co Up Next: The Biggest Challenge Facing Small Business Marketing (Is YOUR Business Ready?) |

Just when you thought your job as a small business owner couldn’t get any more challenging, along comes the giant elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about – and while you probably don’t know it yet, it has dramatic implications for YOUR small business.

In fact, you’ve probably already participated in this seismic marketing shift – or you know someone who has – without even realizing it.

What am I talking about? To use the correct term, “user generated Internet content.”

You’d be in the majority if your reaction was more “what’s that, you say?” than “ah – yes, I’ve been thinking about that.”

Because if you’re like most small business owners I talk with, you’re aware of blogs, bulletin boards and forums, and you’ve heard all the buzz about YouTube and MySpace and FaceBook – but you haven’t thought about the implications these radically different technologies have on your business.

Now, I know you’re probably thinking that since you don’t have a blog or your own MySpace page, this phenomenon I’m talking about can’t possibly affect your business – right?

Nothing could be more wrong.

You see, even if you don’t have your own blog for your small business, even if you have never watched a video on YouTube or checked out a MySpace page, these tools will affect your business – either positively or negatively. Your knowledge of these types of sites – often collectively referred to as “Web 2.0 Sites” – and the actions you take regarding them will help determine the effect they have on the success of your company.

What’s Web 2.0?
In the old days of the Internet (back around 1998 or so), the web was all about gathering information (if you could find it). You could read information companies had posted online, but you really couldn’t interact with it except to maybe send an e-mail to the editor or company spokesperson. What most people heard about a company was distributed by the company – or it’s ad agency – who controlled the message that they wanted you to hear.

Fast forward to today, and the web is all about participation – the tools I mentioned above – blogs, YouTube, MySpace – are all about collaboration and the ability for the users – your customers – to put their two cents in. The company is no longer in control – the customers are. And Web 2.0 is exploding with new tools and ways to use the technology every single day.

What happens when those users – your customers – start to put their two cents in about YOUR business?

Ask Taco Bell. On the morning of February 23rd, a video was released of several rats scampering around one Taco Bell restaurant in Greenwich Village. By that afternoon, the story had raced around the Internet – across the globe, creating a company-wide crisis. According to Ad Age, “a Technorati search showed the story or video had appeared on over 1,000 blogs, while a Google News search for ‘rats and Taco Bell’ yielded some 600 stories posted on websites of publications from Wyoming to the U.K.”

By March 13th, a search on Google for “Taco Bell rats” brings up 726,000 results! Steven Fink, president of crisis-management firm Lexicon Communications said, “The biggest problem with the internet is not that it is widespread but that [a story] is out there forever. This story will live on the internet for all time.”

Are you thinking, “It can’t happen to me”? As a small business owner you take great pride in your company. If you own a restaurant, you probably don’t have rats running around your kitchen (and if you do, lose my number). But what if one of your customers has a bad experience at your store? What if there is a misunderstanding with one of your employees and your customer leaves unhappy?

It used to be that one unhappy customer would tell 10 friends. What if that unhappy customer is also an active blogger, with a local readership on his blog of several hundred – or several thousand – other potential customers of yours?

Today the impact of just one unhappy customer is dramatically magnified by Web 2.0 tools that have democratized the publishing and distribution of information into the hands of every person with access to a computer and an internet connection.

Think about how you use the web today. If you are going to meet with a new company, or evaluate their products and services for your business – don’t you check them out online first, to see what they are all about? “Google” them, just to see what the web has to say about this company?

Well, whether you do or not – the vast majority of your customers aged 60 and below DO. If all they find when they search for your company are links to unfavorable postings placed by one unhappy customer, how likely is it that they’ll want to do business with you? (Never mind whether the information is true or not – it’s on the internet, so it must be true!)

So what can you do to make sure that you put the power of the internet on your side, should a crisis arise?

In response to the Taco Bell incident, Steven Fink says, “What marketers are dangerously failing to take into account is that discussion online is fueling the discussion happening offline. This is a perfect example of how you need to have a very fast web-based response to a crisis so you are providing information – not spin or distorting the facts for people, but providing information that helps neutralize it.”

There are many steps you can take n order to make sure you are getting YOUR message out about your company online, including:

Before a crisis occurs
• Proactively become knowledgeable about Web 2.0 and the power of user-generated content. Understand how blogs and sites like YouTube and MySpace work.
• Develop an organic search strategy that places your business high in the natural search engine rankings for keywords related to your business or industry.
• Publish content related to your business or industry in multiple places online across the internet. Place articles on article directories and post press releases whenever something newsworthy happens in your business. This helps ensure that the messages online about your company are what you want your customers to see.
• Have someone – either yourself or one of your employees, consistently search online for mentions of your company, or register for an online “Alert” service such as Google Alerts that will notify you when a mention of your company occurs online.

When a crisis occurs
• Create a positive, truthful response to the situation and post it on your website, preferably linkable from your home page.
• Post your side of the story to your blog, if you have one.
• Allow customers to subscribe via RSS to updated posts from you about how you are fixing the situation.
• Make sure all of your employees are up-to-date on the situation and understand how to explain the solution to your customers – both in person and on the telephone.
• Buy Pay-per-Click keywords related to your company that will direct customers to your website – and your side of the story.
• Buy negative Pay-per-Click keywords related to the issue and your company so that your sponsored results listings do not reinforce a negative image. (For instance, Taco Bell should have purchased the negative keyword “-rats” in the example illustrated above).

Of course the best thing to do is to continue to always strive for excellence to ensure that a crisis does not occur.

Following my advice for being prepared – even if a crisis never happens – will happily result in your business ranking higher in the search engines, and more customers finding your business as a result. If you do experience a crisis, following my advice will help you weather the storm with much less negative publicity, allowing you to use the situation to improve your reputation as a business who can be counted on within your community for years to come.