Digital presence = Yellow Pages for your business!

Entrepreneurs who do not sell on the Internet and therefore do not have a merchant account often ask me if they need a digital presence. The answer: a resounding yes!

Customers and clients use the Internet the way people used the Yellow Pages a generation ago, only more so. The lack of a website hides the entrepreneur from a large and growing segment of the marketplace. Demographers tell us that Millennials are now the largest age group in the United States. This generation has never known a world that was not interconnected via the World Wide Web.

Every business therefore needs to have a Web presence in order to be found by these consumers. Millennials live in referral networks based on peer affiliations.  Social media rating services such as Yelp! provide nearly instant feedback and referrals to would-be purchasers of goods and services, which means digital-savvy businesses have a competitive advantage, if they use it wisely.

We have all heard that bad news travels faster than good news. Well, guess what? Today bad news travels instantly and propagates throughout the customer’s network of contacts and affiliations at the speed of light. Companies need to monitor the Web for any mention of their business, products, services and people to proactively respond to any less-than-favorable mention. A failure to do so can result in major brand damage.

Large companies are not immune to this issue. Take the case of United Airlines. A few years ago, the manner in which they handled a customer-service issue went viral. Musician Dave Carroll watched bag handlers throw his $3,500 guitar during a stopover on his flight to Nebraska, and after the arguing with the airline for a year, he took his case to social media. His song about the incident has more than 15 million hits on YouTube.

This famous example illustrates the point that insensitivity to the power of digital media can be disastrous to a company’s bottom line. This customer’s frustration produced more than just embarrassment — it drove down the price of the airline’s shares.

What all of this means to the entrepreneur is that it is best to start early in building a Web presence that supports and reinforces your brand image; to monitor closely how your company is portrayed in blog posts, tweets, Instagrams and other media; and to pay attention to complaints.

Entrepreneurs who fail to do so play “Russian roulette” with the viability of their enterprises.

“Getting Started” is an entrepreneurship column by the faculty of the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University. Professor of Practice Michael Denning teaches entrepreneurship and marketing and is a frequently quoted business expert.

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