It used to be that only big companies needed to worry about their brand. Small- and medium-sized businesses were off the hook and free to humbly market their companies offline to folks within a certain storefront radius. But then the Internet happened. And social media. And it changed everything. Today, even small businesses need to be vigilant about their brands. The fact that you're smaller means you're also more susceptible to pesky rumors, loud customer service complaints and customers getting vocal about bad experiences. A big company can shrug off those losses in sales. You can't. Every dollar and customer counts. Social media has given each one of your customers a megaphone and you need to make sure they're saying the right things. You need to be proactive about building and managing your online reputation. Protect Your Brand Before you even start building your brand, you should be taking steps to protect it. It's absolutely essential that you're in control of your name, and in the online world, that means securing it everywhere. Grab a Wordpress account, a Twitter account, a YouTube account, and all the other available social media accounts still available. It may sound silly to register accounts you don't think you'll use, but it's better to have them and not use them, then to let a possible competitor brandjack them for their own use. Just because you don't see yourself creating a Flickr strategy today, doesn't mean you won't find a good use for one a few months from now. It's better to have the account than to not. You can check availability on all the major social networking sites at once using the username check site KnowEm. KnowEm even offers a premium service where they'll go out and register all those profiles for you. For anyone who's ever spent a day registering social media account after social media account, you know it's a headache spared. Build Your Brand Once you've taken the steps to protect your brand, work to build it up. When someone does a search for your company or brand in Google, you want them to find you. Not an impostor. Claim your search engine space by: Listing your small business in the local indexes Starting a blog Guest posting on other blogs Writing articles for industry publications Create speaker profiles for any local events and optimize them for your company name Creating YouTube videos and Flickr images with your company name in the title All of these small steps will help ensure that a customer looking for you will find you. It's a combination of SEO and online reputation management. Monitor What People Are Saying Someone from your company should be in charge of keeping an eye on the blogosphere, the Web and Twitter to monitor all brand mentions. There are lots of ways to track brand mentions but most small businesses will find the majority of their bases covered with Google Alerts. If you haven't used it before, Google Alerts is a powerful free tool from Google that allows you to set up alerts in a number of different verticals. News Alerts track Google News Blog Alerts track Google Blog Search Group Alerts track Google Groups Video Alerts track Google Video Comprehensive Alerts track EVERYTHING! Once set up, Google gives you the option to receive alerts daily or as they happen and will deliver them via email or RSS. To keep an eye on your brand, set up alerts for your company name, your important and public employees, etc. You may also want to track competitors, keywords, important industry names, etc. If you're company is doing a lot of blogging, you may also want to set up alerts on Technorati and Blog Pulse. And if you're on Twitter, you should set up some saved Twitter searches, as well. Responding to Criticism Chances are most of your online mentions will be positive. You'll find people talking gloriously about how great your product is and how wonderful the service is. But this is the Internet. It won't all be roses. When you come across a customer who is genuinely upset or feels wronged, reached out to them and try to make amends for whatever happened. Be genuine. Apologize for what went wrong and offer a plan for moving forward - whether it's a free meal the next time around, a discount or just a real promise that they'll be treated with extra care when they next come in. It costs a lot less to keep that old customer than to try and convert a new one. It will also shows others just seeing that complaint that you care and tried to make things better. If you find a blog post where someone is misstating the facts or spreading false information, enter the discussion and correct it. Identify that you work for the company in question and be informative without being defensive. The minute it sounds like you're being defensive, you make the situation worse. Not all situations deserve a response, though. If you find someone making an outrageous complaint, research their name or user name before you respond. Is the person really upset with you or do they just have a habit of "trolling" the Internet causing a ruckus and making crazy comments? If it's the later, ignore it. Oftentimes, giving attention to someone looking for a spotlight makes things worse, not better. Social media and the Web have made it possible for our customers to talk about our brands all over of the Web. As a small business, it's your job to monitor what's being said so you can actively and protect your brand.