(This post originally appeared on Philly.com)
Online sales this holiday season are expected to increase by a whopping 35% over last year’s levels, according to a recent forecast from research firm eMarketer. For many small-business owners who have shifted to more ecommerce sales amid the shutdowns caused by the pandemic, this news is welcomed.
But with more activity online comes more risk, particularly when it comes to a company’s reputation.
According to a report released by the Federal Trade Commission this past summer, the reports of fraud and un-received merchandise purchased online increased dramatically during the pandemic and far surpassed the numbers seen during last year’s holiday shopping season. In April and May, the FTC received more than 34,000 online shopping-related complaints, with more than 18,000 related to items that were ordered but never delivered.
Because of the increased online activity, scammers are creating new challenges for small businesses that — as we all do — value their brand’s reputation. That was apparent from a study recently released from online marketing company Thryv, which looked at more than 58,000 of its customers. It found significant dips in how consumers rated their online experience throughout COVID-19. Not only did industries see significant drops in their online reputation scores, some sustained low scores throughout the summer. Industries such as construction and educational services dipped drastically in April and May, respectively, and have struggled to maintain healthy scores ever since.
“Like all of us, small businesses across America were not prepared for the effects of COVID-19,” Ryan Cantor, vice president of product and marketing at the company, said in a statement. “Many small businesses were considering the need to improve their online customer experience, but once quarantine began, if they weren’t able to interact with their customers virtually in a significant way with accurate information, they absolutely lost out on customers — and their online reputation took a hit.”
Hits to your reputation can come in many forms. It could be a bad review on Yelp, a Facebook or Twitter post complaining about an employee’s service, or maybe just an isolated but poor Google review (something I’ve recently experienced). So how to protect yourself, especially in these times of increased online activity?
Some small businesses in the area are aware of these problems and have taken pro-active steps. Charisse McGill, owner of Lokal Artisan Foods in Philadelphia, says that for online reviews and comments, she tries to go out of her way to reply to each one. She also has made greater efforts to ensure that she is “very careful and thoughtful” about where, what and how she communicates with people online who do post a negative comment or review, or even with those who offer a helpful critique.
Sometimes, however, a bad experience can’t be avoided. And when that happens, most experts agree that it’s important not to get into a public spat.
“If you get into a fight with a pig, you both get muddy but the pig likes it,” says Cassandra Bailey, the CEO of Wilmington’s Slice Communications, a public relations and marketing firm. “This means you never want to start throwing mud online or otherwise during a crisis situation. If you have a disagreement with someone online, try to take it offline into a more human experience of a personal conversation.”
Bailey thinks that most small businesses are “terrible” at online listening. “They don’t have any idea what is being said about them or their competitors,” she says. “They don’t do basic searches, have alerts set up, or have anyone responsible for ensuring that threats and opportunities are identified.” She believes that companies that care about their reputation need to make someone responsible for it, whether that is an internal person or an outside agency.
Kory Aversa, the CEO and president of Aversa PR, a Philadelphia-based public relations firm, agrees. He recommends that that every small business have someone in charge of communications, even if it means carving out time every week for digital marketing, social media and reputation monitoring. “No matter your resources and budget, this should be a key principle in operating any business,” he says. “You want to protect your brand and reputation — and therefore protect your entire businesses and livelihood.”
Buying sketchy “back links” (these are links to your website from more highly trafficked sites) or failing to keep your business information up to date on all platforms are also common mistakes that cause a website visitor to complain. Small-business owners should make extra efforts to ensure that passwords are changed and managed and that their website uses SSL (a secure layer of encryption).
Some of this stuff can get pretty technical, which is why Mac Frederick, the owner of digital marketing agency Momentum Digital, also recommends getting outside help. “I’d suggest starting with a digital audit and analysis,” he says. “This means you’d hire a person or agency to completely review your online presence, such as your website, listings, directories, social media, content, and more.”
These audits can take anywhere from one week to one month, according to Frederick. But in the end, a good firm will not only identify issues, but also help implement a marketing strategy to fix them.
There are also many good and cost-effective reputation management tools available. Besides Thryv, such applications as Mention, Reputology and Brandwatch all offer “social listening” tools that look at many of the most popular social media sites, as well as review sites, and notify business owners of potential negative comments and then send real-time alerts to your company. Some also track overall sentiment about your business and even suggest an appropriate response or actions to take. Most of these tools cost $30 to $50 a month.
Finally, your online behavior should reflect you as a person. Don’t try to be someone you’re not. “Act in a way online as if what you say will be up and searchable forever,” McGill says. “And that will keep you honest, grounded, and focused when handling your own communications.”