainly not ashamed as Mr. Walker envisions.

And with serious respect for Mr. Bronson, I suspect that companies/brands such as Sony, Mentos, Comcast (with a sleeping technician plastered all over the web, and Bob Garfield “seeking ideas for the consumer jihad”) and AOL (with the multiple videos riffing on Vinny Ferrari’s experience) would think it old news that consumers are dissecting, adopting and co-opting brands any way they like.

Much of the consumer world is based on desire – on pleasure.  There is no disgrace here (overspending aside):  many if not most consumer franchises are built on brand, not feature differentiation, and everyone I know knows it.  Walker seems to be a smart guy, so I fail to grasp his argument or the value that is created by 300+ pages of him holding his nose around “frivolous” marketing and “phony image making” (AKA marketing).  If he was going to invest what was probably years in researching and writing a book, it would have been great if his thesis added to the conversation about the relationship between brand and consumer, rather than detracting from it.

If you enjoyed this post, check out my daily blog Stephanie Fierman – Marketing Observations Grown Daily.

So I was sitting in a meeting just a few days ago, and someone I like and respect said something about “the long tail.”  A couple people sort of nodded, and I thought, “Oh my, are people still talking about that?”

You see, I am and always have been… a long tail doubter.  It’s true.  I’ve never said it out loud because the book was so very popular and the concept was picked up everywhere and it spread like wildfire, so I just kept my doubts to myself.  For two years.  Until now.

But first, a bit of history to catch us up to the present day.

Chris Anderson, editor of Wired magazine, made a huge splash with The Long Tail, which was first published by the magazine in 2004 and then as a book in 2006.  In a nutshell, the long tail theory says that the abundance and ease of choice on the Internet has shifted sales potential from a small number of mainstream “hits” (at the front of the demand curve) toward a near-endless number of lesser-known choices at the tail.  The term refers to the orange section of the demand curve shown here:


Furthermore, because retail economics restrict stores to carrying only the best-selling products, items that have already been created and have either lost their mojo or were never popular in the mainstream in the first place are pushed out – along with their sunk costs.  But lo the Internet, with its infinite “shelf space” makes every product discoverable and ready to be purchased.  The book has become something of a holy document in the Internet community where companies (“from Amazon to iTunes,” says Anderson on his website) want to find a way to sell old songs, movies, videos, ringtones, on-demand books and television shows from their infinite Web warehouses.  Case studies flew up everywhere. 

Personally, I thought it was bunk.  Or rather, I thought the concept vastly overdramatized the effect of a small minority of “committed seekers” dedicated enough to something (comic books, that lost Marvin Gaye song, Civil War spoons…) to search for and purchase a category’s flotsam and jetsam.

When I looked around, in fact, it seemed that the rest of us were doing quite the opposite.  The New York Times’ Most Blogged, Most Emailed and Most Searched lists.  Top TV Shows, Top Music, Top Movies on iTunes.   Amazon.com’s influential Sales Rank, and its Bestsellers list (updated hourly).  The Netflix Top 10.  To me, the Internet appeared to be herding users more aggressively toward blockbusters, not away from them.

Like I said:  I kept this then un-hip and un-scientific opinion to myself.

Now there’s a professor at Harvard Business School who has researched the long tail. Based on sales data for online video rentals and songs, Professor Anita Elberse verifies my gut: not only do hits continue to be just as important online as they are online, but the Web is actually magnifying attention on the winners.

Elberse also discusses what she and others view as an incorrect subjective assumption that Anderson made when building the long tail, which is the idea that people want to go their own way.  They don’t want to listen/watch/read what everyone else does, and would rather wander down an untrodden hallway of the Web and find an otherwise discarded gem.  Who is he kidding?  Elberse cites additional research showing how intensely social people really are: how we like sharing experiences with others and that the mere fact that others like something makes us like it even more. 

And confirmation has come from another interesting source, as well.  Neil Howe, widely considered to be the expert on Millenials, draws a broad distinction between Gen X and this new influential group – the generation driving the most development and change on the Web. Among other things, while Boomers and Gen X “individuated,” born-in-the-80s Millenials gravitate toward the social:  chat rooms, instant messaging, Facebook.  They enjoy being with each other, forming friendships and shared preferences.  Rather than acting independently, Millenials who spend time customizing content on the Web do so for the purpose of sharing it with others (hello, YouTube). 

                                         (Click on the graphic for a larger view)

Howe says it is and will be “the most connected generation in world history,” and that their preferences will only solidify the popularity of mainstream, popular brands and products.
Finally, Elberse and The Wall Street Journal‘s Lee Gomes also believe that the Internet/tech community unconsciously may have wanted to back the theory because it flattered its citizenry.  Long tail strength would fortify the value of new digital assets created outside the walls of institutional, cultural power (let’s build a pet robot in my garage, shoot a video for YouTube and get rich!).  And bloggers drank the Kool-Aid, they say, because the long tail promises an audience for just about any goofy comment out there.  This is all probably true, but it’s a little sketchy so I’m not going to dwell here.

But I am very, very happy that some respectable people with significant research refute the long tail theory.  Because – while I may not be a Millenial – I do like company.

If you enjoyed this post and wish there was so much more… Check out my daily blog at www.stephaniefiermanmarketingdaily.com. Thank you!

After graduating from business school, I found an apartment on New York City’s Upper East Side.  Two main factors drove my choice: (1) It was one of the few in the big, bad city with which my mother was comfortable, and (2) It was maybe the best value for the dollar.

At the time, I was completely unaware that Reason #2 was not exactly what my beloved neighborhood was known for.  In fact, it’s quite the opposite.

My zip code for over 15 years – 10021– surpasses all others in New York City for the number of wealthy households.  Founded by John Jacob Astor over 150 years ago, the zip is home to more than 1,300 households with more than $2 million in income-producing assets.  Sure, the zip has its wanna-be’s – 10023 and 10024 aspire to the throne with 826 HH (2.07%) and 689 HH (2.1%) who meet this criteria, respectively – but 10021 is the king.  Do 10023 and 10024 have blogs dedicated to them, like 10021 NY Socialites?  I think not.

It would be terribly uncouth of you to doubt me but, just in case, here is incontrovertible proof:  The CW’s Gossip Girl takes place in 10021!  And ABC has decided that the zip is posh enough to merit its very own show called – what else? – 10021.  Evening-soap-opera TV has spoken.

So while I was a bit sad and nostalgic when the U.S. Postal Service split 10021 into three, smaller zips,  some of my richer neighbors were downright apoplectic – and in major denial.

Real estate agents have clients specify the now-smaller 10021 zip and refuse to see anything else.  “I spent my whole life wanting to get into that zip,” said one home-seeker.  And stationers catering to the hoi polloi have displaced clients who still insist that their notecards and matching envelopes say 10021: even though their addresses now reside in the new and unknown 10065 or 10075.

So while Shakespeare asked, “What’s in a name?” shall we now ask, “What’s in a zip?”  Apparently so.  For many of the wealthy who either grew up in 10021 or who were able to move there based on their net worth, those now stripped of those 5 little numbers feel exiled.  And for others whose assets are nowhere near $2 million in investable assets, the zip code was a silent endorsement:  while we may not be afford Birkin bags, we certainly did not have to correct outsiders who drew their own lofty conclusions based on our zip code.

So once again we see that the definition of product differently from that of brand.  The product is 5 digits like any other.  But the 10021 “brand?”  How it makes people feel and the conclusions drawn by the rest of the world based on a 10021 address?  That’s another thing entirely.

Me?  It’s strange, but I am getting used to 10075.  Then again, I never derived any part of my sense of self-worth from my zip code.  But try to take away my 212 home area code or my 917 cell area code??  Let’s not even think about it.

Friends: Take a look at my new daily blog Stephanie Fierman – Marketing Observations Grown Daily for shorter takes on news and trends of the day.

“A growing cultural vulnerability to rumor.”

That’s how The New York Times describes a phenomenon that appears to be engulfing the U.S. The impetus for the article, Rumor’s Reasons, is the ceaseless momentum surrounding the claim that Barack Obama is a Muslim.

The rumor was ignited in 2004 by a vituperative web columnist. While mainstream news sources ignored him, the story took root in blogs, email, message boards and the like. Even after Snopes de-bunked the claim, it rolled on.

There are several plausible conclusions to be drawn from both this situation as well as the Times article – some of which have been discussed previously (Parts 1, 2 and 3) on this blog, as well as www.stephaniefiermanmarketingdaily.com :

* The Web lets rumors travel around the world and hang there forever.

* Repeating a claim, even if to refute it, increases its apparent acceptance. It’s the no-win situation of “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.” The problem is that sometimes smoke is just smoke.

* A point related to “Where there’s smoke”: when an individual attempts to determine whether or not a statement is true, she will often look to society for signals. Do others believe it’s true? This takes on new import when one realizes that the mechanics of the Web reward volume, not truth. So in the upside-down world of the Internet, more does not mean better/more true. In fact – if the subject strenuously objects – the result may be the opposite. Obama denies being a Muslim: websites write about the denial itself and the story duplicates exponentially. Personally, I think the fact that a story is read on the Web only adds to its petri-dish-like effect. Didn’t our parents always teach us to “get it in writing?” If it’s in writing it must be true…

* Rumors mutate. Remember the game of telephone when you were a kid? A recent version of the Obama-is-a-Muslim story includes the line “I checked this out on Snopes, and it’s true.” This line will satisfy many listeners.

Here are some fresh take-aways on the topics of online rumors and reputation management:

1. Actively manage your online reputation. Consider shortcutting the process by hiring an SEO specialist – some work by the hour and will give you invaluable tips.

2. On the whole, spend your time building positive, truthful content. Work with your SEO specialist to build a plan for improving your search results. Tenure, volume and linkability are what count.

3. I do not discourage people from asking publishers to remove untruthful, damaging content, but keep this effort in perspective – and bear in mind the interests of the opposing party. Consider the possibility that a site passing an online rumor may be pleased to fan the flame by broadcasting your objection. And not to go all new-agey on you, but you’re talking about seriously bad karma. Toxicity. No one needs that.

4. I’ve spent nearly all of my time on this blog counseling you, the reader, on how to build your own/your company’s reputation. And maybe this goes without saying, but – when you are judging others – apply the Golden Rule. A graduate school would do well to put JuicyCampus posts into perspective when considering an applicant. Better still, everyone should ignore them entirely.

Many of us are most likely to study an individual’s online “persona” when we are considering the person for a job. There’s no question that it’s tempting to move on if you see unfavorable (albeit unsubstantiated) online content about a candidate, especially when there are many others from which to choose.

Don’t do it. If the Golden Rule isn’t enough of a deterrent, ask yourself whether it’s worth getting sued. While it’s not illegal to look someone up on the Web, there may be legal liability if you (a) do not give the candidate an opportunity to address the offending content, and subsequently (b) decide not to hire the individual. If you haven’t documented a work-related reason for rejecting the candidate, you may be liable. Read this thought-provoking FinancialWeek article, and note that both the legal and background check communities are beginning to counsel employers to eschew the Web (social networks, in particular) when gathering information on candidates.

Farhad Manjoo, a staff writer at Salon.com who penned Rumor’s Reasons for the New York Times, concludes by saying “There’s an arms race between truth and fiction, and at the moment, the truth doesn’t appear to be winning.”

Let’s decide that this is unacceptable.

And, friends: Check out my new daily blog at www.stephaniefiermanmarketingdaily.com, offering shorter takes on news and trends of the day.

An article posted today on CNN is horrifying – but not surprising, at least not to readers of this blog.

Juicycampus.com (which at the time of this writing is at the URL of the same name) is a well-trafficked online destination on the campuses of nearly 60 colleges in the US.  A little digging reveals that a number of posts have been viewed “hundreds and even thousands” of times.

Juicycampus.com is a site where anyone can say anything about anyone anonymously, and they do. Boy do they ever. Racism, sexism, religious discrimination and homophobia run rampant on the site, as do specific anonymous accusations targeting individual students regarding their behavior in and out of class, their sexual habits, etc. A Loyola student openly threatened to shoot up the campus, encouraged by the site’s free-for-all environment. The site has proven so “poisonous” there have been calls to have it taken down.

Others have tried to take legal action. Two Yale Law students are pursuing autoAdmit.com – an online discussion forum for those applying to law school – for what they say are libelous comments added to the site in 2006 and 2007.

Good luck. Under U.S. law, sites generally bear no responsibility for what users post, and content is protected as free speech. Juicycampus.com goes so far as to direct users to free online services that cloak IP addresses, so one’s comments can never be tracked back. Its privacy policy explains that the site logs users’ IP addresses but does not associate them with specific posts. This policy is out of the mainstream but perfectly permissable and legal.

In other words: if you write a letter or sue – and therefore are willing to draw even more attention to a problematic situation than the original content did – a Court may be literally unable to force a site to reveal the identity of a poster even if it wanted to do so.

The article says that many schools consider the site to be “poisonous” and that students are worried about the effect the site might have on their job prospects. They should be. According to Execunet, 77% of recruiters use search engines to find out about job candidates, and 35% have eliminated a candidate based on information found on the web. And a useful working assumption is that – unless the content is removed from the site – it will be searchable (and findable) forever.

This topic gets Marketing Mojo worked up, as readers well know – particularly because there are things every person can do to proactively build his or her own “personal brand” reputation online. Doing so not only communicates your authentic story to the world, but – if negative content should appear – will act as a crucial counterpoint that, nurtured properly and over a long period of time, can and will prevail.

I was recently invited by the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC.com) to write a piece on this topic. The article is available only to IABC members. Below is the article in its entirety, available outside the IABC only to Marketing Mojo readers.

by Stephanie Fierman

Low Trust Sets The Stage
It would not surprise you to know that we are operating in a low-trust world, and that both companies and individual executives are vulnerable. In 2005, a worldwide Gallup poll found that 40% of people believe company leaders are “largely dishonest,” and a 2006 WatsonWyatt study says that only 56% of company employees believe their top management acts with honesty and integrity.

These are worrisome figures, given that senior executives worry a great deal about their companies’ reputations but may spend little time on their own. I, for one, am a highly-educated and successful Chief Marketing Officer, known for delivering stellar results for Citicorp, JPMorgan Chase, Time Warner and others. I figured my “rep” would take care of itself, and this non-strategy worked for nearly 20 years. Then an industry gossip blogger decided to make me his latest meal, and turned lies and innuendo into what became the top Google search results for my name. For months, I took what I thought was the high road and did nothing. Everyone who knew me said to ignore the Internet’s equivalent of “graffiti on a bathroom wall.” So I did. But when I began to get questions about this “graffiti,” I realized I was wrong.

The New High Road
The Internet has changed reputation management forever. Where information used to flow slowly and in one direction (that is, from “us” to “them”), we now live in an age where anyone with an Internet connection can post anything they like, and that information will be available on millions of screens in an instant. And not only can truth be a mere afterthought, but the Google algorithm actually rewards popularity – so the more sensational the information, the better.

Changed rules means a changed game. Anyone with an interested constituency – whether it be shareholders, employers, competitors, an exclusive pre-school you’re just dying to get your toddler into or a even potential date – must take control of his or her own reputation online. Because if you’re not offering up honest, straight-forward information about yourself, you not only do yourself a disservice but you’re also depriving these audiences of an authentic picture of who you are and what you stand for. Speaking out IS “the new high road.”

10 Tips for Building Your Reputation Online
Like any blood sport, building your online reputation is a combination of offense and defense. Offense is the best way to go: build up content about yourself before you are put in a position to have to respond to negative and/or untrue information. Here are some key steps you can take now:

1. Monitor your online reputation. Create alerts at Google and Yahoo so the search engines will send you an email whenever new content has appeared that includes your name. Additionally, use RSS to sign up for subscriptions to sites that are most likely to mention you.

2. Create a blog (or a frequently updated and optimized website). Post to the blog religiously: at least once a week.

3. Videos get high search engine rankings. If you speak at an event, or can make a presentation, have it filmed and posted on YouTube. Make sure your name is part of the video’s title.

4. Ask allies and partners to post content about you on their own websites, and consider becoming a regular contributor to someone else’s website (e.g. an industry news site). Your byline will be picked up by the search engines.

5. Consider creating multiple sites if you have enough information to divide into several topics.

6. Maintain a friendly and frequent presence on industry blogs and message boards: you most certainly have something to add that will enrich the conversation. Plus, you are more likely to be welcomed into such a forum if there comes a time when you do wish to respond to something that’s been posted about you.

If inaccurate or troublesome information is posted to the Web and you or your representatives are free to respond (e.g. you are not in an SEC quiet period or your counsel advises restraint), here’s how:

7. Analyze the content and its source. Make a determination as to whether you feel the need to respond immediately or prefer to monitor the situation.

8. Build up content. Proactively create or add content to your own website and make sure it is search-engine-friendly: consumers are more likely to use search engines first in a crisis, before they go to your website for “your” side of the story.

9. Assuming you’ve maintained a positive presence on key blogs and message boards, these communities are likely to be open to listening to you. Post information there. Let others be your ambassadors.

10. Where possible and appropriate, post a notice that you are more than willing to attempt to resolve the crisis personally and without delay. Then try to take the first phase of the conversations offline.

Life (On The Internet) Is Unfair. Get Over It.
If any part of your brain is thinking (a) this won’t happen to me, and/or (b) it’s ludicrous to respond to malicious or false information I empathize, but can offer only my own experience – and those of the executives and companies I now advise on the art and science of Online Reputation Management.

It does happen, and your life will be infinitely more comfortable if you have already taken the simple steps toward creating your own authentic presence online. In a world where you are whatever comes up on the first page of Google, you’ve got to take charge – don’t leave the telling of your own story to any blogger, writer or media outlet having a slow news day.

NB: As of June 2009, Juicycampus is out of business.  Unfortunately, its URL boasts a farewell message that redirects to yet another site that supports anonymous college posting. 

In Part 1 of this series on growing and promoting brands online – that is, not just company brands but also your own – I mentioned that I’ve begun to consult and help others do just that. 

Here is a (my first ever) podcast that I did with “Buzz Marketing For Technology” blogger Paul Dunay about the importance of managing one’s own reputation online – check it out.   And thank you, Paul, for getting this important message out to your readers.

I’ve also copied most of a press release that was published last week below (the full release can be found here).  

Stephanie Fierman to Advise DIGO Clients on “Brand Self-Defense in The Digital Age”

DiMassimoGoldstein (NYC) beefs up ‘online brand advocacy’ offering by retaining the veteran marketer.

NEW YORK, Oct. 11  /PRNewswire/ — “We all know very well that our brands are less under our control and more under the sway of the digital multitudes. But it seems to us that this should be less like the weather — which everyone discusses, but no one seems to do anything about — and more like the other things we learn to manage and exercise some control over.” So says Mark DiMassimo, CEO of New York-based DiMassimoGoldstein (DIGO), in announcing his agency’s retaining of veteran marketer, Stephanie Fierman, to consult for the agency and its clients on the subject of digital brand self-defense. 

According to Fierman, “Max Kalehoff of Nielsen BuzzMetrics had it just right when he said that this is the age of ‘defensive branding.’  There’s so much a business can do to protect and defend its brand and reputation online, but most marketers still have no idea how to do this — either proactively, or reactively in a crisis.  Well I have  learned the hard way, and I’m looking forward to making it a lot easier for DiMassimoGoldstein’s clients.”Fierman refers to her own brand wake-up call, when she discovered that the top Google search results for “Stephanie Fierman” were anonymous lies and derogatory innuendo.  After months of “taking the high road and ignoring it,” Fierman started looking for answers.  What she’s learned, she now shares with other marketers who are anxious to hear from her.

This week, in addition to advising her growing client list, Fierman addressed the CMO Club in New York on the topic of online reputation management.

About DiMassimoGoldstein (DIGO):
DiMassimoGoldstein is a leading creative brand-building agency that partners with “B.R.A.V.E.” Marketers to manage brands that emerge from the din of the marketplace and the limitations of their categories. B.R.A.V.E. Marketers manage to be Be Real and Visionary Everywhere. We have  built our unique model doing just that for brands such as Comcast, Progressive, Gateway, Crunch Fitness, JetBlue, Clarisonic, Citibank, Starwood, GoSMILE, and Pfizer, among others. Visit us at http://www.digobrands.com/.

Available Topic Expert(s): For information on the listed expert(s), click appropriate link. Stephanie Fierman https://profnet.prnewswire.com/Subscriber/ExpertProfile.aspx?ei=68343 

So, Gentle Reader… I’m asking:  what have you done to build your online brand today?

“Reputation management” is certainly nothing new in the worlds of marketing and business.  A company’s reputation is its #1 asset, and organizations spend countless hours and dollars with advisors and PR firms to make sure their messaging is just right.  Certainly individuals care about their reputations just as much, but it’s not been my experience that the regular person, on average, thinks about actively protecting his or her own reputation. 

But as they say, “the Internet has changed everything.” Where once a newspaper article or TV segment might appear and be gone the next day, the Internet now permits anyone to post anything about any topic, whether it be true or false, and such content is often posted anonymously.  And then this questionable content hangs out on the search engines… forever.  While we all applaud the seemingly limitless amount of global news and information the Web literally brings into our homes every day, how much of it is credible when there are no filters?  How do you decide what is true and not – and do most people even try?  I’ve certainly seen my share of urban legend, business rumor and celebrity talk online, but never stopped to really consider or question the quality of the content I was seeing or the judgments I was making about the individuals being written about based on that information. 

This can happen to anyone – and will, in greater and greater numbers.  Only in the last two days a post by Henry Blodgett on Silicon Alley Insider about possible AOL layoffs unleashed a stream of anonymous posts from employees and former employees (146 in a little over two days, so far) not only about the company, but about current AOL executives that these anonymous individuals believe should be fired.  Names are named.   And then other anonymous people jump on the bandwagon.  And like a car wreck you see on the other side of the guardrail, I knew that I couldn’t believe anything on the page and that I should look away, but I didn’t.  One post names 27 executives that deserve to be “whack[ed].”  We also learn that at least one of AOL’s senior executives has questionable and discriminatory motives.  How are these executives to respond?  How will you respond in the future when it’s your turn? 

I am responding by doing exactly what I’ve been doing for companies for the last twenty years – that is, advising brands on how to get their messaging out in an authentic and successful way.  But this time you and I are the brands, and we need to work just as hard to make sure that what’s out there in the world is a true representation of who we are.  Not only do we deserve that, but the people who look for information about us on the Internet deserve that, too. 

This is the first of several posts I’ll be writing on the topic of online reputation management – that is, your reputation.  Stay tuned.