Marketing has lots of ups and downs. You'll have some days where the visitors are flowing, comments are trickling in, and your ROI soars through the roof, and some days where it seems like everything has dried up. It happens. It's the nature of the beast.

Unfortunately, there are bigger downturns than just a temporary decrease in traffic or conversions. A mistake, or a flaw, or even a bad coincidence could wind up becoming a nightmare for your brand--putting you in a delicate position, and putting your company's reputation on the line. In the online marketing world, these nightmares can happen in an instant, and how you respond to them can mean the difference between a lasting legacy and just a temporary setback:

1. There's a Problem With Your Product. Your product isn't perfect, no matter how highly you think of it. If you sell something tangible, your factory might ship out a faulty batch. If your product is a piece of software, there may be a critical bug you didn't catch in your QA testing. The sad fact is, eventually a problem like this is going to come up, and when it does, your users will be there to hold you accountable, possibly making negative social media posts or submitting bad reviews.

Your first step is to gain control of the problem. For example, if your software is down, get your developers on it as soon as possible. If there's a problem in production, shut it down before any more defective items ship out. Then, be transparent with your audience; admit your mistakes, and let people know what's going on. From there, you can make it up to them with discounts, rebates, or value-adds.

2. You Offended Your Audience. This happens from time to time, even if you didn't mean to. You might make a joke that seems innocent but comes off as disrespectful or callous. You might use a hashtag inappropriately and end up offending a major portion of your audience. You might even accidentally post a message or picture on the wrong account.

Again, the first step to remedy this situation is damage control; remove the offending post. But as a follow-up, don't try to cover things up--that will only make things worse. Instead, acknowledge the mistake and make a public apology. Explain the situation if necessary, and do your best to address as many individuals as possible to restore their faith in your brand. Strive to add an extra layer of checks and balances so such a mistake doesn't happen in the future.

3. You Got Caught Lying. Maybe you didn't intend to lie, but something you posted ended up being untrue. For example, you might have cited a statistic or made a claim in a piece of content you wrote that is inaccurate, or you might have announced a speculative launch date that you ended up having to delay. It isn't fun to be caught in this position, since users will likely lash out and accuse you of being untrustworthy, but there are ways to reduce the damage here.

If possible, make a justification for the error--maybe you drew upon an outside source that was faulty, or perhaps you made the best estimate you could at the time. Then, openly acknowledge the mistake--it shows humility, and will serve to personalize your brand.

4. A Competitor Is Outdoing You At Every Turn. When you make an update, they make a better one. When you come up with a contest, they offer one with a better prize. You get 100 shares, and they get 1,000. No matter what you do, it seems like you can't catch up with this competitor.

The straightforward answer here is to step up your efforts. Increase your budget and diversify your resource pool to offer even better content, ads, and values for your customers. Beyond that, your best bet is to simply differentiate yourself--remove yourself from the competition by tackling a different niche or targeting a different audience.

5. You Aren't Making Any Money. This is the worst nightmare for any marketer; at the end of the month, or at a turning point of the campaign, you calculate all your costs and all the new revenue you've generated, only to find out that you're spending way more than you're earning. Since the primary objective of a marketing campaign is to earn money, this is bad.

Fortunately, there are a few ways to address this, but they all boil down to a single idea: change something. What you have obviously isn't working, so the only way to turn it into something that can work is to make an adjustment. You don't have to overhaul everything all at once, but you do have to adopt something new. Otherwise, you'll be repeating the same mistakes ad infinitum.

One of the best ways to mitigate the effects of these online marketing nightmares is to prevent them entirely; proactively self-auditing and learning from your mistakes can go a long way in limiting future disasters. However, no matter how careful you are or how professionally your campaign is put together, there will always be a risk for one of these nightmares to crop up. All you can do is respond quickly, thoroughly, and with your audience in mind. Don't let a temporary hindrance become a permanent stain on your reputation. For help designing and executing a winning marketing campaign, grab my eBook, The Definitive Guide to Marketing Your Business Online.

Published on: Mar 21, 2016
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.