Earlier this week I attended a Social Media Aggregation meeting hosted by the American Marketing Association of Portland. The speaker was Keith Gerr and he covered topics that ranged from Twitter use to tools that can simplify the management of all your social media outlets. This was the second meeting/workshop I have been to on social media in the past month so I really feel like I am getting a hang of this stuff. (At least I think).

These days one can’t help but notice the astounding growth that has taken place in the social media arena. 5 years ago the market leader was MySpace. MySpace claimed to have been “A place for friends” but over the years they alienated their users with slow load speeds, accounts riddled with viruses and an extremely offensive, in your face advertising campaigns. That allowed for some of the barriers of entry to be taken down and in waltzed facebook. Today facebook is the #1 social media portal. They offer an easy to user interface, less offensive advertising and far fewer account viruses.

There are also other types of social media portals like yelp, merchant circle, Google business pages, city search, and more. With these types of portals more and more consumers are taking to the internet before they buy. This has completely changed the business world and it is my theory that it will continue to change the business world more and more.

Lets say five years from now when you are on vacation skiing over in Bend, Oregon, your car breaks down. All signs point to the alternator so you need to get it fixed before you can drive home. Where do you take the car? You are from out of town, have no idea what credible shops you can go to and are afraid of getting ripped off. Time to pull out the phone turn on your internet browser. You Google “auto repair, bend, or” and it pulls up a list of shops and their relative distance from you. Next to that list of shops are customer reviews and ratings. It is a complete aggregation of feeds ranging from twitter to merchant circle and Yelp. But you notice something strange… every shop has a customer rating of at least 4 stars out of 5. How can that be?

My theory is that in the very near future all business will be essentially self regulated by the consumer. The internet has leveled the playing field in the game of “un-knowledgeable consumer vs. Greedy and corrupt merchant”. When your car is broken down you will be able to turn to the internet for guidance.

So why are all the auto repair stores rated at least a 4 out of 5? That is because social media will force bad business either out of business or into a better business model. There will be two choices that businesses can make: Shape up or ship out. Once people become accustomed to the idea of researching a business before engaging in a relationship, there will no longer be bad business as evolution will have weeded out the weak in a strange form of survival of the fittest. The end result will be a safer environment for the consumer and a more even playing field for competing businesses. Everyone wins!

There is a catch though. As my old man pointed out, when I presented my theory to him, that people could simply create fake reviews under fake accounts to boost their ratings. I know this is currently a problem and is something Angie’s list attempts to address (though in my opinion it does not work). The difference in the future, though, is that these feeds will be aggregated by Google into a very easy to read summary right next to your search engine results. You will be looking at reviews from so many sources that it will be very difficult to manipulate these manually.

So as a business owner what can you take away from this? It is important that you understand just how powerful the internet can be. Like in the old days when a person’s reputation was so important, now your online reputation is important. Do a test right now and Google your business name and location. So, if you own a plumbing company you would search “Joe’s Plumbing, Portland, Oregon”. If you did this right it should pull up a listing of your business and include customer reviews. How many reviews do you have? Are they good or bad? What are people saying about your business? If you do not have any reviews this is both good and bad. It is good because you can start out with a clean slate. It is bad because it tells the consumer you are small time and not big enough for anyone to review your business. Ask some happy customers to go on and review your business.

What else can I do to stay on top in the Social Media world? You can start by creating a Twitter account, Facebook page, Yelp Page, Merchant Circle account and more. You can also search your business and find out what people are saying about you. Go to http://www.socialmention.com and do some research on your company and your competitors. Another great tool is Google News Alerts. Check out their site and setup a news alert for your business, your competitors and your industry. Every time your alert is mentioned online you will get an email alert from Google right into your inbox.

The biggest takeaway you should get from this is that the world is becoming smaller and smaller and it is important to always ask yourself how your actions are going to be viewed by your customers. Unfortunately an unhappy customer is much more dangerous nowadays than they were 20 years ago. With Social media customers now have a very powerful voice and can change the course of your business with the click of a mouse.

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