By Mike Zammuto
The Internet has long been likened to the Wild WestÂand not without reason. On the Web, a certain kind of lawlessness seems to prevail; people can say pretty much whatever they like, about whatever subject they like, and they can do so with impunity. It matters little whether their comments are truthful, or whether they are outright defamatory. On the Internet, it seems, anything goes.
This kind of freedom may be nice for consumers, but it can be dangerous for businesses and brandsÂand for small companies, in particular. There is, in the end, nothing to prevent online consumers from posting negative (and fallacious) reviews about your brand; there is nothing to prevent rival companies from smearing your name, and there is no way to completely stop the spread of Internet rumors or negative news stories about your brand. Again, on the Internet, anything goes.
This is not meant to sound alarmist. The good news is that small businesses that know about these common reputational threats can do much to defend themselves. Some of the gravest reputational threats are rounded up below, along with some strategies for preventing them.
If you havenÂt heard anyone talking about doppelganger domains just yet, you will soon; this is an increasingly prevalent tactic that large, duplicitous companies use against their smaller competitors. Basically, a rival company might sign up for an online domain that corresponds with your companyÂs nameÂand then, your rival will use that site to parody you, to lampoon you, and ultimately to run your company into the ground.
There is an incredibly easy fix here, however, and itÂs as simple as taking a few moments to buy the rights to all of the domains associated with your brand. These include YourBrandName.com, .net, and .org; you may also wish to sign up for the domains associated with your key executives, and with your branded products. Go through GoDaddy.com and none of these domains ought cost much more than $20 apiece. This is a simple and cost-effective way to protect your brandÂs online integrity.
A much pricklier and more complicated subject is that of user-generated reviews. Review sites like Yelp.com, Urban Spoon, TripAdvisor, and Foursquare are gaining in prominence and influence all the time. It is not hard to understand why: simply put, more and more consumers are using these sites to base their purchasing decisions. What this means, however, is that online review sites can either make or break your small business, and even a lone bad review can lead to a drop-off in sales.
Sadly, though, responding to negative reviews is rather difficult. Certainly, small businesses should make it a habit to monitor their reviews and to post grateful responses to the positive ones, and even to instances of genuinely constructive feedback. Responding to negative reviewsÂoutright unreasonable and defamatory onesÂis less advisable. ThatÂs because small businesses are threatened not just by reviews from real consumers, but also by fake reviews, planted by rival companiesÂand, in some cases, by disgruntled employees!
So whatÂs the best response to negative reviews? Really, the best response is no response at all. Rather than draw further attention to those nasty reviews, companies are encouraged to work on building up plenty of positive reviews from their faithful customers. Simply ask for those reviews, and rest assured that padding the ballot with these positive notices will significantly dampen the blow of negative ones.
Internal PR Errors
Several months ago, there was an instance of an American Red Cross worker logging into the charityÂs Twitter account, thinking it was her private, personal Twitter feed. She proceeded to post about getting drunk, which is not exactly the kind of thing supporters hope to see on the Red Cross Twitter feed. The whole incident was an honest mistake, yet it reveals one of the biggest threats that companies face in the Age of Social MediaÂnamely, their own employees!
Any ill-advised or poorly-worded social media post can threaten your companyÂs online reputation. One solution is to make sure that your social media posts are handled only by members of your team who really understand the corporate visionÂand not by, say, an intern or a part-time employee. Additionally, password-protecting your accountsÂand changing those passwords with regularityÂis essential.
Online Reputation Management for SMBs
The bottom line is that the reputational threats that loom on the horizon for small businesses are truly numerousÂbut that doesnÂt mean SMBs are powerless to defend themselves. These reputational meltdowns are far from inevitable; on the contrary, they can be protected against through the implementation of these online reputation management strategies.