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How People Perceive Reputation

A person or company’s reputation is based on information (of some kind or another). And every reputation is perceived by people (of some kind or another). Put information and perception together, and you have reputation. 

How people form an idea of reputation

Do you think Monsanto (the chemical company) has a bad reputation? Why?

Monsanto's website states they are a modern agriculture company. What's the harm in that? The idea that the company may have a reputation issue has many sources. Scientific studies, opinion, facts, pseudo-facts, articles, blog posts, and social media. Today, those sources are mainly focused through the prism of Google. For example, here is a recent pack of articles in Google about the problems RoundUp, a Monsanto product, may be causing bees.

monsanto bees roundupTheir reputation problems are legion though, there are communities like "Millions Against Monsanto" and there are myriad articles about cruelty and toxic contamination. The company has become a sort of poster child for reputation problems, and the efforts of its marketing department seem to be of little help. 

Monsanto-cruel-serpAn alien would think ill of Monsanto

If an alien came to Earth from outer space, and had never heard of the company, they would probably immediately think it was bad. Not because of personal experience, but because of the opinions of others.

Most people relaying negative information about Monsanto have never had a problem with the company, they've heard stories. Most stories come from:

  • Word of mouth (the most trusted)
  • Google
  • Social media

Social proof reinforces reputation problems

People trust other peoples opinions, even if they are untrustworthy. When enough people have a similar opinion - whether backed up by personal experience or not - sentiment is reinforced. The fact is, people are lazy. If the group believes something it is more convenient to believe it is true. 

Reputation Stakeholders 

Who are the people perceiving your reputation? Here are a few of them, and most form brand sentiment based on what they read on the internet:

  • Existing customers
  • Former customers
  • Future customers
  • Former employees and current pension holders
  • Employees about to retire
  • Employees who just entered the company
  • Prospective employees
  • Senior management or executives of the company
  • Suppliers and providers of the company
  • Major investors
  • Small time investors
  • Day traders
  • Journalists
  • Bloggers
  • Reviewers

Everyone is forming their reputation of a person or company based on their particular viewpoint. Plus those people are selecting information that they think will best inform their situation. Beyond that, their cocktail of cognitive biases is handling that information in different ways.

People seek information relevant to their interest

Generally speaking, people will find the information source that is best suited to what they’re trying to figure out.

Liberal-vs-Conservative

An investor, for example, is interested in stock information They are combing records on Morningstar.com, Bloomberg.com, and digesting the Financial Times in order to get expert info. If its financial information on Monsanto they're going to see others opinions even though it may not be relevant to their inquiry. Because people are drawn to negativity they will most likely remember it - flavoring their opinion and influencing the trajectory of their investment decisions. 

People seek out information they agree with

Our own biases, discussed later on in this article, play a huge role in the formulation of reputation. Due to the nature of cognitive biases, we often aren’t even aware that we’re selectively accepting or rejecting information, but we do it all the time.

A prospective customer may see two news articles on Google news, side-by-side. One article is “Widget Inc. Saves 10,000 Kittens from Death, and Donates 1bn to UNICEF.” The other article is “Widget’s CEO Caught With Pants Down” Which one do they click on? Which one is the most formative as your reputation idea of Widget takes shape? Probably the pants down article. It's sensational. 

This seeking takes its most obvious form through online searches. We search on Google, and Google begins to learn our search habits and preferences, thus serving up information that it thinks we will like. Facebook, too, learns what news articles we are most eager to click on or what are friends are sharing, and algorithmically adjusts our newsfeeds accordingly.

Your initial preferences and interaction with a search engine or social platform sets off a cascade of machine-learning responses that give you information that you want to see...or that the search engine things you want to see.

People rely on the opinions of others

Finally, let’s not neglect one of the most significant issues of all —other people’s opinions. There is simply too much content in the world for any single person to digest even a fraction of it. Why bother anyway? Everyone has an opinion, and we’re wired to trust people. Plus, we’re mentally lazy. No need to read boring reviews if you can just ask Fred what he thinks.

Evolutionary biology has trained us to rely on the previous mental or physical work performed by those around us. Without this powerful instinct, humans would have succumbed to the onward march of evolution a long time ago. Thus, when Fred tells you “Man, Widget Inc sucks!” then you will accept his briefly worded opinion, and seek out Widget Inc.’s competitor.

Today, the most influential “opinion” comes from a source that knows you better than almost anyone else —a brilliant and all-encompassing entity, that knows your secrets, guards your resources, empathizes with your needs, and serves up your answers in a split second all day, every day.

It’s name is Google.

Google is not a person, of course, but a machine-learning, algorithmically-driven search engine. It decides what you see, and serves up the best information in the best possible way. You may not think of Google’s search result as “opinion,” but because of the way it reacts, iterates, and serves up information, it’s most instructive to think of it as just that.

So, as the most powerful shaper of reputation, just how does the search engine, primarily Google, do it?

How does universal search affect reputation?

It’s not an overstatement to say that Google search results are the primary method by which reputation is formulated. What we need to figure out next is how this happens.

What is universal search?

Universal search refers to the fact that Google search results display different types of information. Since 2007, the search engine decided that the best search results are more than just websites. Not only do you have a list of top websites, but you also have other features such as news results and knowledge panels that may change based on who is searching, where they are searching from, recent events related to the query, and pretty much anything else.

Universal search, then, is a set of comprehensive search results on any given topic. A search for “Barack Obama,” for example reveals more than just Wikipedia and BarackObama.com. You get instead a variety of news articles, images, facts, a Twitter account, and questions that people also ask.Barack-Obama

This, then, is part of the formulation of Barack Obama’s reputation, at least from my perspective on Tuesday at 4:56pm. Your results, to be specific your search results, may vary.

What does all of this mean for reputation management and the formulation of reputation? It means, to state it simply, that you’ve got your hands full. Not only must you be monitoring your brand’s website, but you must also bother your mind and nerves with video results, Twitter mentions, news listings, image carousels, local packs, knowledge panel, AdWords ads, sitelinks, and the other myriad features that Google SERPs display.

Your brand’s reputation is shaped by multiple media types, from the content of microblogs to that published by major news sites. All of this content from various forms serves to make your reputation more authentic, but also more unwieldy.

There’s personalized search results, too

Another way that Google opinion affects the formation of a reputation is through personalized search results. What are personalized search results? Personalized search results are those that aren’t dependant on traditional ranking factors, but are instead affected by personal factors.

Search experts estimate that more than half of all search results are personalized. Personalization of search results happens in response to the following factors:

  • Location - Google pinpoints your DNS and delivers search results accordingly. A search for “best tacos” in Santa Fe, New Mexico is going to dish up vastly different results than a search for “best tacos” in St. Louis, MIssouri.
  • Search or browsing history - What you’ve searched in the past, clicked on in the past, and preferred in the past affects what Google displays in the present. As
  • Google+ profile features - Google+ is a social media site. Whether or not you’re active on Google+ as a social media site doesn’t matter. Google has that information, and will use that information to serve relevant ads or search results.
  • Type of device being used - If you’re using an Android phone, Google TV, or Google Home, Google knows it and will adjust your search results accordingly.
  • Your Gmail information - It’s allegedly helpful, but Google will draw on your Gmail account to furnish information such as your upcoming flights, hotel stays, or other information.

Keep in mind that personalized search results don’t simply happen when you’re logged into your Google account. Personalization is also shaped by DNS (where your internet host is) location and device type, which Google knows even if you’re browsing in incognito (private) mode or or logged out.

Search engine results respond dynamically to the type of query that you’ve put in. It affects the images you see, the information you intake, the top-ranked listings, whether or not there’s a knowledge pack or shopping carousel or a news article.

How do individual cognitive biases affect reputation?

Finally, we come to one of the fuzziest areas of reputation formation —the individual mind of the person who is forming that reputation.

As most people realize, the human mind is not a streamlined, flawless, purely rational machine, operating with computer-like precision as it processes all incoming information. I.e, “Where did I put my keys?!”

When it comes to reputational information, such a realization is crucial. Why? Because no matter how careful you act, how expertly you manage your reputation, or how obvious the quality of your reputation may seem, there are those who will completely misunderstand.

This article is not the place for an exhaustive list of cognitive biases, but it’s important to point out at least one of these biases.

What is a cognitive bias?

“A cognitive bias is a mistake in reasoning, evaluating, remembering, or other cognitive process, often occurring as a result of holding onto one's preferences and beliefs regardless of contrary information.” (Definition from Chegg.com)

Just because cognitive biases are “mistakes” doesn’t mean they are all bad. Cognitive biases have been crucial to the survival of our species, and many cognitive biases allow for rapid response mental shortcuts (heuristics) to confusion, non-rational, or perplexing situations.

That being said, cognitive biases can really screw us up when responding to reputational information.

What cognitive biases affect reputation?

All cognitive biases affect reputation. Cognitive biases are part of how we think. They “shape our world,” in the words of Peter Diamandis. Thus, nothing in the realm of our awareness is immune from their impact.

As mentioned above, this is not the place for an exhaustive list of cognitive biases. There are a lot of them.Cognitive Bias Codex

Image from Wikimedia Commons.

You may be familiar with such biases as “bandwagon effect,” acting in a certain way just because a lot of other people are. It’s possible that you’ve also heard of the “hindsight bias,” in which we think, after an event has transpired, “Yeah, I knew it all along.” (No. No you didn’t.) Stereotyping is a widespread and socially destructive bias that distorts or generalizes our views of people.

Biases affect our world. And, more to the point of this article, dramatically affect the way reputationinformation is perceived.

What is one of the most important cognitive biases to be aware of?

From the dozens of cognitive bias, there is one bias to be aware of as it pertains to reputation information: confirmation bias.

As we’ve written before, “Confirmation bias is our tendency to find, favor, and remember information that already confirms our existing beliefs. In turn, it causes us to pay considerably less attention to that information that does not support what we already think that we know.” Here is a synopsis of confirmation bias according to psychologist Shahram Heshmat:

Confirmation bias occurs from the direct influence of desire on beliefs. When people would like a certain idea/concept to be true, they end up believing it to be true. They are motivated by wishful thinking. This error leads the individual to stop gathering information when the evidence gathered so far confirms the views (prejudices) one would like to be true.

Let’s say that Joe, a denizen of the delightful city of Bismarck North Dakota believes that Monsanto is an evil corporation, bent on the destruction of all that is good in the world. Joe’s belief about Monsanto’s reputation is simple: profoundly reprobate.

One day, Joe is browsing the Internet and comes across an article that feeds directly into his belief about Monstanto’s perniciousness.Top-Evil-Corporations

That’s all that Joe needs. A ricocheting glance at a headline below does nothing to sway Joe’s belief regarding the depths of Monsanto’s degeneracy.Monsanto

Even if Joe had seen headlines reporting that Monsanto was saving the monarch butterfly from extinction, replenishing the Southeastern watershed, preventing the spread of malaria in the African content, eradicating the common cold, and winning the Nobel peace prize, it would do nothing to sway his belief: Monsanto is Satan.

One of the reasons why confirmation bias is such an integral component of reputation management is because one’s biases are reflected and further entrenched by the AI-driven algorithms of Facebook and Google’s personalization.

If you convey a liberal bias, your Facebook feed will surface liberally-biased news stories. If you skew conservative, Facebook delivers conservative-slanted stories.

Facebook has you figured out. At least it thinks it does. You told them about your politics. You chose friends that share non-neutral political stories. You “like” some of these stories. Maybe you share some yourself. Perhaps you even started a political flame war and de-friended a few onerous human beings who were positioned on the opposite side of the political aisle.

Facebook wants to make you happy. They’re not going to deliver up a story that’s going to tick you off and make you scurry away.

The same could be said for Google or other AI-driven platforms. The very sources that we trust for information are, in fact, digital echo chambers, replete with the reverberations of our own biases.

We are partial to our own beliefs. We become uncomfortable in the face of contrasting truth. Close mindedness is our reflex. Change is hard.

What’s even more inflammatory is that our biases are emotional issues. It’s hard to be passive about issues that we believe are morally charged such as religion, sexuality, the environment, money, or politics.

We may never be able to be bias-free, but we can become more aware of this flaw in our rationality, and attempt to pontificate less and question more.

Conclusion

How does reputation work? It’s not simple. People intake information, and that information is fed to them by powerful algorithms whose goal is not to challenge thinking, but instead to improve engagement. Cognitive biases creep in, adulterating the mental processes that we need to accurately interpret reputation.