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Lords of Likes: How Sidorin Lab Creates Internet Reputations

Lords of Likes: How Sidorin Lab Creates Internet Reputations

 

The co-owners of Sidorin Lab: Dmitry Sidorin (left) and Nikita PrekhovThe co-owners of Sidorin Lab: Dmitry Sidorin (left) and Nikita Prokhorov Photo for Forbes by Yuriy Chichkov

What dangers may await public figures on the Internet and how they can be protected

In October 2013, Nikita Prokhorov – an ex-employee of an American oil and gas company, visited a seminar on search advertising but got interested in an another topic instead and turned to a talk by Dmitry Sidorin, the founder of a reputation management agency called Sidorin Lab. Sidorin appeared as a tall, charismatic man in a suit, sporting a Dali-like mustache. He spoke in platitudes as some sort of an IT evangelist: “We don’t need connections, power or money in order to change the world – Facebook, Instagram and YouTube is all it takes”.

Prokhorov was stunned by the talk performance: “I came back home and told my wife that from now on our lives will never be the same. We have to invest in the Internet”. After six months he rose to be the associate director at Sidorin Lab, and in 2015 he became the co-owner of the company. Prokhorov does not regret his decision to leave the oil and gas industry, as the turnover of the Internet agency has doubled (up to 100 million rubles) over the previous year. How does a business based on reputation management work?

The public’s adoration and lots of likes

Sidorin notes: “Bad reputation starts with hurt – either a person or a company itself may have been unfairly slandered or insulted on the Internet”. There are several options going forward: you may notarize a screenshot of the posting or the article in question and sue the slanderer, but it’s really time-consuming to do so, not to mention the fact that this doesn’t necessarily protect you from future libel. However, you can also build up a security system that would shield your reputation.

More and more public figures go to dedicated reputation management agencies, no matter the field they work in – showbiz stars, professional athletes, businesspeople, public servants et al. For example, Georgy Smoleyevsky – a former prefect of the Southern Administrative District, attempted to determine whether there was any info-war targeted at him after his resignation in 2013. One up-and-coming actress tried to clean up the search engine results concerning her person: she couldn’t land a single serious TV role after taking part in the Dom-2 reality show, and if the new Russian search engine filtering law doesn’t help her in that endeavor (the information listed is correct, after all), Sidorin Lab will deal with the sensitive situation.

The agency conducts a free quick analysis of the customer’s reputation before signing onto the project, a kind of a due diligence process. Sidorin assures: “We will not work with cases concerning crime, drugs or smear campaigns”. Once some people suggested that the company “takes down” one of the local governors, but the agency refused – their own reputation is more valuable.

Sidorin oversees the work of all seven dozens of the company’s employees, which include monitoring specialists, negative material managers, programmers, option writers etc. at their office at the Chistiye Prudy metro station. All their work is captured through a special program resembling an email client. During the Forbes interview, the head of Sidorin Lab received a pop-up window on his laptop which stated “New negative issue”. Sidorin put his cup of coffee aside and explained: “This concerns an important client, a chairman of board of directors at one of the trading banks”. Recently he has made some of his assessments of the situation in the country public, and the social media is now full of negative postings about this. The agency team’s goal is to quickly deflect all attacks and eliminate the threat of any damages to the bank’s reputation.

Sidorin clicks the touchpad, and an employee stationed at Dubna near Moscow now has to reply to each and every one of the negative postings concerning the chairman. These replies will be then sent over to the bank’s PR manager for approval, after which they’ll be made public by social and mass media. All of this (the monitoring, the response to attacks, the clean-up of negative postings and the maintaining of a positive online environment) is called Online Reputation Management.

Nikita Prokhorov explains the work on online reputation management as a four-part process. The first part – monitoring. Certain services used at Sidorin Lab comb through social media and online presence of the entity in question. The reports then state whether there are more negative, positive or neutral mentions of the person or the corporate identity. Sidorin’s tried out a variety of services, but eventually chose Brand Analytics. Vasily Cherny, the communications director at Brand Analytics, stated the following: “Sidorin is one of our primary business partners. He’s both the trailblazer and the leader in this market. Dmitry can handle any challenge, and his team is extremely capable as well”.

The second part – negative information management. Such information can hide not only in some fake blog postings or on Compromat.Ru, but also at the most unexpected places like the Yandex.Pictures, Yandex.Video and Yandex.Maps services. For example, there was a picture listed at Yandex.Pictures that showed a branded bag of the “Utkonos” online store that contained tangerines and two dead mice. The photo got there through a website with reviews, which was posted by the company’s “do-gooders”. Sidorin Lab have since then contacted the website and convinced them to delete the photo as it had nothing to do with “Utkonos”. This was confirmed by the “Utkonos” company representative Irina Klepova – she added that the online store has used a variety of services proposed by Sidorin Lab (SMM, reviews management, social media). 

The third part – the maintaining of a positive environment, the creation of the so-called “seeding”, means marketing in the media, SMM and reviews websites. Finally, SERM (Search engine reputation management), which does exactly what it sounds like. Search engines save up everything and nothing can be removed from their search results, which is why Sidorin’s main goal is to displace the negative information with positive postings. Regular people rarely venture beyond the first page of a search, so it may as well not exist as soon as the negative information is forced out of the top search results.

Here’s an example of this: a short while ago, the football player Yuri Zhirkov appeared in tabloids and in top search results with an outrageous photo, in which he was offering a hookah mouthpiece to his son and daughter. The namesake of the athlete – the head of the city district of Balashikha Evgeny Zhirkov. also experienced some troubles. The civil servant was advised to create some positive news for social media. Sidorin said: “On the New Year’s Eve he gave a child a puppy. This was filmed by designated people and posted on social media, which led to the public’s adoration and lots of likes”.

How expensive are the reputation management services?

According to Nikita Prokhorov, the company’s monthly budget is estimated at around 175 000 rubles. This number is based on the monitoring process of all the mentions on social media and the following report on this information (30 000 rubles), the negative information management, the analysis of informational and review postings, the implementation of influence agents (starting at 65 000 rubles), the promotion of the material for the top-10 results on Yandex or Google (30 000 rubles), SMM – groups and accounts management (50 000 rubles). As for expenses, Sidorin states that 30% of the agreed costs of a contract go for the services of the agency – monitoring, user and reviews management. Another 30% of the money goes to the team, and the rest 40% is the interest margin. How did Sidorin come up with such an idea for his business?

The physicist and social mechanics

The campaign office for the candidate for presidency Mikhail Prokhorov was located at the old telegram building on Tverskaya Street and looked like some disturbed beehive, with journalists, political consultants and volunteers running about through its corridors. In winter of 2012, Sidorin and his employee at the time Mikhail Panko went over to the office to present their Grakon (“Grazhdansky Kontrol” - civil control) system to the oligarch. It was a social media platform developed by Boston-based programmers for civic activists that would allow election observers and volunteers to coordinate their work and deal with ballot rigging.

Prokhorov himself was not at the office at that time, but Sidorin and Panko were asked to present their product for the camera. They made their pitch still wearing their hats and winter coats, but the idea was well received: 1 million rubles was gathered through crowdfunding, and 10 000 online observers were formed into a single group. Sidorin has participated in several briefings carried out by the campaign coordinator Juliana Slashcheva. He reminiscences: “She was a mouthpiece for Prokhorov, broadcasting the meetings on social media in real time. It was in that moment that I realized the true way of social mechanics’ workings – those who can use the energy of social media for their own benefit are the ones that are the most successful”.

It was no accident that led Sidorin to become engrossed in social mechanics – he is a physicist by training and a graduate of the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology. After his postgraduate education he accepted an internship in Switzerland which had him participate in the CERN project (the launch of a hadron collider). However, Sidorin left the field of science behind when he returned to Russia. It was the Internet that made real money.

One day, a familiar entrepreneur asked Sidorin to raise up his Belgorod house property website in the search results of Yandex, and Sidorin made short work of it. He took up SEO optimization and founded Reputation Lab in 2011 in his hometown of Dubna, which is a free-trade zone and has favorable taxation. At that time the company only had to deal with simple tasks, e.g. promoting websites in the Yandex and Google search results or cleaning up negative postings on Compromat.Ru and Wikipedia. He says: “Squeezed out all the negativity at Yandex? The task is completed! But how can one even tell if you’re winning or losing the social media battle? Then it occurred to me – we have to branch out of manual monitoring”.

Sidorin spent several millions of rubles and two years of work to write up an automatic monitoring system. However, there was no triumphant result: market leaders like Kribrum, Brand Analytics, YouScan and IQbuzz were already simply too advanced in their real-time monitoring of user replies, social media platforms, blogs and online media. Then Sidorin came up with the decision of using ready-made monitoring tools to provide reputation management services.

This all happened as the owners of Kribrum – Igor Ashmanov (Ashmanov & Partners) and Nataliya Kasperskaya (InfoWatch), were looking for an executive director to lead this kind of branch of their company.

Sidorin made his appearance and claimed that he “wants to be the Ashmanov of reputation management”. They were already acquainted: before starting up his own company, Sidorin spent three years working a sales rep position at Ashmanov & Partners. Kasperskaya notes: “He is such a dynamic and charismatic person. He made a really good pitch, so we liked the idea”.

In October 2014, the owners of Kribrum have announced their buyout of the Sidorin Lab agency (Sidorin was to become a minor shareholder at Kribrum), but the deal fell through and the partners went their separate ways after six months. Ashmanov explains: “We didn’t experience any growth, and the service itself was non-existent. You can’t get by on charisma alone. The InfoWatch managing director Natalya Kaperskaya added: “He is a man out of his depth, but he weren’t able to push him in the right direction, so we parted ways”. According to Kasperskaya, Sidorin is now busy with “stirring up his own brand identity, which is a valid strategy for him”. In two years Sidorin Lab have carried out approximately 300 public talks and presentations at federal and local universities. Ashmanov says: “He’s best at managing his own reputation”. Now the two companies are competitors in their marketplace, as Ashmanov & Partners has their own reputation management office. Ashmanov notes: “This service is in high demand, people feel the power behind social media but don’t quite know what to do with it yet. It’s just like it was with search engines in 2001”.

The power behind social media

In autumn 2014 one of the social media platform “VKontakte” users wrote up a panicky text: “The SKB and UBRiR banks will be terminated! If you have deposits there, get them out immediately!” This was the beginning of the info-war aimed at the Ural banks. The online panic quickly evolved into the offline one, as people began forming lines in front of ATMs and bank tills. The Ural branch of the Bank of Russia even had to step in with their special statement – they said that this information was false and there was no risk of the mentioned banks losing their licensing.

In winter 2015 the same thing happened again, this time to one of the local Russian banks and a client of Sidorin Lab. The bank was being attacked on social media, and the clients rushed to get their money back. Sidorin suggested launching a social media campaign dedicated to creating an influx of positive coverage for the bank and a proper marketing campaign: “If you decide to deposit your money back, you won’t lose your interest money and account bonuses!” This was enough to stop the panic. Sidorin says that Facebook and VK are like viral grounds: false information gets traction incrementally. Prokhorov adds: “The response to information attacks on social media should be extremely rapid, otherwise you won’t have enough time to suppress the spreading”.

Natalya Kasperskaya agrees: “The standard public relations strategies don’t work on social media. You need to take all the action you can if you’re getting bombarded from all over. You have to work with both PR and social media experts”.

The damage may come from within the company as well. Sometimes employees may post their corporate party photos or selfies online without realizing that these images contain classified financial statements. Sidorin says: “An online posting about the change in the company’s leadership, back pays or internal conflicts may undermine the company’s reputation”.

This is why his agency “looks after” the employees’ personal social media accounts (Instagram, Facebook, “Vkontakte”). Especially high-risk targets include profiles of those employees that have competitors, journalists or bloggers in their friends lists – this may lead to much more damage if a leak of information were to happen. The search is set up in such a way as to detect sensitive subjects mentioned in online postings, i.e. the company’s name, the corporate brand, corporate parties, the director’s name and those of senior executives, wages. An employee is contacted by the Security Office in case of an internal corporate policy violation and is asked to delete the posting. According to Forbes, these services are employed by banks, IT companies and corporations with vast dealership networks. Still, it’s a sensitive subject, so these companies would like their names to remain discreet.

Sidorin Lab has around 70 employees located at four offices – the Moscow office at Chistiye Prudy, a technopark at Dubna, and offices in Belarus and Ukraine. This year the company will also be opening up their new branch in Poland. 40 employees are engages with business reputation directly, 10 managers operate in the fields of politics and public campaigning. Sidorin notes: “Politics basically works on pulse momentum, so a public official that takes constant care of his reputation is an extremely rare occurrence”.

Businesspeople, however, understand the value of reputation and SEO promotion much better, as the list of companies that at some point employed the Sidorin Lab services includes “Sportmaster”, “Utkonos”, Biglion, Bank of Moscow, Plekhanov Russian University of Economics, Husqvarna and Georgy Gens’ “Lanit”.

The head of business development at “Lanit” Anton Zheltukhov confirms their cooperation with Sidorin Lab: “We have been employing Sidorin Lab’s services for creating websites, running ads on social media and search engines, as well as SEO promotion since 2010. We are planning to increase our budget to strengthen our positions in the Internet marketplace”.

Online retailers have been recently encountering problems with review sites (the websites where users can leave their reviews of various products, employers etc.), as according to statistics 60-70% of clients look up the reviews of a product they’re interested in. People trust reviews much more than the official item’s description listed on the company’s website, too. Sidorin provides an example: “Let’s say an online retailer sell potatoes on their website. If the review claims that it’s mealy and tasty, they’ll have hundreds of transactions. If people write up that it’s unsavory, nobody will buy it”. Some websites of that nature “blackmail” companies by publishing fake negative reviews and asking money for their removal. Ashmanov states: “I think review sites have to be shut down or forced out of search results”.

Sidorin adds: “A “proper aura” is essential for business”. Two girls from Belarus have decided to open up a cleaning agency in Moscow and asked Sidorin to promote their website in the Yandex search results. He says: “There are hundreds of competitors in that field, so we recommended the girls to register an “Association of Cleaning Agencies” and moved it up without a hitch, since it was the only one of its kind”.

Entire countries are worried about their reputation. Tunisia saw a sharp decline in Russian tourists after a shooting at one of the local hotel’s beach. In summer 2015 a Russian travel agency (acting on behalf of the Tunisian government) asked Sidorin Lab to come up with a plan for the media aimed at improving the country’s prestige, as Tunisia would gladly take up all the Russian tourists it can after the bans concerning travel to Egypt and Turkey. The contract has not yet been signed.

Now Sidorin would like to make a stab at creating his own Social CRM – a type of software that can pull out certain information from social media and categorize it (this goes to the “negative” category, this is for HelpDesk/ServiceDesk, this goes to the PR managers, this concerns the senior executive, this can be turned into a sale later), then target this information and send out orders based on it, after which addressing back the social media. Sidorin claims: “The software is able to analyze and send out information independently, monitor KPI etc. It’s a one-of-a-kind system in Russia for now”.

His competitors at Ashmanov & Partners think that you can’t trust automation with fixing reputations. Ashmanov states: “It won’t end well, the reputation will only get worse. It’s just like the troll farms at Olgino – it brings only harm”. Natalya Kasperskaya states: “Is it even possible for an automated system to do this? Bots are always easy to spot. You can write up 150 messages about how you’re “the real deal”, but it’ll always look fake”. Still, Ashmanov & Partners claim that building up a social CRM based on social media reviews and problems with further automated call center tickets is possible (we basically already do this with “MTS”, “Sberbank” and other prominent clients”).

Sidorin doesn’t hide the usage of bots in his work (meaning fake accounts ran by a program or an operator). He stated that bots not only build up likes, retweets and social media shares, but also count towards greater social functioning. For example, a bot called Elena Dobraya was created for the Instagram page of a franchise of pay-clinics, but in reality it’s run by a man. He monitors the complaints and provides helpful information. Sidorin notes: “The customers are happy, the bot was even asked to work at a kindergarten. Kids would be delighted”. Another bot was invited to a broadcast by journalists of one of the local TV channels – it handled paid parking and showed great inclination toward social activism.

Ashmanov thinks that the reputation management market is still in its infancy in Russia, but it has a lot of potential. It’s difficult to fully comprehend its scope, as the clients don’t reveal their cooperation with such agencies. According to the annual study “Runet Economy” 2014-2015 carried out by The Russian Association for Electronic Communications and the Higher School of Economics, the SMM marketplace’s share for 2015 was 8.5 billion rubles. Brand Analytics’ Vasily Cherny notes: “The clearly defined service of online reputation management adds up approximately half of this number. This means that the online reputation marketplace is expertly at around 12-14 billion rubles”. Thus, Sidorin Lab has perspectives for growth.

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