nofailure

It’s a common refrain: focus on building a great product and your startup’s reputation will take care of itself. Sorry, that’s a Silicon Valley fairy tale. While a great product or service is important, if you don’t take care of your brand’s stakeholders, you’ll hit the end of your runway before you can say, “fully funded on Kickstarter!”

While you should monitor as many news sites, blogs, and social networks as you possibly can—you never know where you may be discussed—it would be impractical to actively engage and build your online reputation everywhere your customers might hang out. Instead, you need to focus on your reputation’s “Centers of Influence.” Where is it that your stakeholders hang out?

Who has a say in your reputation?

While it’s easy to focus all of your attention on your customers, potential or existing, they make up only a small subset of those that are discussing your startup. Along with their thoughts and opinions, you also need to consider the following:

Employees — Unless you work for some super-secret government agency, your employees and coworkers will at some point publicly share their thoughts about you.

Business partners — Those who purchase products from you or those who provide you with services and solutions, are also likely to mention your brand online. Did you raise VC? Yep, they’ll talk about you too.

Journalists — Hopefully if a mainstream news publication talks about your reputation, it will be a good thing, but they may also dig up some of your skeletons.

Bloggers — The lines are blurring between journalists and bloggers, but bloggers often don’t have to check facts or seek you out for a quote before publishing their opinion about you.

Industry influencers — Thanks to social networks such as Twitter, industry influencers can reach hundreds of thousands of people, and influence their opinion on a company or individual, in less than 140 characters.

Trolls — They live under the bridges of the Internet. They either don’t like you specifically, or they just love to cause havoc indiscriminately.

Together with your customers, they make up the stakeholders in your online reputation. Where they hang out will influence where you should focus your efforts to improve your online reputation.

Stalking, the non-creepy way

Now that you know who’s talking about you, and where they tend to hang out, it’s time to start learning the rules of engagement. Each blog, forum, or social network will have its own rules of the game. Before you join the conversation, you need to learn those rules. You wouldn’t ever barge into a cocktail party and start talking about yourself and your interests. The same goes for your centers of influence.

To be effective in your efforts to build a better reputation for your startup, you should spend some time not just listening for conversations about your brand, but also stalking those that host them. Now, I would hate to see any of you hit with a restraining order, so let’s talk a little about how to stalk on the Internet. What I am proposing is you take time to observe the rules of engagement—written or implied—for any of your centers of influence. Here are some examples of how to do just that.

Blogs

Once you’ve identified bloggers who are influential in your industry, then you should start reading their posts. Get to know them. What do they like to write about? What do they hate to see in a company? Which brands are they passionate about? Subscribe to their blog posts using either e-mail or RSS and perhaps even take the time to leave a comment or two. Not only will you get a better idea of how to stay on their radar, but you’ll also learn how to avoid their wrath.

Forums

The great thing about a forum or message board is that you can set up a profile and just lurk. Lurking is one of the great pastimes of many forum members. You can just read what others have to say, without feeling the need to chime in with your own two cents. Take time to read the forum rules and then watch how members interact with each other. Which threads tend to attract the most positive attention? Which topics quickly result in a full on flame attack? Remember, we’re just stalking at this point. Engagement comes later.

Twitter

Twitter really only has one hard and fast rule. You can’t publish anything longer than 140 characters. Everything else is pretty much subjective and open to interpretation. What may be acceptable in one industry would be frowned upon in another. Start following those that are already talking about your brand and use Followerwonk.com to find influential Twitter users in your industry.

Facebook

Facebook is the leading social network for connecting with friends, family, and brands that you are passionate about. I mention Facebook specifically, but your reputation’s center of influence could just as easily be Google+ or Instagram. Again, start following those that are influential in your particular industry or have previously discussed your reputation. Pay attention to not only what they share, but also the comments that are left by others. With these social communities, it’s the author of a post who steers the bus, but it’s the fans who provide the fuel.

You can’t be everywhere

At this point, you’ve identified your startup’s centers of influence and are getting to know the rules of engagement. Don’t feel pressure to manage your online reputation on every single blog or in every single social network. You don’t have the time. Instead, you should be proactive in managing your reputation in a handful of these centers of influence and reactive to any discussions that come up elsewhere.

If your startup is to have any success it’s vital to understand, and win-over, your centers of influence.

[This is an adaptation from Repped: 30 Days to a Better Online Reputation, by Andy Beal. Image via thinkstock.]