Online Image – Why you can’t just fake it ‘til you make it.

Flipping through catalogs, or even Facebook, at this time of year – where the Christmas presents are perfectly wrapped and the gift recipients border on looking genetically engineered, has got me thinking.

On some level we all know that those Pottery Barn Kids duvet covers aren’t really about keeping your kiddo warm, but about representing some type of perfectly ordered and stylish life.  Or, that no one looks as good as Heidi Klum – but even she’s got studio lighting, a professional photographer and a designer wardrobe to highlight the amazing genetics she’s got working in her favor.

So, when we are on the other side of the equation, trying to create an ad or a blog post or Facebook posting to promote a small or midsized business, what are we to think?  Do we bust out all the fancy tricks and make our businesses look bigger than we are?  Do we hire actors to promote our products?  How do you strike a balance between putting the best version of your online image out there, without ringing hollow?

Here are some tips to making sure your online image delivers the desired results:

  • Tell the Truth.  The internet can work fast and fierce.  That’s great when you have an amazing story to tell, product to sell and a warehouse full of inventory ready to go.  Rarely do things line up so nicely.  But, don’t be tempted to over-promise – on delivery, quality, or your level of expertise. You might get initial orders, but you won’t be in business long once word spreads about your company not telling the whole story.   Think about it this way – have you ever bought something from an eBay seller with a poor review? In the online marketplace, reviews are one of the few things new customers have to go on.  Not every product is top of the line and that’s ok.  There are lots of consumers out there looking for other options.  But, no one is happy if they thought they were getting luxury goods and end up with pleather.
  • Share your enthusiasm – judiciously.  You are in business for a reason, and while your customers may not share your passion they will appreciate you for it. Do: blog and tweet about things in your industry that excite you AND solve problems for your customers.  Don’t: show yourself engaging in personal pursuits that may not line up with your customers’ values.   Showing yourself at a convention for your industry shaking hands with a celebrity: do!  Trashing a sports franchise or spouting out your feelings on a political hot topic: don’t even think about it!
  • Make it a conversation: Let people be heard and get people talking.  Ask questions or seek insight from your audience.  Join groups on linked in and Google to be part of the community. Even if you don’t get a lot of response at first, it will help people begin to start thinking about your company. And, if it does get a big response you’ll know you’re onto something.  Just as importantly, make sure to respond to both positive and negative comments. This also means truthfully (but positively) addressing negative concerns. It is much easier, and sadly more common, for people to take the time to say something negative, so invest your energy in finding things with a positive spin – a charitable cause you support, or a photo contest for your following, and nip negative comments in the bud.

In conclusion, it is important to put the best vision of your company out there: use good photography, seek solid reviews, speak clearly and thoughtfully to present your products in a favorable light.  But, don’t oversell an image that you can’t possibly live up to, or turn potential customers off because of your views on an unrelated topic. Those things erode trust rather than build it.  Also, having confidence in what you do well will gain a loyal following for the long term.  As the SEO industry experts like MOZ keep touting; genuine, useful content is what will get you noticed.

Write blogs that solve your customer’s problems or answer their questions about your area of expertise. Use Pinterest to show pictures of your best products being used in new ways.  Bring a fresh perspective and enthusiasm to your online audience and engage them.  Then the relationships will be genuine, and the smiles – both yours and your customer’s – will be real.

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