When I started tinkering with the interwebs 10 years or so ago I, along with most others, dealt with Network Solutions for domain names. Over the years, the individual user like me never really heard much more from them. The company continued to grow and expand its offerings. When I began to approach the technology sector more regularly in my work life, I ran into them again. Instead of learning they were still the top-dog in the domain business and had done wonders to grow as a company, though, all I heard was they were front-running domains and pushing the bounds of what was accepted as ethical on the web.
They had a reputation issue.
Enter Shashi Bellamkonda, who has been a positive, vocal touch point for Network Solutions for much of the past two years, cheerfully engaging people at conferences, on Twitter and the like. I asked Shashi, point-blank about the front-running issue. (Network Solutions reserved domains that are searched for over a four-day period if they aren’t purchased right away, preventing you from registering them elsewhere unless you call customer service to have them released. The policy was sticky because it seems to force people into buying from Network Solutions an not other registrars.) He explained it to me, told me about the automatic release when asked, that it was there way of preventing front running from others and while still don’t like the practice overall, it was their policy and I got it. They’ve since changed the policy. See below.
But Network Solutions needed more than just an explanation to win back brand enthusiasts and prove it is providing great value to its customers and others online. It needed to reconnect with the net-savvy audience and flex its muscles a bit to reinvigorate a positive reputation for the company.
Bellamkonda and crew hired Livingston Communications to develop a strategy to do just that.
(Before we go further, please know that Geoff Livingston, Livingston Communications’ consultant Kami Huyse and Bellamkonda are all people I consider friends. While that certainly might slant this review a tad, it is a nice case study of how to accomplish the said goal. But I also have some criticisms you’ll see below I think are fair as well.)
After diving into the problem, Livingston recommended reaching web-savvy developers and designers who primarily serve small businesses (a prime target for Network Solutions) who are not only instrumental in purchase recommendations, but the most likely critics of Network Solutions in the past. In order to turn these people into vocal evangelists for the company, the strategy set forth included three very simple strategies:
- Listening – Using crisis public relations engagement through monitoring on-line conversations, then addressing issues either on the site in question or on the SolutionsArePower.com blog.
- Providing Value – Using SolutionsArePower.com to address recurrent issues or provide valuable information to the online community from the company perspective.
- Community Participation – Led by Bellamkonda, Network Solutions’ team would charge forth as vocal representatives of the company, answering questions and participating in greater conversations on the Internet, pushing Network Solutions’ name to the top-of-mind of other participants.
And the measure of success? Tonality. Positive mentions versus negative mentions. This was the important outcome for Network Solutions and this was the return they would measure the investment against.
Before I share the results, allow me to comment on the simplicity of the stated strategy and measures. While “Listening, Providing Value and Participating,” and then measuring tonality are very simple strategies to develop (No offense, Geoff), they are very difficult strategies for companies to embrace and the manpower it can take to do each of them effectively is challenging as well. But your social media strategies don’t have to be complex, 100-page marketing plans. Sometimes just rolling up your sleeves and doing the little things accomplish your goals.
So did they?
Even a “math sucks” guy like me can look at the chart and see the results. The negatives are dropping, positives are rising and other analysis Livingston Communications has conducted concludes that negatives are moving toward neutrality. They’ve moved the dial.
One key tactic in the effort, which falls into the providing value bucket, was the Solutions Stars Video Conference (disclosure: I was a participant and interviewed for the program), a live event that continues to live online with video and archive content well worth seeing if you haven’t already. This program alone led to 55 percent of the positive mentions measured. Over 700 tweets (messages on Twitter) included the Solution Stars hashtag (#solutionstars) and over 60 blogs mentioned, wrote about and linked to the event.
Based on the measures of success, this reputation management effort was a success. It’s still ongoing and not finished by any means, nor is any social media effort. These are not episodic, quarterly defined campaigns. These are ongoing conversations and relationships with your customers. But as Livingston Communications and Network Solutions have proven, even those can be quantified and measured.
But what are our questions? Has six to eight months or more of hours spent engaging in the community, consulting with Livingston Communications, producing the Solution Stars Video Conference — all that time, energy and money — has it returned a measure of success that satisfies the measure of worth? Was this program worth it?
Network Solutions may say, “yes,” because the end result measures are good. Livingston Communications will back them up because they want to continue making money from them and have also done a good job of moving the metrics in favor of the client.
But do people still think of them as the front-running and subdomain hijacking company pushing the bounds of what’s acceptable?
Network Solutions vocally supported the ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) budget provision that, in effect, curbing front-running by other registrars. Once that budget provision was approved by ICANN, Network Solutions ended their four-day protection policy. While this went miles to help rectify the company reputation in light of the front-running issue, the fact the company didn’t change the policy immediately will always hold a negative connotation. Only time will change that. Changing the policy would have been cheaper and probably more effective in reversing the negative mentions.
The subdomain hijacking issue popped up in April when TechCrunch reported that NetSol was using unclaimed or parked subdomains on customer’s accounts (for instance, news.socialmediaexplorer.com rather than the root of the domain) and filling these pages with paid links to drive more revenue. While Bellamkonda responded, elevated the issue to executive management and, according to a comment he posted on the TechCrunch article, the practice is no longer being employed, there is no other statement from the company about the policy after a search of both the blog or the website. If they’ve changed their behavior and the reputation tarnish still lingers, why not make these responses easily found on your website for those looking for them?
Network Solutions has done a good job of addressing front-running, but may not have adequately addressed the subdomain hijacking yet (though in their defense, the issue has died off as they’ve changed the practice). While the reputation management program has done a good job of delivering on said metrics, I may have recommended starting with clearly visible, easily found statements on the top issues that spark negativity in the marketplace.
That said, reversing negative trends in reputation isn’t as simple as throwing up a statement and moving on. Network Solutions knows that. Livingston Communications knows that. What you have do to is prove that you’re willing to listen, participate in the conversations about your company and provide value to prove you’re in the game to play fair and be respected.
And I don’t need Radian6 analysis (what they used) to prove to me that Network Solutions has done and is doing all of that consistently.
What are your thoughts? Has this program turned the tide for NetSol? Are their other issues they need to be addressing? It’s a pretty safe bet they’ll be watching the comments here, so let them know, good or bad. Please be fair and polite, but know they are listening.
The comments, as always, are yours.