Social media and review sites are becoming increasingly popular as a way for consumers to engage with brands, whether that be letting them know how happy they are with the service they have received or venting their anger if something doesn’t quite go to plan, writes Liz Dimitrijevic, head of PR at Brass Agency.

A recent Neilsen report suggested that more people than ever are using online recommendations and reviews as a deciding factor when making a purchase. Almost 70 per cent of the respondents in the 2013 survey revealed that they trust consumer opinions posted online, a seven per cent increase from 2007.

In order to manage their online reputation, businesses need to identify what people are saying about them and which platforms they are using. One of the first ports of call for customers to contact a company online will be through its social media networks, but in recent years there has been a growth in the popularity of dedicated review sites such as Trustpilot, Trip Advisor and Review Centre, where consumers can give an unbiased opinion of their experiences.

If a business currently has a bad online reputation this needs to be recovered, rebuilt and then maintained. Turning negative sentiment to positive won’t happen overnight but by putting a proactive reputation management plan in place, a company’s online reputation can be transformed.

The first step is to recognise that online conversations will be taking place about your brand whether or not you choose to get involved, but consumers are more likely to feel confident about making a purchase from a company when it is seen to be listening to its customers and resolving issues when things do go wrong.

If a company decides to implement a proactive reputation management plan it needs to ensure that all online mentions, whether good, bad or neutral, are responded to. Personalising responses and ensuring that customers are given a resolution show that a business cares about its customers – a generic or indifferent response may be more damaging than no response at all.

Many people are more than happy to post a review letting other potential customers know about their experiences, but others may need a little encouragement. It is important that a business understands what motivates customers to leave a review – this could be anything from a dedicated member of a customer service team giving them an after service courtesy call, to an email marketing campaign offering reviewers an incentive such as a charity donation or money off vouchers for their next purchase. TrustPilot reports that on average seven per cent of emails directing customers to a review site lead to consumer reviews, but by adding a small incentive we have seen this increase a client’s response rate to over 22 per cent.

If a business does incentivise its customers to leave a review, it is of the utmost importance that the incentive is offered to all reviewers – not just the positives. Anything else may be seen as bribery and can reflect unfavourably on the brand.

Unfortunately, every company will occasionally see a negative review or an unhappy customer taking to social channels to express their frustration, but damage can be minimised by engaging with the customer and being seen to resolve their issue.

In the area of online reviews it is vitally important to be 100 per cent authentic. Legislation is changing in this area and companies may face large penalties in the future if they are found to be posting false reviews.

It is equally important that all reviews are made visible to potential customers, including the negative and neutrals. A recent Trustpilot report states that 77 per cent of UK consumers will look to online reviews before making their purchasing decision and it is much more credible to show how you deal with negative reviews when they do arise, than have a blanket of five star reviews which may look staged.

Once these steps have been put in place and a positive online sentiment has been created, this can be used to a business’s advantage by promoting and sharing the reviews through its social media platforms and on its company website . This may also lead to other customers being encouraged to share their experiences online.

By taking proactive measures to protect your online reputation, not only will you be giving potential customers faith in your business but you are receiving priceless feedback from your most important stakeholders – the consumers.

Liz Dimitrijevic is head of PR at Brass Agency in Leeds.