You never get a second chance to make a first impression, so you must guard the online impression your small business makes. Online impressions are created through your small business website, Facebook page, email communications, social media communications, and search engine results, and they either bring potential customers in or send them away.
First impressions of your small business through online searches
What customers see online is fundamental to their impressions of what you and your business are and offer. Study search results for your name and the name of your company and products. Here’s what to look for:
Does the name you’re searching for appear prominently in the first few pages of results, which is as far as most people look?
Are you happy with what you see? Do links to your name lead to sites with information that’s relevant to the brand image you want to project?
Do top results lead straight to your business website or to a map or phone number for your company?
When you search your name in online images and video, are you happy with what you see or are results inconsistent with the image you want your business to project?
If your search results are underwhelming, take action to gain online prominence. Then leverage the power of social media and blogs to heighten your online presence and your showing in search engine results.
If you serve a local market, your customers are searching for you online. Improve your position in their search results by establishing a free Google Places listing that will appear to consumers as a Google+ Local page.
Google+ Local pages integrate business-provided information with information from other Google properties such as Search, Maps, Zagat ratings, and reviews and recommendations from friends, family, and colleagues. What’s more, Local pages are indexed by Google to appear in search results, and customers can reach them through the Local tab on their Google+ pages.
First impressions of your small business through your website
To people shopping online, your website is your business. To everyone else, it’s a gateway to your business. Keep these things in mind as you develop an online presence that supports your business image:
You have to work to be found online. In 2011, experts estimated that the web hosted at least a trillion pages, with the number of URLs or site addresses increasing by more than 150,000 a day. Any business in this day and age needs the following:
A website with its own name in the site address
Social media pages
A network of online links that point web users to the business site
A commitment to optimizing the site’s visibility in search engine results
A communication effort that features links to all major online locations in all ads and marketing materials
People arriving at your site may not know where they are. They may be coming from search engine results or online links that send them to an internal page of your site, so be sure that every page features your name or logo, along with a link to your home page.
Better yet, whenever possible, direct online clicks to customized landing pages that address the customer’s interest and allow you to capture the new-business lead.
Realize that most customers are channel agnostics. They migrate between online and off-line encounters and expect continuity as they travel. Whether they see your Facebook page, your website or blog, your traditional media ads, your display windows, or you and your staff members in person, they expect a single business image.
Be sure your online identity meshes with your off-line identity, right down to the style of typeface you use, the kinds of messages you present, and the way you display your business name and logo.
Don’t ignore the fact that more than eight out of ten smart phone owners search from their phones while they’re shopping, traveling, or otherwise away from their computers, even when they’re in their own homes. Make sure your site looks good on mobile devices.
First impressions of your small business through e-mail
While businesses routinely format, proofread, print, and file traditional correspondence, they send e-mail messages spontaneously, often with no standard policy and rarely with a company record for future referral. Such an informal approach to e-mail is fine for thank-you notes or quick updates to customers, but what if the message includes a fee estimate or a notice that client-requested changes will result in an additional thousand dollars of expense? And what if the staff member who sent the e-mail is no longer with your company when the customer questions the bill?
For the sake of your business, set a few e-mail guidelines:
Unify all company e-mails by use of a common signature. A signature or sig is a few lines of text that appear at the end of every e-mail message. The signature usually includes
The name of the person sending the message
Your business logo
A tag line that tells what your business does
Your business address, phone number, and website
Often a promotional message or offer
You can create a signature in almost any e-mail program. Go to the help function for instructions.
Set a tone and style for e-mail messages. In well-managed businesses, traditional letters go out on company letterhead, use a consistent typeface and style, and employ clear, professional language. Consider e-mail a dressed-down version of your formal correspondence. It can be more relaxed and more spontaneous, and it can (and should) be more to the point — but it can’t be impolite or unprofessional.
Respond to e-mail within 4 hours, even if your response is simply a one-line note that offers a complete answer within days. An e-mail that isn’t answered promptly falls into the same category as phone calls that are placed on endless hold or long, slow-moving lines at the cash register. The customer service impact is devastating.
Back up e-mail messages so they’re accessible should an employee quit or not be available when a customer questions a pricing, delivery, or other promise made through e-mail communications.
Consider establishing business-wide e-mail standards. Keep e-mail messages short, encourage the use of greetings and standard punctuation, and limit the use of emoticons. Also avoid colored backgrounds or graphics that make messages slow to download on customer computers or mobile devices.