By Steve Haworth, CEO, TeleWare

Many will be familiar with the concept of a “digital footprint” – the trail of data and information which is left behind from online interaction. This idea implies that these “digital footprints” are like those we leave on a beach, that will slowly wash away and be lost forever. But is this the reality?

The influential academic and speaker Juan Enríquez coined the phrase “digital tattoo” at a TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conference in 2013. The phrase “tattoo” was testament to the online impressions which businesses are now leaving behind. Whether it is from a social media profile, a blog post or information on a website, the idea of a digital tattoo is that the digital information will live online with the organisation forever.

Social media in particular is an online area where billions of throwaway interactions are made every day, often without care. Once a Facebook newsfeed or Twitter timeline is refreshed, posts are instantly out of sight due to new material and often forgotten about. People and businesses often don’t realise the ramifications of their exchanges online.

It is difficult to predict the impact of these digital tattoos in the future. Certainly at present, people’s social media and photographs can potentially cause embarrassment to their employers. Disciplinary action can be taken in the event of inappropriate activity. Employers are also increasingly using social media to vet employees before an interview, which serves as a warning to job seekers.

But how will these digital tattoos affect the way businesses operate and interact? With the amount of data being posted online, to what extent should businesses assess the permanency of their digital footprint? We live in an age where every employee is a representative of the business they work for and as a result are adding to a company’s digital tattoo. For example, if an employee posts on Facebook or LinkedIn, the company name is automatically associated with that message – negatively or positively. Similarly, the plethora of online review sites such as Review Centre, Trust Pilot and FeeFo means that a customer may post a damaging opinion about the company and its products without the business knowing. Failure to respond or react can be just as damaging as the original comment.

For organisations, the issue of digital tattoos is made all the more complex by the ever increasing preference of employees to bring and use their own devices at work, potentially exposing business activity and connections to wider scrutiny. There could be serious consequences for businesses who do not ensure there are processes in place to mitigate risks and appropriate responses to negative impacts. Organisations must be accountable for their own digital identity and establish an institutional culture change to enable an empowered and positive workforce who act as the company’s daily ambassadors.