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Protecting your business against online brand abuse

Online brand protection firms could be the answer to a question you aren't even asking yet - but should be.

The Internet does connect you with your customers - and your customers with potentially fraudulent or disparaging websites and e-mails that could damage your reputation and sales. Here are several potential brand threats to small businesses online, ranging from the simple to the sophisticated, and suggestions for dealing with them.

Bad reviews

More and more online shopping sites let customers write reviews, and many start-up sites are dedicated only to reviews of products and companies. Potentially, a competitor or aggrieved customer could plaster negative reviews of your products, your company (and you) across dozens of websites in a single day.

Unless you or someone you know happens across one of these reviews, you may not even know they are scaring customers off. Experts now advise that you regularly scan review sites and search for your brand names, or have a third party do it for you.
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Counterfeit products

The Internet has made it easier to sell fake products. On auction sites such as eBay, even though counterfeit products are taken down when reported, many go unnoticed. Not only do you lose revenue to fake products marked “new,” but customers who receive inferior products, thinking they are yours, may trust your brand less.

Start by typing your brand names into eBay and any secondhand sales websites specific to your industry. Many (most) listings will be legitimate, but you should report obvious fakes immediately, and investigate anyone selling large numbers of identical products that is not a known reseller.

Click fraud

If you advertise online using services such as Google AdWords or Yahoo Search Marketing, which charge for each click your ad receives, you should be aware of click fraud. Since you pay by the click, your bill can be run up by someone, perhaps a competitor, who is not interested in your products, but clicks multiple times.

Other threats include fraudulent e-mails - supposedly from your company - that ask for your customers' personal information; websites that use slight misspellings of your domain name; websites that claim to be affiliated with your company but are not; and more.

In particular, Gartner Group estimates that U.S. consumers will lose $2.8 billion to fraudulent e-mail in 2006.

That represents both lost revenue and lost trust.

Who can help? Since you probably don't have time to monitor more than a few potential risks yourself, listed below are several firms that monitor the Internet for brand misuse. Typically, these firms will set up automated “scans” of the Internet and send you alerts when your brand is used in certain ways.

• Local Madison firm NameProtect offers several levels of brand monitoring services. “We began in 1997, on the premise that the disruption of the Internet was going to really change the way that brand holders were able to police and enforce their brands,” said Malia Horine, general manager of digital brand management services at NameProtect.

Recently, the firm debuted an entry-level option for brand monitoring, offering a one-time “snapshot” of the uses of your brand online for less than $1,000.

MarkMonitor offers brand monitoring services covering trademarks, counterfeit products, domain names, and more. It is also a domain-name registrar. Major domain names such as Google.com, Yahoo.com and Apple.com are registered through MarkMonitor.

• Another provider is Cyveillance. In addition to monitoring online use of your brand, Cyveillance offers a range of brand monitoring solutions as well as assistance with enforcement activities such as getting fraudulent sites shut down.

Whether you choose to engage a full-service, brand-monitoring firm, or take some simple steps yourself, the important thing to remember is that your customers can easily be exposed to abuses of your brand online. If you are on the lookout, you can mitigate some of the damage those abuses can cause to the goodwill you have established in the market.

Previous articles by Mike Klein

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Mike Klein is the president and editorial director of the Wisconsin Technology Network. He can be reached at mike@wistechnology.com.

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