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Defending your brand through search optimization
It's no secret that many (or most) of the people who view Big Pharma Web sites found their way there with a search engine. But an Internet user who searches for your brand will find far more than your official site. In many cases, the crucial first page of search results will also contain links to sites that denounce your drug for side effects, criticize the science behind it, or solicit patients for class action lawsuits against your company.
Web 2.0 gave birth to a customer-controlled experience in which anyone can be an extremely vocal participant. Consumers can turn a monologue about a brand into a conversation. Everyone who has had an experience with a brand (and anyone who hasn't) can now voice his or her opinion to the entire world.
Promoting a brand in today's fragmented media environment is difficult enough. But defending a brand in the chaotic world of Web 2.0 is a challenge on an entirely different level.
A quick Google search reveals that even established brands have trouble controlling their branded results. Searches for McDonald's, Exxon, and Delta all yield results with at least two or more negative sites prominently listed. Late in February, for instance, the fourth result from a Google search of McDonald's was McSpotlight.org, a site devoted to pointing out alleged abuses of animals, people, and the environment. The pharma marketers behind Vioxx (rofecoxib), Crestor (rosuvastatin), Lipitor (atorvastatin), Premarin (conjugated estrogens), and Vytorin (ezetimibe/simvastatin) know all too well the search results with which they have had to compete. How does a company handle a conversation or a perception about a brand that appears online?
Marketers need to actively manage how their brand is presented, and traditional methods are no longer the only way. Savvy marketers leverage technology and online marketing tactics to manage their brand reputation, minimize the number of negative search results, and increase the number of positive or neutral search results for strategic keyword searches.
Reputation management is not something new for companies. However, with the proliferation of blogs, RSS, personalization, and sites like Facebook and YouTube, there are more media outlets than ever before with which a marketer has to be concerned.
Google's universal search function creates more challenges for reputation management. Results are no longer just the paid and organic listings with which marketers are relatively familiar, but also may include such varied sources as images, videos, and news results. While this provides consumers with more choices, it presents significant challenges to marketers. Marketers have to worry about optimizing not just their Web sites for search but all of their brand assets—some of which may not even exist in a digital format.
Search marketing and public relations must merge. News engines play a powerful role in online marketing because both the general public and members of the press go straight to the Web for information. Research shows us that 98 percent of journalists go online daily; 92 percent of reporters do so for general article research. Seventy-six percent use the Web specifically to find sources and experts. Seventy-three percent use it to track down relevant or intriguing press releases.
Consider that while 1 million people read or subscribe to the paper edition of the New York Times, 20 million people read the online version. Google's news tab has 5.7 million searches a month. Yahoo's news tab has 29 million searches a month. The bottom line for pharma companies is that today's PR absolutely must be search optimized.
Whether it's an organic listing or a paid listing, a top search-engine position can mean thousands of page views for your site as well as more press coverage. The problem with most press releases is that the content fails to have enough keyword density or the release is not coded in a strategic manner from a technical programming perspective. The solution is to optimize the content and the coding, and to properly submit it with the appropriate online newswire services and/or news engines.
The goal is to be in the path of your audience, every time they search, every place they search—and, of course, to attract journalists to your press release. Companies should actively seek out reasons to send out press releases. It's important to keep in mind that online distribution broadens your audience to an extraordinary degree. Physicians, patients, investors, and other relevant customer segments will all have easy access to the content.
Write press releases that everyone from industry experts to the general public can understand. Remember, your audience is potentially unlimited. And since all assets can be search optimized to increase your listings, distribute photos and videos whenever possible.
Many companies are attempting to tackle reputation management through legal channels, such as trademark protection and cease-and-desist orders. In many instances, negative sites are not actually slanderous in the eyes of the law, which leaves companies little recourse. Blogger backlash constitutes an additional risk for companies that pursue legal action against Web writers.
The main goal in any good electronic reputation-management campaign is to drive as many negative results as possible off the first three pages of a search result. The first step is to get an understanding of how bad the situation is. Technology can be leveraged to manage the mass data and provide recommendations that will have true impact. Technology also allows for tracking and managing conversations before they become larger issues; it can evaluate the words that are triggering negative results and the number of searches associated with those words and uncover conversations and sites that are tied to brand-specific terms.
There are several steps companies can take to manage their reputation online, such as:
Research the buzz Half the battle is to understand what the various customer segments' sentiments are around your brand. By monitoring what consumers are saying, you can inform and direct communication strategies, prepare for market vulnerabilities, and track message penetration and effectiveness.
Reach out to negative sites It is possible that they are simply misinformed or would be willing to change their perspective if you addressed them directly. But please take this with a word of caution! Remember that blogs and boards are a very organic and free-form communication environment that typically require quick response times. Given the need for legal approvals for outbound statements and the recent controversy associated with pharma companies participating in sites such as Wikipedia, this is not as easy as it sounds. However, there still may be a smart and low-risk way to do it. The most potential may lie with PR efforts. One safe, small step: Add blog "thought leaders" to media contact lists so they are provided the same accurate, balanced information as any other journalist. If a company decides to actively participate in a blog, it must be done with full disclosure and transparency, and per the regulations that would apply to any promotional activity. The beauty of the blogosphere is that it encourages you to let go of your brand; unfortunately, the effort is often met with skepticism.
Create an (approved) Wikipedia listing for your brand Since Wikipedia ranks high for almost any search, it behooves companies to create their own listings. This is actually an easy way to gain an organic listing without creating a new Web site or paying for sponsored links.
Optimize everything Universal Search is here, and companies should make sure that all of their assets are optimized. This includes TV commercials, videos, images, RSS, and other assets.
Develop sites that respond to negative rumors and allegations Everything from philanthropy arms of your company to other branded sites can take additional listings for brand searches—and push the negative ones down.
The primary hurdles to these approaches will be organizational. There is still a lack of understanding, especially among the more senior levels of management, of the impact of search and the power of the blogosphere to make or break a brand. Worse still is the level of understanding of how to react to a negative online campaign. But, to be fair, this is not a symptom of ivory tower executives only. This is an industry-wide issue driven by the fact that there is no clear guidance and a very inconsistent interpretation of what is acceptable and best practice for marketing online. Moving toward a concerted online effort in reputation management will require an organizational shift in thinking, behaviors, culture, and even organization structure.
Today, the Internet effectively provides a megaphone to millions of individuals. This means that companies now need to go to greater lengths to protect their brand's reputation and embrace new and unfamiliar tactics. Companies that seek to maintain strong and specific brand identities should be aware of these issues and be prepared to include reputation management as part of their marketing plans.
Lisa Flaiz is VP, Group Director and National Pharma Practice Lead for Avenue A|Razorfish. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org