From Snapchat’s ‘would you rather’ tweet to Dove’s tone-deaf body lotion ad on Facebook, it’s often the big brands that end up in the limelight (or lowlight) for social media gaffs. But small businesses also need to tread carefully online, as rushed or misguided social media posts, negative reviews and bad online press can put businesses of any size into the firing line.

This can make online marketing seem like a minefield for small business owners, and with all the hats you already wear, you may be tempted to avoid it entirely. But shunning social media or not building an online presence won’t make these risks disappear and could cause more harm in the long-term.

The truth is, not being online is akin to an empty shop and you could lose out on many potential customers. Our own research supports this, as 70% of consumers expect small businesses to have a website. We only expect these figures to grow alongside the increasing number of digitally savvy shoppers

Digital marketing offers numerous benefits to small businesses, you just need to be cognizant of the potential risks and take practical steps to mitigate their impact. Here is our advice on how to address some of the biggest online reputation risks facing your business:

Social media fails

Social networks have well and truly permeated all areas of our lives with 63% of UK adults using social media every single day, according to Kantar Media. You can rest assured that many of your customers are active on the major social networks, which offers a prime opportunity for building brand awareness, boosting sales and improving your customer service at a relatively cheaper cost than traditional forms of marketing.

The sheer audience size and ability to laser target makes social media an ideal place to connect with customers. But these same benefits also mean that if you catch a user’s attention for the wrong reasons, people will talk, the news will spread fast and it may not be quickly forgotten. Follow these steps to avoid a sticky situation with your social media:

  1. Lead with Strategy First – Brands like to put their personality forward online. While that’s encouraged, pushing a brand personality without a strong social strategy will lead you down the wrong path very quickly. Identify your audience, develop your message and stick to the script.
  2. Be Savvy, Not Salesy – Social selling is inevitable, but your followers won’t stick around if you’re always pushing product. If you’re using social media to boost sales, be upfront about it and offer up useful content to your followers that also drives the bottom line.
  3. Once You Tweet, You Can’t Delete – If you made a social media faux pas, simply deleting your post won’t solve your problem. If it was truly a mistake, apologies are necessary to move on.
  4. Everyone’s a Critic – No matter how good your products or services are, there will always be a customer that is less-than-impressed. The veil of anonymity offered up through faceless social engagement will give haters a big platform to share their displeasure. It’s important to acknowledge these concerns, apologise directly and take the conversation offline. Not only does it give you a chance to learn and grow, but it shows followers you care about getting it right.
  5. Leave Politics to the Politicians – A surefire way to create buzz online is to push the political hot button. But be warned. It’s a fire that burns fast and fierce…and you may not survive the flames. For many types of small businesses, it’s best to avoid the same topics you dodge during a family gathering.

Poor online reviews

Online reviews are also a powerful source for customers, as research by Bright Local shows that 91 percent of 18-34 year old consumers trust online reviews as much as a personal recommendation. But what if, out of the blue, you get a negative review?

First and foremost, never fight fire with fire. Arguing publicly with a disgruntled customer will give others a bad impression of your business. Instead, treat a negative review as an opportunity to improve. Listen to your customer’s grievances and think about how you could address them. Reply to their review to let them know you’re sorry and explain any changes you plan to make based on their feedback.

This is your chance to turn a displeased customer into a loyal one. Research published in the Harvard Business Review suggests that replying to customer reviews – good or bad – results in a better rating overall, so it’s more than worth your time.

Remember the people reading your reviews are also reading your responses, so take advantage of this to demonstrate your commitment to customer satisfaction. A polite, considered response to a negative review will go a long way to reassuring any undecided potential customers.

While it’s important to address any negative feedback online, the best antidote to poor online reviews is to put yourself in the driver’s seat. Be proactive and ask your satisfied customers to provide honest reviews of your products and services. Once you’ve collected some positive customer feedback, ask for permission to use these in your own marketing efforts.

Negative media coverage

It’s not only customer conversations about your business that you need to pay close attention to. Journalists and bloggers can also present your brand in a negative light, if there’s a good reason for them to.

It might be that your restaurant ends up on a list of the worst food hygiene ratings, a disgruntled employee shares their negative experience with a journalist or a misguided social media post goes viral. Negative media coverage can happen to any company, but in most cases, your business won’t be judged by the issue itself but by how you respond.

First and foremost, you should respond quickly and make yourself available for further comment. Media coverage can have a snowball effect where it quickly spreads through social media, so the sooner you respond, the more likely you’ll be able to control how the story develops. Be honest in your response and take accountability for any mistakes your business made, but also use it as an opportunity to explain how you’re going to make things right or what steps you’ve already taken.

To stay on top of your online reputation, you need to be constantly aware of what people are saying about your company on third party websites. Most small businesses are unlikely to be attracting a large volume of media coverage, so a simple Google Alert for your business should be enough to keep on top of any mentions in online media outlets.

Online marketing is unavoidable for small businesses, but you shouldn’t fear this ever-changing space. We hope our advice helps you to avoid some of the risks and reap the rewards.

Femke Lenstra

Femke Lenstra


Femke Lenstra, EU content marketing lead at Vistaprint.