You've probably heard the old philosophical question before – are you who you think you are, or are you who others perceive you to be?
It's a question that every small business owner should be asking him or herself. Your company's personality lies in its brand, and in the small business world where personal connections have as much to do with customer loyalty as with the quality of goods and services being offered, there's a lot riding on your brand.
The good news is that, with the rise of social media tools and our increasingly wired society, it's never been easier for small business owners, even those with limited resources, to build and promote their online persona. Launching a blog, starting a Twitter account or Facebook page, or posting videos and photos to the Web takes very little time and costs next to nothing.
But before diving in and launching your own Me Inc., it's best to do some reflecting first and decide what you want your brand to be, and to avoid missteps that, especially in the online world where news travels quickly, can be costly.
Teach – but without teaching
The easiest way for a small business owner to kick-start a brand is to stick with what you know. In other words, start milking your expertise. Whether it's landscaping, camping gear or accounting services, share your knowledge with your audience. The key to success is to be short and targeted and to offer small nuggets of practical advice that people can use in their day-to-day lives. As well, try to be timely by reacting to news items or trends, which will help you to stay current.
Don't dress up
The No. 1 rule when communicating online, whether through videos, blogs or Tweets, is to be yourself. Any attempt to “force” a serious or humorous tone, or to weigh in on things that fall outside of your core expertise, is to risk sounding fake and driving away your potential customers before they can get to know you. You're trying to build lasting relationships, so relax and be yourself.
Be a good date
The No. 2 rule is to make sure the conversation isn't one-way. Engage with your audience – ask them questions, and take the time to listen. This is particularly effective on Twitter, where it's easy to kick-start interesting conversations with all sorts of people with similar interests (or buying preferences). You may get interesting ideas for products, promotions or, at the very least, gain a better sense of what engages people when they walk into your store.
Don't rely on your keyboard
Finally, don't limit yourself just to blog posts or Tweets. Try your hand at videos – why not film a series of short how-to videos, based on your product or service, and post them to your blog or YouTube page? Or, if your business is visually appealing, take advantage of photos in your blog, Facebook page or Tweets. Photos and videos are great at giving people a peek at the real you, which may inspire them to come visit you in person.
Fostering your online reputation has become less of a nice-to-have and more of a necessity. You may not choose to invest the time now, but many of your competitors will. And in a tight economy where people are getting choosier about how much and where they will spend their money, it pays to be there with the right message when they start shopping.