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These days, using social media to build your small business may seem like a no-brainer, but there are reasons for owners to be cautious. After all, social networking snafus have caused many people to lose their jobs. What’s to say similar hiccups won’t hurt your business?

In fact, there are already examples where mismanagement of social media has afforded businesses some decidedly negative attention. Earlier this month, Amy’s Baking Company, a restaurant in Scotsdale, Ariz., received a wave of negative PR when owner Amy Bouzalgo responded to an unfavorable Yelp! review by calling the writer, among other things, a “tramp,” “loser” and “moron” in her own Yelp review.

Big brand Coca-Cola (Stock Quote: KO) received its own basket of bad press in July when a misguided Dr Pepper promotion unwittingly made direct reference to a hardcore pornographic film … on a 14-year-old girl’s Facebook wall. And the New York Times certainly had some explaining to do when a hack of one of its blogs’ Twitter account advertised some affordable naked webcam action back in May.

But these potential drawbacks shouldn’t dissuade small businesses from launching a social media campaign. After all, it can be one of the most cost-effective ways to both promote and build your business. However, there are some things you need to consider before attempting to go viral.

“Social media and customer service go hand in hand,” Nathaniel Perez, who heads social marketing for customer experience company SapientNitro, tells MainStreet. “Being on a social network does not solve a product problem.”

Perez explains that businesses need to understand the types of exposure big networks, such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn or Myspace, provide. Nestle, for example, was probably reconsidering the creation of its Facebook page after news broke that one of its palm oil suppliers Sinar Mas was destroying protected Indonesian rainforests. The retailer was subsequently bombarded with complaints and criticism via both of its pages that lasted well beyond the readily-issued March apology.   
“If you have something that you don’t want exposed, you should avoid social media,” Perez says. However, those without skeletons in the closet shouldn’t opt out of the potentially lucrative market because they are afraid on some negative reviews.  

Erica Swallow of online social media guide says that it can be a good thing if customers are saying negative things about your business.

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“It means people are inclined to talk about you,” she explains.

The catch is, you need to listen.  Social media campaigns, according to Swallow and Perez, work best when they are treated as customer service platforms, not “if you have it, they will come” money-making ploys.  Perez points out this can work to a small business’s advantage since many can’t afford dedicated customer service departments. Those looking to leverage their social media presence in this way simply need to keep an open mind.

“Don’t judge [a customer] on their insolence,” Perez says. Instead, respond to their complaint and see what you can do to make up for it. T-Mobile (Stock Quote: DT), for example, was able to turn a negative into a positive when 19-year-old New Jersey resident Sasha Jackson complained about her cell phone over Twitter. Their immediate response to her tweet about “being so sick of this phone” was praised online in various publications for fixing her phone.

“If you don’t create a buzz about your company, somebody else will,” Thomas Harpointner, president of interactive agency AIS Media, says, pointing out that review sites like Yelp! exist with or without the reviewees’  participation. Creating your own social media pages allow you to counteract any negative press you get there or elsewhere.
Of course, the key to avoiding any potential pitfall is to actively and consistently monitor all of your social media networks.  Coca-Cola’s problems, for example, were caused by the company’s failure to read the status updates that were being used in its Facebook promotion. (Had someone done so, the child porn allegations could probably have been avoided.) Conversely, the New York Times minimized the damage of its hack by catching it relatively quickly.  

“The idea of a social network is to be social,” Swallow says. As such, your accounts need to regularly policed … and you may want to carefully consider who is patrolling them, for a variety of safety and security purposes.

“Don’t share access to your account with the wrong people,” Harpointner cautions. “Computers don’t steal. People do.”

Want some more suggestions for establishing a solid web presence? Check out this MainStreet article “Small Business Website 101.”

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