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July 5, 2016

Do you miss the old days? I’m talking about way back when the Earth was young, and your entire online presence consisted of a fairly static website that functioned as little more than a digital brochure for your store. As the web matured and you learned a little more about how to manage your web presence, you might have gotten really clever and started listing current product specials on your site—but that was about it, right?

Back then—when people still used the term “world wide web” (ask your parents if you have no idea)—having a presence on the web was all benefit and virtually no risk.

That seems like a long time ago from the perspective of an age when we see headlines like, “Pet Store Lets Aquarium Water Drop Two Inches; Twitter Explodes with Rage.” One of the reasons the internet is such a powerful force is that no one runs it, and virtually everyone can be heard on it, now that social media has largely democratized all forms of mass communication.

That’s also the reason the internet is wrought with peril for any business that has the potential to be mentioned on it—which is to say, any business in existence. You can’t really opt out. You can pass on having a web site, a Facebook page or a Twitter feed; they’re going to talk about you anyway. And there are virtually no rules to govern what they can say.

So how do you manage your reputation in the online world, which is about as close to the Wild West as public discourse gets?
No one has developed a definitive set of standards guaranteed to work all the time, but in my experience working in the online space, here are some approaches that will at least put you in a strong position to succeed:

1. Be proactive about having and making good use of your online presence. We are no longer in the era when you need to purchase advertising space from the local newspaper, radio station or TV station to get any mass exposure for your store. A page on Facebook is free; so is a Twitter feed. All you have to do is set it up. Of course, that doesn’t necessarily give you a leg up on your competitors, because they’ve all got Facebook and Twitter feeds, too. But they don’t all use them as well as they could. Social media allows you to say whatever you want, whenever you want and as often as you want. Running a special on cat toys? Say so. Overstocked with tropical fish and need to clear inventory? Announce it to the world. Just did something for the community and want people to know about it? Before you spend time and money on a press release in the hopes of getting some coverage, tell your fans and your followers.

Someone is going to drive the conversation about your pet store. Who do you want that to be? I’d say a pretty good choice for the job is you. The tools to do so are entirely at your disposal if you’ll only use them, and do so on a regular basis.

2. Monitor what’s being said about you and engage in the conversation when it makes sense—just don’t obsess over it. You can set up alerts using Google News searches and other tools so you know when people are talking about your store. And of course, you should always keep an eye on the comments on your own social media pages. When misinformation starts floating around about your store, social media provides an instant and theoretically effective way of correcting it. I say “theoretically” because no tool is more effective than a person’s skill at using it. If you’re defensive or arrogant in your engagement with others on social media, you will neither help your reputation nor convince anyone that negative information about you is false.

3. Remember that you’re dealing with animals, and that’s a sensitive subject with a lot of people. Whether you sell live animals or merely sell the products that help people care for them, what you do matters a lot to animal lovers. They’ll appreciate it if they believe you’re doing it well. They’ll jump all over you if they think you’re not. People are invested and sometimes emotional about animals’ well-being. That can provide an opportunity for you to help lead the online conversation about animal care and welfare, thus allowing you to become a go-to source for such information. Be sure you back up your words with actions, or the Internet can turn on you quickly.

4. If you find yourself at the center of an online firestorm, react swiftly and factually, but don’t overreact. If you did something wrong, vow to make it right, follow up quickly and let it be known when you did. If it’s a firestorm over nothing (and 90 percent of them are), remember that tomorrow’s firestorm will be about something else.

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