Uh oh. I used that little taboo term in social media, didn’t I? “Control.” Companies want some level of control but customers don’t want to be controlled. That’s understandable. What leaves me scratching my head though is when I see so-called social media experts telling business owners and executives that they should just let it go — that their customers control their image online now. So. Not. True.
Here’s a dose of a reality for you (because who couldn’t use a wee bit of that?). YOU control your image online. YOU control your image across the social media landscape. The only way others control your, or your company’s, image online is if you become complacent and just sit back and let them. You’re not that foolish though, are you?
How Important is it to Control Your Image Online?
It doesn’t really matter if we’re talking about online or off. Your image is important. Your company’s image is important. It’s how your audience or market sees you. It determines what they think of you. It influences their trust in your company. It sways purchase decisions. Yes. Your image is important.
You can’t afford to trust that image development or management to the social mob. You can’t build a marketing plan around what they may or may not say or do. You can’t set goals or focus on your company’s mission when you’re always worried about the “what if.” What if people post negative reviews on social networks? What if people don’t blog about us favorably? What if? What if? What if? … Who cares?
Okay, okay. You should care. I’ll give you that. But you shouldn’t mistake the ability to participate in conversations for control over your company’s image. Think of it this way — all of your customers, readers, or whoever your target audience consists of are like this big conversational sea. It might be calm one day and you might hit rough waters the next. But either way, you’re always at the helm. You have the ability to steer or influence the image your company portrays.
How Can You Control Your Image on the Web?
When I’m talking about “control” here, I’m not talking about our big bad buddy, Mr. Manipulation. I don’t advocate using social media tools and strategies to try to portray a false image of who you are or what your company is all about. I’m talking about good old fashioned PR — managing relationships with your various audiences and doing the “right” thing.
Controlling your image online involves offering quality products or services (or whatever it is that you offer), being responsive to audience needs, and being as open as you can reasonably be with your audience (giving away trade secrets is taking it just a bit too far on the transparency front I’d say).
Those are some of the basic elements of controlling your image on the Web. Here are some more specific ways you can incorporate social media tools into your supposedly dastardly little image-control campaign.
- Start conversations — Don’t wait around for customers or others to start talking about you or your products. Start those conversations yourself. Sure, you could run polls on your website or social networking profile pages, but why not make it a real conversation? Turn to the company blog to solicit more qualitative feedback instead through reader comments. Don’t just get a general idea of what they like and don’t like. See what people really think. You can’t improve your image (or work to maintain a positive image) if you don’t know what your audience thinks of you to begin with.
- Respond — It’s not enough to post to your blog, a social network, a microblog, etc. asking for feedback. You need to actually read that feedback and, more importantly, you should try to respond. No one’s saying you have to respond to everything people say (or if they do they’re bloody insane so just gently nod and walk away). Try to at least address points you see on a consistent basis. If a lot of your customers are saying the same thing, that’s something you might want to respond to. Showing that you’re paying attention to your customers can go a long way towards building a positive image online.
- Don’t act impulsively — As you’re engaging in a two-way conversation with your customers or other audiences via social media, you are more than likely going to come across negative feedback. Don’t fly off the handle telling that little schmuck what you really think of him. Should you respond quickly? Yes. The social Web won’t stop and wait while you catch up. But think first. Is there any validity in those negative comments? Is there a way to address them that makes you look good? (Maybe acknowledge a point and ask what they would suggest to fix it so you can show genuine interest.) Or is it one of those “you don’t have to respond to everything” moments? Sometimes it is.
The social media boom doesn’t mean you have to worry that your company’s image is completely out of your control. It just means making an honest effort to do your best, engage your audience, and keep your customers happy is important. And really, hasn’t that always been key to controlling your company’s image? Social media might shake things up a bit, but in the end good business fundamentals still win out.