June 2015

Social media can be both an asset and an incredible liability for small businesses. More and more business people are turning to platforms like Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Pinterest to promote their business, to reach target customers, and to generate leads. It is important to adhere to certain guidelines in order to maintain your reputation—both online and off.


If you are a small business owner or an employee of a small business, your online reputation matters. The way that people see you online can greatly help or greatly hurt your business. What you post on Facebook matters. The information in your LinkedIn profile matters. The pictures you post to Instagram or Pinterest matter. The internet is a public forum and what you say and do there matters. Your online social media profiles are a reflection of you and therefore a reflection of your business.

Here are a few tips to help you navigate the world of online media and maintain your reputation as someone who people want to do business with.


  1. There is no difference between what you post online and who you are in real life. Ten years ago, it was realistic to think that you could get away with having an online personality separate from your in-person existence. Today’s internet is completely public and completely traceable. Every post comes from somewhere. Almost all pictures posted on the internet have a GIS stamp indicating where the picture was taken. Even people with remedial computing skills can look up an IP address to track the location of a computer or review information to retrieve the location of where a picture was taken or uploaded. Online social media profiles, even using the strictest security options, are still easily found on all search engines just by looking up a name, business name, or email address. Think before you post. Even if you think that what you are saying is something you are sharing privately, or with only your friends, the internet makes it infinitely accessible to almost anyone. Anything you write down can be read. Words can be copied. Posts can be reposted. Emails can be forwarded. Content can be shared. When you are sharing something online, picture yourself standing on a chair in a crowded restaurant and shouting whatever you are saying, or holding up a giant poster of whatever picture you are uploading. If it’s not appropriate in a crowded restaurant, it’s not appropriate online. That’s the reality of today’s internet.


  1. You Will Be Googled. Having no online reputation is almost worse than having a bad online reputation. The early adopters of online media knew what they were doing. The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal have had web publication since 1996, a full decade before Facebook was available to the public. Both publications knew that having a presence online was an essential business move and both publications are still heralded among the most reputable news sources in the world today. The fact that all your content online can be read by anyone should be a point of caution but it shouldn’t be a point of fear or deterrence. For many small businesses, access to free online media marketing has been one of the greatest assets of the 21st century. When done correctly, online marketing and social media can boost sales and visibility for small businesses and, in many cases, create a successful platform for taking the business to the next level.


  1. If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. This isn’t just a wise quote from Grandma. It is sound advice. Most people know that they shouldn’t post incriminating pictures of themselves online. It is equally important that what you say online generates a positive response from people. If you are small business owner, the head of an organization, an employee in a small company, the head of an affinity group, or some other public personality, don’t ever post anything negative online. Don’t say hateful things about your siblings, your parents, your exes, your neighbors, your bosses, your elected officials, anyone. Every time you post something negative online, you alienate a potential customer. It doesn’t matter if what you are saying is true. It doesn’t matter if most of your friends agree with you. Your quippy dig about your neighbor’s dog keeping you up at night just makes you look like a complainer. Saying something hateful about someone gives you the reputation of being an irritating or contemptable person. If you have to complain, complain about the weather or complain about Mondays. The weather and Mondays are the only two socially acceptable topics to complain about. If you feel compelled to provide commentary on a social issue or current event, make sure that your commentary is in line with your business plan. For example, if you own a gun shop, commenting about second amendment issues in a public forum makes sense. If you run a produce stand, your stance on gun rights isn’t likely to help you recruit new customers. Be nice. This rule applies to every person in every situation, with only two exceptions: Running for office and writing Yelp reviews. If you are running for office, go ahead and say all the awful things you want. If you are writing a one-star Yelp review about the terrible service you received somewhere, be honest but use as much diplomacy as possible. What if the restaurant owner you are about to skewer is one of your customers?


  1. Create separate profiles for your personal posts and for your business posts and keep them separate. A business profile should be used for business only. For example, James Hobart’s Instagram account should be separate from the Instagram account promoting Hobart’s Antiques. Hobart’s Antiques should contain only posts about the store, antiques, and issues relating to the business. If James Hobart feels compelled to post pictures of a recent dinner party, those pictures should be posted to a personal account.


  1. Ask yourself, “Is it nice? Is it appropriate? Is it necessary?” Ask yourself these questions and, unless you answer yes to two out of three, don’t post. This is important for both your personal and business accounts. For example, a local business recently posted an article about predatory lending. The article wasn’t nice but it was appropriate and a necessary piece of information for local businesses. For another example, a local nursery recently posted several pictures of bees on flowers. It wasn’t necessary but it was appropriate and nice. If you follow these guidelines, you will improve your visibility, your reputation, and you’ll maintain the right focus.


  1. Clean Up Your Act. Take the time to review your online profiles and delete anything that doesn’t fit the n-a-n test. If there are unnecessary pictures or posts on your business pages, delete them. If there are negative comments in your personal profile that may tarnish your online reputation, delete them. Go through all of your online profiles with a fine tooth comb and delete anything that may become a stain on your reputation and your business.


Online marketing has incredible potential for all small businesses when executed appropriately and maintained properly. Use the internet to your advantage.   Make smart choices and watch your business grow.