Keeping your ‘cred’ strong on social media

NOTE: This post was first published in the Nov. 14 edition of the Daily Herald Business Ledger

“It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.”
Warren Buffett uttered his famed quote well before the likes of Facebook and Twitter came onto the scene. But if the Oracle of Omaha were to factor in the impact social media is having on the way customers relate to business, he might revise his quote to “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and one tweet to ruin it.”
How your company is perceived on social media has become as critical — if not more — than how it is perceived in more traditional realms, according to Dale Obrochta, president of UnderstandingYourimage.com in Orland Hills. While many companies still look at social media as a fad — or even a threat — Obrochta points out it has become the next progression in the way business effectively deals with its customers.
“This is basically communication,” he said. “In the past, companies had a letter department. People would write letters to the company, and the company would have someone write a response.”
Letters gave way to the telephone and 800 numbers. Phones became replaced by websites and email. In fact, Obrochta predicts that in the next two to three years, businesses will be using social media the way they currently are using email.
“It is the email of the 21st century,” he said, “and businesses need to understand that.”
Because of the way social media works — primarily, groups of people who share similar interests among themselves in virtual ‘communities’ — businesses have a unique opportunity to establish and build reputation and credibility, which can help grow the customer base.
However, Obrochta said, it’s key that the business owner monitor how his company is being perceived on social media to assure the company’s brand and reputation are positive.
Again, he points out, this is a simple progression from more traditional methods.
Social media is your comment card,” he said. “If you do a search of your company on social media, you can see what people are saying about you, both good and bad.”
Addressing “the bad” directly is essential in maintaining reputation, Obrochta said. If people are complaining about your product or service, but it is an issue that’s affecting your entire industry, you have the opportunity to respond by saying you are not like the others, he said.
But, if the complaint or criticism is about your particular business or product, you need to address the problem.
Obrochta recommends you directly contact the person on the social media platform where the complaint is posted. Once there, acknowledge the problem, then give the person a way to address the issue directly with you, either through a phone call or email.
“What you’ve just done then is pulled that hostility off the Internet and drawn it into a phone call,” he said. “It is now in an environment that is one-to-one, instead of one-to-a-million.”
From there, you can work on a solution to the problem. Obrochta stresses you do not have to admit fault or blame, as long as you acknowledge there is a problem.
If the issue is resolved to the customer’s liking, Obrochta notes it can also turn into a positive spin for you.
“The odds are that they are going to go back online and tell everyone you did for them, and now you’ve built that positive PR again,” he said.
Above all, he notes, when you see negative comments about your business or products, resist the gut urge to defend yourself.
“As a business, the key thing is to get into these (social media) and listen,” he said. “And you should listen to see what the problem is.”
Obrochta highly recommends checking the social media site Yelp, which invites customers to write reviews of businesses they’ve dealt with.
You should also regularly monitor Twitter and Facebook, although Obrochta notes the latter has limitations in that you’re only in contact with those who have ‘liked’ your page.
Doing occasional web searches of your company name can also help you keep an eye on what people are saying.
Obrochta stresses that monitoring your company on social media is vital to maintain a relationship between your business and customers. Ignoring social media, he said, is akin to ignoring your customers.
“These are your customers. They are your clients. Why wouldn’t you want to make time for them?” he said. “People get frustrated when a company says they don’t have time to listen to the customer. So the customer says ‘if I can’t reach you, I’ll go on my Facebook page and say your product is lousy.’”
How a business projects itself in social media is as important to its credibility as how customers portray it.
Obrochta says that as more employees use social media for business and personal use, it becomes more important that the company establish rules of engagement to protect its credibility and reputation.
The best way to do that, he said, is to create a social media policy which establishes an etiquette of use, then educate your employees to make sure they understand what can and can’t be communicated.
“You are not trying to control them, but trying to educate them on how to present information out there,” Obrochta said. “You are already doing this with customer service. This brings customer service to social media.”
When dealing with social media, whether internal or external, you must always remember that you are talking to a crowd, not one-on-one.
How you respond to the crowd is important in order to build credibility among the community, Obrochta said.
“We tend to look at Facebook as a one-on-one,” he said. “But we forget it’s really one-to-many. That’s what your employees need to understand.”
His suggestion: When posting a comment or responding to someone, imagine there is a 4-year-old child, a priest, or someone you admire in the room with you. Respond the way you would to them.
“When you post, you will communicate in a manner that will resonate at that level, and your image will be intact.”

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Technology helps keep this long-distance relationship working

NOTE: Originally published in the Daily Herald Business Ledger Oct. 24, 2011

Your small company is located in suburban Chicago.
Your managing partner lives half a country away in California.
Your designers and programmers live half a world away in Ukraine.
These logistics alone can be daunting for any business owner, but it’s a balancing act Alena Tsimis and Olga Weiss deal with every day.
Tsimis and Weiss are managing partners of I Imagine Studios, an advertising/marketing company the two founded 10 years ago. The Evanston-based company has had a successful decade developing web-based marketing and advertising strategies for mid-size companies, landing clients ranging from kefir-based products maker Lifeway Foods of Morton Grove and Mount Prospect-based Salton Inc. to the Midtown Athletic Club in Chicago.
About three years after the company started, Weiss married and moved to Southern California. Though the partners were separated by more than 2,000 miles, they were determined to make the long-distance relationship work.
For that, they turned to technology.
Weiss works with the Evanston team from her office in Santa Monica, Calif., through Skype, the popular web-based videophone system. During a recent strategy meeting, Weiss worked with Tsimis and the I Imagine team to fine-tune and finalize plans for promoting and hosting Chicago Ideas Week, a weeklong innovation forum held earlier this month.
In addition to Skype, Tsimis said the firm also uses the web-based project management system Basecamp to develop, coordinate and keep track of projects among the staff of 20 employees and contractors spread out the company’s three locations. The program not only helps everyone stay on the same page with the company’s many projects, but it also allows the team to communicate directly with their clients, updating them on projects and getting feedback.
“Unfortunately, we’re not big enough to have our offices function independently, where (Weiss) can have her team and I can have mine,” Tsimis said. “We’re very much dependent on each other, so we have to learn how to work smart.
“We tried to find something that allows our team to work as a virtual team,” she added. “Our entire lives are spent on the Internet.”
Life on the Internet has helped I Imagine meet the challenge of the time differences between the three groups. With Weiss living two hours behind the home office and the Ukraine team living nine hours ahead, the company’s web-based tools keep everyone updated at any given time.
In some cases, Tsimis notes, the time differences have been beneficial on time-sensitive projects.
“Our clients know this and it can work to their advantage,” she said. “We can submit a project into Basecamp at 4 or 5 in the afternoon, and the job can be done by the next morning.”
While the firm spends most of its working life in the virtual world, Tsimis and her I Imagine team pride themselves on providing a “high touch” approach in their marketing and promotion efforts. The firm focuses on developing custom-designed websites and tools for its clients, the majority of whom Tsimis said fit with I Imagine’s mission of promoting better lifestyles.
“We believe marketing has a purpose to serve, and it’s not in developing bad habits, but in developing good habits that help people live healthy and happy lifestyles,” she said.
About 20 percent of I Imagine’s work is done pro bono for nonprofits, helping with specific causes. Among the groups the agency has worked with are Rotary International, the Emergency Fund for Needy People and the Homeless Connection. Their work includes developing a site for Rotary’s Kick Polio out of Africa campaign, which allows visitors to virtually autograph a soccer ball.
Tsimis points out that the company’s commitment to nonprofits stems from personal experience. She and Weiss became unemployed during the dot.com bubble bust, and they did volunteer work with the Rotary. When they created I Imagine, they folded that commitment to volunteerism into the company’s mission.
Despite the recession, I Imagine’s business has grown about 30 percent over last year, Tsimis said. Down the road, she looks to get the attention of more Fortune 1000 companies, especially those that have a focus on healthier lifestyle choices. She cites work being done by PepsiCo to provide a healthier lineup of snack and food items as an ideal future client.
“What they are doing goes beyond potato chips and soft drinks,” she said.
Most recently, Tsimis said, I Imagine has contracted with Laila Ali, professional boxer and daughter of boxing great Muhammad Ali, to develop a strategy for her new line of all-natural food products and cosmetics.
“We have been fortunate enough to have really good clients in that vein of health and wellness,” she said.
Having clients that fall into your mission helps create a stronger relationship, Tsimis said, as well as enhances the “high touch” personalized level of service the I Imagine provides.
“There is a saying that you can’t take your business personally,” she said. “I can’t do that. We take our business very personally.”