It’s a beautiful day for small businesses. Do something innovative and wonderful, and the world will know about it in seconds through Twitter, Facebook and your own website.
Do something wrong, however, or anger just one customer, and the world will know about it just as fast.
Your public reputation (or what others say about you online) is vulnerable to the whim of anyone with a mouse and access to the Internet. A negative review online can hurt your credibility or steer potential customers into your competitors’ arms. Trust won is not easily regained.
Warren Buffett said, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you'll do things differently.”
Why does e-reputation matter? Because the Web is where the battle for business is lost and won. A study by BIA/Kelsey found nearly all consumers (97 percent) now use online media when researching products or services in their local area.
Lay of the land
In order to defend your online reputation you have to know where it stands. Start with a painstaking Google search of your name, industry and products. Try any search terms that might display your company in results. A thorough inventory will expose any landmines waiting out there.
Beyond the initial exploration, reputation management demands ongoing monitoring, which for most small businesses is impractical. You can’t be trolling the Web every day looking for negative mentions, slanders or sketchy reviews. Fortunately, a range of tools can automate that process for you.
You can configure Google Reader and Google Alerts to seek out and report on keywords and phrases based on customized search criteria. Reader constantly checks selected news sites and blogs for fresh content. Alerts sends e-mails with Google results based on preset queries. Yahoo Alerts works the same way.
Constant Contact's NutShell Mail will e-mail you content from your social media streams at times you specify.
Build the fortress
While you’re watching the blogs (and you should be watching), the enemy may be planning an even more direct assault. Think of it as a hostile takeover of your online identity.
Of course you already own BobsBikes.com as your base of operations. Do you own BobsBikes.net? Or better still, BobsBikesSuck.com? Who’s got your name on Twitter?
Anyone can claim your name as a URL in a social network or elsewhere. Crossover may simply cause confusion. But it can be a staging ground for an assault against your credibility. Business owners who conduct thoughtful reputation management lay claim early to brand identity across the board.
Protecting reputation isn’t all defensive moves. Your public face depends in great measure on how you put yourself out there. Every time content is posted to your own site, every time you use your company name in online discussions, you open yourself up to feedback. If what you say online alienates or estranges people, it exposes the business to negative commentary (fair or otherwise).
Count to three before hitting Send. Don’t badmouth others. Don’t post iffy photos.
Create positive content
A steady stream of good news goes a long way toward offsetting negative remarks. Participate in your communities with meaningful content. Post comments that highlight your qualifications and demonstrate your expertise.
Review your public profiles. Be sure to include solid, meaningful information about your business and its capabilities.
Be ready to respond
In spite of all defenses, you’ll still be vulnerable to the keystrokes of any dissatisfied customer (or malicious competitor) looking to discredit your endeavors. A direct and thoughtful response can go a long way toward defusing a situation.
Often the most effective response is to contact the negative reviewer directly to resolve the cause of animosity. If the complaint is legitimate, post a public apology and an explanation. No matter how much a negative review hurts, resist the urge to fire back with angry words. You’ll only make the situation worse.
Tweet of death
Twitter is the Black Hole of Calcutta when it comes to e-reputation. Posts are virtually anonymous, instantaneous, far-reaching and blurted in so few words that no explanation or context is possible. “BobsBikes sucks n Bob is a crook.” What do you do with that?
Actively monitor Twitter for mentions of your name.
Respond to negative tweets briefly and professionally.
Ask the tweeter to carry on the conversation with you outside of Twitter.
If it seems an account is being used specifically to harass you, contact Twitter directly. It may be able to stop the traffic under its fraudulent-use policies.
At the end of the day, the best defense against online bashing is to keep the bashers offline. People will typically turn to the Web to vent their frustrations when they aren’t getting satisfaction in the real world. Answer the phone. Resolve issues as they arise. That way, the complainers will feel less inclined to tarnish you in the eyes of the world.