In a file picture taken on Oct. 31, 2011, a passenger waits for Qantas flights to resume service at Sydney International airport. (MARIANNA MASSEY/MARIANNA MASSEY/AFP/Getty Images)

WEB STRATEGY

The 10 biggest mistakes small businesses can make online

The Globe and Mail

For the most part, small and medium-sized businesses tend to do a better job online than their supersized counterparts, despite having far fewer resources.

That’s in large part because small companies tend to be more nimble, and less likely to let terrible business strategy decisions trickle down the employee hierarchy unnoticed.

But that doesn’t mean small businesses always get it right when it comes to the Web, nor that there aren’t plenty of examples of big businesses getting it horribly wrong that small businesses can learn from.

Here are 10 of the biggest mistakes that companies can make when conducting business on the Web.

1: Terrible timing

This week, Australian airline Qantas decided to run a Twitter-based promotion asking users to post their dream in-flight experience using the #QantasLuxury hashtag.

The problem: The Qantas promotion came at a time when the airline was caught in a bitter labour dispute that had already resulted in plane groundings and plenty of angry customers.

To nobody’s surprise, users flooded the Qantas hashtag with overwhelmingly negative tweets, leading to exactly the wrong kind of publicity for the airline.

2: Biting off more than you can chew

Recently, British newspapers reported the cautionary tale of a baker who decided to drum up some hype for her business by offering up a sweet deal on Groupon’s British website: a dozen cupcakes for about a quarter of the regular price.

Like many small businesses, the baker was expecting to lose a bit of money on the Groupon deal in exchange for getting the word out about her company.

However, 8,500 Groupon users opted for the deal. The subsequent $50,000 loss basically wiped out the baker’s profits for the entire year.

3: Trying to silence critics

There’s no shortage of examples of companies trying to shut down critical debate of their business practices on-line -- and in almost every case, it only made things worse.

Intel tried closing its Facebook comments when it was the subject of criticism about mineral mining in regions of ongoing conflict, but that only caused critics to take their complaints to the wider Web, landing the story on blogs and news sites.

Everyone from Adidas to the makers of Chapstick has been accused of purging negative comments. A recent Ottawa Citizen analysis found that even the Canadian prime minister’s Facebook account has been quietly deleting some negative posts.

4: Phoning it in

Twitter and Facebook are littered with examples of pages and accounts set up by small businesses in an enthusiastic frenzy, used once or twice, and then left for dead.

Unlike big brands, which can count on thousands of followers even if they don’t engage with any of them, small businesses have to remain engaged online. If you can’t afford to put in the time to keep your social media accounts active, it’s probably not worth setting them up in the first place.

5: The opposite of phoning it in

If you run a plumbing business – even if it’s the greatest one in the world – you probably don’t need 45 different social media accounts. It won’t hurt to set them up, but you’ve got better things to do than spend eight hours a day updating your various statuses.

6: Poorly thought-out campaigns

Following the crippling earthquake in Japan earlier this year, the people running the Twitter account for Microsoft’s Bing search engine thought they had a pretty good idea on their hands.

They posted a note saying they’d donate a dollar to the earthquake victims for every time the note was retweeted, up to a maximum of $100,000.

Problem was, lots of people immediately wondered why the company couldn’t just give the $100,000 regardless. In other words, why try to turn a tragedy into a marketing opportunity?

Bing quickly apologized, and did end up donating the $100,000 anyway.

7: Minimal research

If you’ve thought of it, chances are somebody else on the Internet has, too.

That’s the lesson on-line movie shop Netflix learned when it tried to introduce a new name for its DVD rental business -- Qwikster.

It’s a pretty catchy name, but nobody at the company thought to see if it had already been taken on Twitter.

Turns out it had, to hilarious effect, by some guy whose avatar photo depicted Elmo smoking a joint.

Needless to say, a little bit of research before the fact could have saved Netflix quite a bit of embarrassment.

8: Bloated websites

If you’re a small business, chances are your customers aren’t visiting your website to check out the latest in cutting-edge Web design technology. They probably just want some information, quickly and easily.

Remember that a growing number of your customers are starting to access your site from their small screens, such as smartphones, while others may be using old hardware that isn’t capable of running high-end graphics. A five-minute Flash animation opening screen will probably not sit well with either of those groups.

9: Lacklustre security

If you’re going to have multiple online points of contact with your customers, you’d better have a pretty good idea just who’s managing them.

There are plenty of cases where malicious actors from outside the company have managed to hack into and subsequently deface various company websites.

Just as big a threat is internal sabotage. A Vodafone UK employee got his hands on the company Twitter account last year and decided to post a note we can’t even reprint in this article. The company quickly deleted the post, but not before thousands of users had seen it.

Needless to say, a stream of apologies from the company soon followed.

10: Absence

As much as the online world is rife with potential missteps and embarrassing mistakes, not engaging at all is an even worse option.

It won’t be long before the majority of consumers look to sites such as Yelp and social networks such as Twitter for recommendations about virtually every purchase they make.

Not having a presence on, or at least an awareness of those technologies, is a surefire way of losing touch with your customers.

Other stories can be found on the Web Strategy section of the Report on Small Business website .

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