By now, most small business owners understand the important role the Internet can play in helping to raise and drive interest and demand for their products and services. With all the innovative online technologies out there, it’s easy to feel tempted to rush into things. Please, for the love of your business, slow down.
Before you worry about launching a Twitter channel or pitching a post idea to a local blogger, you need to take a step back and consider how online conversations might impact the reputation of your small business. PR blow-ups aren’t just a problem for big companies—there are risks for small businesses, too. Online engagement requires the same level of planning and thought you give to other parts of your business. Here are four tips for protecting your small business—and livelihood—online.
1. Research and planning
Thinking through the details is the most important way you can start to protect your reputation online, whether you have a small bakery outside Detroit or a multi-national corporation. Ask yourself these important questions before you do anything:
- What are my goals and objectives?
- Who am I trying to reach? Where do I think those people are online?
- What online channels or social media sites might be the right fit for my business?
- How much time do I realistically have to invest in this?
- Am I prepared for negative conversation about my products and services?
Use the intelligence you gather to assemble a plan, and think modestly to start. Remember, the goal is not to get on every social media channel out there. You should instead be contributing in the places online that make sense for you.
2. Monitoring and listening
Like research and planning, listening to online conversations is a critical part of protecting your small business’s reputation. There are a couple of reasons why.
First, before you start communicating, you should know what others are saying about you, your competitors and other similar businesses. This background information will help you determine what you can share that others might find of interest or value. It will also help prevent you from sticking your foot in your mouth. If you open a butcher shop, you'd want to know the most influential foodie blogger in your area is a vegetarian before you shoot him an email about your new organic bacon, for example.
Monitoring conversation is also important because it will help you uncover complaints and other problems that you might not otherwise know about. This is directly connected to how you respond to negative comments, which we'll explore in a moment. There are number of easy ways you can monitor online conversation, such as using a tool like HootSuite for Twitter and Facebook and Google Alerts for blogs and traditional media coverage. Mashable has a number of great articles with more information on how you can do this affordably.
3. Joining the conversation
How you engage in conversations online will vary depending on the channel you pick, whether that’s Facebook or Foursquare. No matter what channel you choose, you can help mitigate risks to your business by planning ahead, being committed and showing transparency.
- Planning ahead. Like newspapers and magazines, big companies often create editorial calendars for their online communications, aligning things like company events and press releases with messages on Facebook, Twitter and blogs. Your small business might not need an elaborate spreadsheet to schedule your updates, but you should look ahead and think through the news and information you might want to share in the weeks ahead. Try creating your own calendar every two weeks. After you give that a try, you can do it more or less frequently, depending on what works best for you.
- Being committed. When you join conversations, online communities will expect you to stick around. Oftentimes, people may have follow-up questions or new issues may arise. Don’t post something and disappear. Keep your editorial calendar current and keep checking back on old posts and respond again, if warranted. If you don’t, people will begin to see your online interactions as self-serving or lazy, and you will lose trust.
- Showing transparency. Lastly, always be transparent about who you are and what you’re doing online. This is extremely important. Whenever you join conversations, whether it is e-mailing a blogger, commenting on a Facebook post or responding to a comment about your business on Yelp, always be very clear that you are responding on behalf of your small business. In some cases, it may even make sense to include your e-mail address so people who would like more information can reach you. Online communities hate feeling misled—even if it is completely unintentional. Above, you'll see a great example from a small indie record shop in Cleveland on how to keep your community informed about important policy changes that impact them in a friendly, casual and professional way.
4. When conversation turns negative
Before you hit the ground running with your digital communications plan, there is one last thing to consider: What will you do if people write nasty things about you, or even worse, an issue explodes that could deliver a devastating knock-out blow to your business?
The risks can be scary, but the good news is that by preparing in advance and following the guidelines discussed above, you can manage those risks. The most important thing to do when you receive negative feedback is to respond as soon as possible—and that’s true of almost any online channel. Below is an example from Capital Bikeshare in Washington, D.C. This is a successful response because it is prompt, open to the public and offers an apology to the customer for his inconvenience. There is nothing wrong with admitting a mistake or apologizing. Most people will stick with you if you work to make things right.
Our last point—and this is really important—is to be very cautious about deleting negative comments. By overreacting to negative discussion, it may look like your business has something to hide. This chips away at the community’s trust in you. You also will lose a valuable opportunity to change opinions. Thoughtful responses to negative comments are a terrific opportunity to engage your customers, help correct their complaints and potentially turn them into advocates. Don’t throw that opportunity away by simply making an uncomfortable discussion disappear.
Do you have more tips for small businesses looking to engage online communities? Let us know in the comments below.