Every silver lining has a cloud, but when it comes to the internet most companies devote the majority of their attention to the silver lining. And it is very easy to see why: the web is rightly credited with greatly improving the way in which businesses operate, with its influence now deeply pervading so many aspects of the corporate world.
However, it is in the area of interaction that the internet has had its greatest impact, by revolutionising communications across all vertical sectors. Email, instant messaging, ecommerce and social networking have engendered a seismic shift in the way companies communicate – not just internally, but also with customers and with supply chain partners. For many organisations it would now be literally impossible to operate without all of these.
In terms of harnessing the combined power of these technologies for marketing purposes, the benefits of well-orchestrated, multi-platform campaigns embracing the power of the internet are seen by most businesses as just another routine channel through which to engage with existing and potential customers.
But the power of viral internet marketing is also being increasingly recognised and harnessed. Witness the runaway success of the low-budget meerkat campaign which saw price comparison website comparethemarket.com’s parallel spoof site comparethemeerkat.com rapidly achieve online cult status – and convert the buzz into profit.
However, while the opportunities are many, the internet revolution has simultaneously created a raft of new threats. Indeed, it is increasingly clear that the cloud it casts over companies is darker than many anticipated.
Gartner, the IT analyst, forecasts that by the end of 2010, cybercriminals will routinely be turning the power of the internet against companies by putting their own spin on the old protection racket scam. Companies are threatened that, unless they cough up, they may have their corporate reputations slurred by search engine results that portray them in a negative light. Gartner likens the internet to a bad-news petri dish capable of propagating and spreading negative information at a fantastic speed. And, in this context, a key challenge posed by the internet centres on the fact that once this negative material is in the public domain, across multiple web servers around the world, it becomes virtually impossible to erase.
MarkMonitor’s latest Brandjacking Index reveals that global online brand abuse of this type rose across all major industries in 2009, with the automotive and media industries suffering most. Abuse targeting luxury brands demonstrated the greatest increase, growing 23 percent each year, followed by abuse targeting apparel brands, which grew 14 percent on the same terms.
Luxury goods giant Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton recently took eBay to court because the online auction operator had purchased keywords on search engines for common misspellings such as Louis Vitton and Louis Viton, as any surfer clicking on these keywords would be directed to eBay. In this case, a French court ordered eBay to pay €200,000 (£174,942) for each infringement in damages, plus costs.
For any business that relies on its good name – and there are very few that do not – such threats must be taken very seriously. To fight back, some are turning to the field of internet reputation management. Gartner advises a three-pronged strategy: companies must understand the role that reputation plays in social and commercial relationships, ensure that PR and marketing staff have a reputation management strategy and, finally, educate staff about the importance of maintaining the company’s good name in cyberspace.
The bottom line is that we need to understand the huge and growing importance of proactively managing our online corporate reputations – or face having the internet rain on our business parade.
Robert Jaques is a leading commentator on technology issues