The sheer power of the online world can be gauged by the rate at which blog posts, especially first person accounts of negative experiences, are shared. A few months ago, Lemp Brew Pub in Gurgaon became infamous, drawing flak from thousands online after a livid diner wrote about the callous treatment received at the restaurant.
A recent study by comScore titled 'India Digital Future in Focus 2013' revealed India as the third largest Internet population in the world, with 73.9 million users, just behind China and the US. In such a scenario, the Lemp Brew Pub incident is the first instance that Kapil Gupta, CEO of Omlogic, an online marketing services firm, mentions when he says, “They really need someone to manage their reputation.”
In the last couple of years, Indian brands have steadily identified the significance of Online Reputation Management (ORM). “Online media has democratised the ability to talk. There is so much conversation on the web which traditional media leaves out,” says Kumar Subramaniam, business head at Pinstorm, a digital marketing firm. Gupta believes that ORM picked up five years ago when online forums like Mouth Shut and Consumer Court sprang up, giving people a platform to express their bad experiences with brands.
“At the time, brands just wanted to know how to reverse the feedback from negative to positive,” he says. Today, the entire process has become more streamlined. “ORM entails using social media platforms to understand consumer perspectives and strengthening a brand's online presence, in the form of Facebook pages, Twitter accounts and so on,” states Gupta. He cites the example of a travel client which got a lot of negative reviews on a discussion forum. By making a Facebook page, Gupta and his team facilitated a direct contact between their client and its users.
“The process is very elaborate and completely mapped out. We've invested in a lot of technology that lets our clients know the views of people across the world, like in Faridabad or Vishakapatnam,” says Subramanium.
ORM also finds takers in political parties and film and sports celebrities. “In case of politics, there is a lot of guerilla warfare and parties have to deal with a lot of negative publicity online. Here, ORM sees what is trending on sites like Twitter, what the youth is writing and works accordingly,” says Gupta.
While ORM seems like a perfectly legitimate and essential concept for brands today, there are companies like Chennai-based Virtual Social Media that go beyond just 'management'.
“Our aim is to ensure that the client's name comes out completely clean in an online search. We handle cases where big businessmen, doctors and builders have allegations against them which could affect their future prospects,” says Sathish Isaac, the CEO. Isaac’s ORM team consists of videographers, graphic artists, bloggers and search engine specialists. They curate online conversations about their client and in a process that takes months, push negative sentiments from the first page of search engines to the back pages and not just in their client's country but in servers across the world.
It's all done very cleverly. Since 'removing' content, especially videos, is virtually impossible, new ones are created and uploaded so they show up instantly in search results. “On forum discussions, we push the positive posts on the first page. We put out not more than ten comments per week and employ different writers so they don't read the same,” reveals Isaac.
Different servers are used and the whole point is to not leave behind a footprint. The process begins within Isaac's company — employees cannot reveal what they do on websites like LinkedIn.
Starting at Rs9 lakh, such services can only be afforded by the well-heeled, the ones whose reputation is at stake, thinks Issac. Despite the latent nature of the job, he does not feel any legal or moral implications. “Ninety nine per cent of the time, the allegations are true. However, we're paid to do our work. So it doesn't matter to us."
Subramanium, however, thinks that such ORM is not sustainable in the long run as there are people who can dig deeper. “You can't whitewash your past and it is bound to have a boomerang effect some day.” On his part, Gupta believes that a very thin line exists between legal and moral and they try to verify backgrounds whenever possible
While judging from a moral standpoint is mostly subjective, Isaac drives home the popularity of such covert services when he says, “From two clients a month last year, we now get around 25 inquiries each month, out of which at least five come on board.”