As a follow-up to an article that I wrote earlier this week about online reputation management, I decided to sit down with Outlook and have a conversation with Paul Williams, the CEO of a new reputation management community known as iKarma.

JL: Give me your elevator pitch on iKarma. What is it and why should I, as a consultant, want to use it?

PW: In a world where good business people are regularly out-advertised by competitors who cut quality, and then spend the savings on advertising, iKarma offers good business people a way to fight back. Good “word of mouth” trumps every other form of advertising. iKarma takes your word of mouth and verifies it, stores it, makes it portable and makes it easy to collect and use. iKarma puts your previous customers to work getting you new ones.

JL: What made you decide to start the company?

PW: I thought of the idea about 5 years ago and registered the domain name But my business partner Scott Pitchford and I got preoccupied with other projects and put the idea on the back burner. We expected to see someone else take the idea years ago, but 5 years went by and no one did. Finally last year we just couldn’t stand it anymore and we went to work. evolved into and the site was born.

JL: I hadn't heard of you until recently. I know that you're a relatively new business. What did you do before launching iKarma?

PW: I worked as VP of Special Investments for an investment banking firm for a decade and a half and then in 2000 I started a company that sells financial advisor data to brokerage firms and headhunters. One of the things that prompted us to create was the fact that we do hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of business each year with the biggest brokerage firms in the country. The recruiting departments love us. We have a great reputation. But almost every day I would have to deal with new customers who didn’t know us yet. I would sometimes spend spend hours on the phone with headhunters who were afraid to order $200 worth of data after a bad experience with our competitor. With a tool like iKarma all we would have to do it to point to our profile and the sale would be done. A simple “Thanks for the Great Data!” comment on my iKarma profile from the head of a major brokerage firm would close the sale in an instant.

JL: How about stats? Can you give me any insight on how many members you have so far? Or, how quickly are folks signing up? How many user reviews are in the system?

PW: We are literally brand spanking new, we’re still in beta and just went live a few weeks ago. So we don’t have thousands of customers yet. But we are growing daily with customers coming in from all over the world. iKarma is designed to be viral. Every new customer becomes a salesperson for iKarma. As they use it, they help us spread. Every person who sees a profile is a potential new user. So we are very excited about our growth. In the next few weeks we will be rolling out a media pass feature. This feature will allow writers for news or industry trade publications to search our profiles for story ideas.

JL: Tell me about the membership levels and what the advantages are of a premium membership.

PW: iKarma is currently free and we will likely give free premium memberships to all our initial users who join during Beta. Basic membership will always be free. Once a basic user gets over 10 posts those posts roll to a second page that will contain advertising. We will also have ads in the Admin section for basic users. Premium users will pay $10 per month and will not have advertising on any of their profile pages. They will also have the ability to post their own comments at the bottom of each customer review. There are other advanced features that I’d rather not discuss at the moment for competitive reasons. Finally our Enterprise level users will get a more advanced “key based” system that will a variety of identity verification features as well as a system for limiting posts to verified customers.

JL: The site mentions that you can send email pointing to your iKarma score, but can you also include a link off your web site for folks to go and give you reviews? In other words, are all reviews solicited, or is the system open to allow anyone and everyone to submit reviews.

PW: In order to post a review with basic service, a poster must know your email address or your iKarma user id. Once you have dealt with a customer to the point where they know one or another then they can submit a review. If you challenge that review it triggers a 10 day hold on the post during which you can work things out with the person making it.

JL: It's obviously easy enough for people to use iKarma to encourage prospective customers to contact them, but what about the people that are researching your firm before they even talk to you? Are people having success simply placing a link to their iKarma profiles on their business sites?

PW: Yes, if a user wants to place a link to their iKarma profile on a web site they can use a special link that we provide that lets site visitors see, but not post on their iKarma profile. As long as they don’t know your email address they can’t post. We provide a variety of iKarma links and seals that our users can place on their web sites and e-mail signatures.

JL: Right now, the search option lets a user search by iKarma ID or email address. Do you have plans to allow users to search by profession? In other words, will people be able to come to iKarma in order to find professionals to work with?

PW: Yes, our iKarma Directory is currently hidden, but we will roll this out in the next few weeks as our user numbers rise to a level where we have enough users where it will have value. Users will be listed in the directory according to their iKarma rank, not how much money they pay. But premium users will receive larger more graphical listings.

JL: This all looks very interesting, but the skeptical part of me also says "why would I trust a site that has reviews solicited by the person I want to know about?"

PW: As a business owner you may solicit your best customers to post comments, but if you don’t show your iKarma profile to your prospective customers, then it doesn’t serve any purpose. The moment an iKarma user starts using their iKarma profile as a sales tool, they start making ALL prospective customers aware that it exists. Once this happens, there is no way to ensure that those customers wont come back and make negative posts if they are unhappy. This provides a natural check and balance.

iKarma users stacking the deck initially with their best customer comments is probably unavoidable, but the moment iKarma starts being used, it begins to reflect the actual reputation of the iKarma users business.

JL: My thanks to Paul Williams for taking the time to answer my questions about iKarma. If you're curious to learn more about the program, they have an animated tour that's a little hokey, but still fun.

August 25, 2005

Jennifer Laycock is the Editor of Search Engine Guide, the Social Media Faculty Chair for MarketMotive and offers small business social media strategy & consulting. Jennifer enjoys the challenge of finding unique and creative ways to connect with consumers without spending a fortune in marketing dollars. Though she now prefers to work with small businesses, Jennifer’s clients have included companies like Verizon, American Greetings and Highlights for Children.

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