In the age of smartphones, Google searches, and Facebook apps, you're probably already highly aware of the importance of your business's online presence for attracting and retaining customers for your product or service. But did you know that your online presence can even impact your small business's chances of qualifying for a loan?
Especially with online alternative lenders, small business borrowers' online presence is becoming increasingly relevant to the underwriting process.
As Chris Capecelatro, Senior Underwriting Manager at Funding Circle, explains, "we know you're more than just a number: your personal credit score doesn't define you, or the potential of your business. That's why we look at unique factors that help us understand your character--not just your credit report. [...] Positive customer reviews on social media demonstrate your business's potential."
In many ways, this is great news for small businesses. It means your business amounts to more than just your credit score and annual revenue, and you have more control than ever over your ability to qualify for a loan.
But how exactly do you go about growing that online presence for your business in a way that actually improves your chances of financing? Follow these steps to take control of the online conversation surrounding your business.
1. Create Content That Starts Conversations
Of course, the first step in developing an online presence for your brand is to give your audience something to talk about, and an appropriate channel to engage in conversation. In addition to your company website, maintaining a corporate blog is a great way to educate your customers about your brand.
Don't be afraid to share your expertise and opinions on emerging trends here. Not everyone will agree with you, but at least they'll be listening. Customers don't engage with vague or watered down content.
At the same time, don't think of your content as a sales pitch. The most successful content looks to help and educate customers. No one wants to read--or share--a pushy commercial for your brand.
2. Give Your Brand a Distinct Voice
Is your brand casual and personable, or more corporate? Do you want to exude authority, or make your audience laugh? There's no right or wrong answer here. Your voice will depend on your industry, your target audience, and the personality of your team.
Most important is to decide who you are online, and then stick with that voice across all your social channels. A distinct personality lets your audience know what to expect from your brand and helps drive how your customers talk about you.
3. Take Advantage of Social Listening
For the purposes of securing a small business loan, what you're saying online is far less important than what your customers are saying about you. But, how do you know what customers are saying about you online, especially when they're not talking directly to you? The key is social listening.
Using a platform like Hootsuite or SproutSocial, you can input keywords related to your brand and industry and actually monitor what customers are saying about our brand in real time. You'll see both the good and the bad reviews, or you may even notice that no one is talking about you at all. This information will empower you to get ahead of the conversations, so you can regain more control of your brand's image online.
4. Proactively Engage Your Audience
Once you know what your customers are saying about you online, you can take steps to proactively start conversations directly with your audience. Take simple steps like thanking your new Twitter followers, thanking your audience for sharing your content, and "liking" or sharing positive comments about your brand.
Again, how exactly you engage with your audience will depend on your industry and your brand's voice. Are you fun and conversational, or keeping it professional? Either way, showing appreciation for your fans is key in turning customers into social media ambassadors for your brand.
5. Ask Happy Customers For Online Reviews
Along with social media channels like Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, underwriters may look at your ratings and customer reviews on sites like Yelp, Google Business, and Yellowpages.com. You don't necessarily need a heavily active presence on every one of these sites, but choose at least one to cultivate proactively, and monitor the others for commentary about your brand.
While you can't delete negative reviews, and fake or paid reviews are frequently caught and frowned upon by the platforms--you can ask your happy customers to review your business online. If you have a brick and mortar shop, put up a sign asking customers to write an online review. Do you primarily interact with customers online? Put a button on your website or in the signature of your email asking customers to review your business.
6. Take Ownership of Negative Reviews
Of course, along with those positive reviews from happy customers will inevitably come some less than stellar feedback. Sometimes this will take the form of constructive criticism, while in other cases you may see some all-out spite that feels offensive or unfair. Whatever you do, resist the urge to ignore that feedback, or to respond defensively.
Instead, take the opportunity to engage with that negative feedback, owning the problem and doing your best to offer a solution. As Jay Baer, digital marketing strategist and author of Hug Your Haters explains, "only 41 percent of people who complain on Facebook, Twitter, Yelp, TripAdvisor, and other review sites anticipate a response, [but] when they do receive a response, they're almost twice as likely to recommend the company afterward."
7. Prioritize Great Customer Service
In the end, online conversations about your brand are a direct reflection of your customer's day to day experiences. So while responding proactively to criticism is certainly important, your first priority should be to engage in great customer service from the start.
In the words of customer service expert Peter Shankman, "never confuse 'reacting on social media' with 'excellent customer service.' The more excellent your customer service, the less you have to react on social media."
8. Be Consistent With Your Online Presence
For most businesses, the greatest challenge to cultivating a positive, engaged online presence is consistency. After all, you're busy running your business, and maintaining a positive online presence requires a lot of time and energy.
Set a consistent, achievable routine for keeping up with online engagement, then be disciplined in your follow through. If you're strapped for time, hiring outside help may be worth the investment.
The benefits of cultivating an online presence for your business extend far beyond your chances of securing a small business loan. Ultimately, you're gaining customer loyalty and growing awareness for your brand. Not only will you secure that essential loan for your business, but you'll also far improve the potential of those funds for your organization's future growth.