Track what your customers say about you

The Web empowers customers to praise - or pummel - your business. Be prepared.

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Pete Blackshaw, author of
Online review sites like Yelp can build your business or sink it - one bad review can scare off a stampede of potential customers.More

(Fortune Small Business) -- In his new book, web analyst Pete Blackshaw hails the rising influence of customer-opinion Web sites and blogs, and argues that small-business owners can profit from joining the online discussion.

Blackshaw, an executive at Nielsen Online in Cincinnati, is the author of, named one of the top 100 marketing blogs by Advertising Age magazine. His book Satisfied Customers Tell Three Friends, Angry Customers Tell 3,000 (Doubleday, $21.95) will be published in July. Blackshaw spoke with contributing editor John J. Curran.

How do you define consumer-generated media?

There are probably over 100 million blogs in the U.S. alone. Then you've got tens of millions of MySpace sites and Facebook pages. About 60% of Americans are putting content on the web, and it can affect how your product or service is perceived in the marketplace. Consumers trust each other more than they trust advertisers or businesses. The question is, How do you turn it to your advantage?

It's a big deal for GM (GM, Fortune 500) or Pepsi (PBG, Fortune 500). But small business?

Small business especially is heavily dependent on favorable testimonials, as I learned when I was starting a small Internet company. Today's online forums such as or allow consumers to give a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down to local service providers. Business owners can make positive comments work to their advantage, but negative reviews can create big problems. In just a quick scan of Web sites this morning, I saw a bridal boutique being attacked on, a VoIP service under siege on, and a lot of bad press for a jeweler on

What should small-business owners be doing?

Have mechanisms in place to monitor conversations about your brand. You can set up Google (GOOG, Fortune 500) Alerts, which scans websites for your company's name and will send you a daily e-mail with these mentions, or use a search engine like Technorarti, which monitors blogs. If someone pans your business, use that criticism to identify and fix problems. Further, if your company is accused of wrongdoing, it's important to respond. Say a blog wrongfully asserts that your staff is unethical. You could counter that accusation and provide a link to your ethics policy.

How can business owners be proactive?

One way is for CEOs to maintain blogs. You can find out what customers think about your business before their opinions end up on online forums, where they can cause damage. Beyond that, when blogging, be honest and balanced. For instance, occasionally acknowledge areas in your business that need improvement. If you are always cheerleading, you may not win the credibility with your customers that you are seeking. To top of page

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