Protecting Your Social Identity: Six Steps to Saving Your Business

According to a 2012 Social Media report from Nielsen Media, Americans spent about 121 billion minutes on some form of social media.  Men spend an average of 6:44 (minutes:seconds) and women 9:43 a day.  That’s time they spend socializing and also researching and learning about your company.  Based on trends and research, the breadth, depth and time spent will continue to increase for the next ten years.

That online or Social Identity is a unique creation of only the last five years.  Social Identity is how a diverse audience perceives your business. In the past that audience might have been limited to people in your community.  No more, however, due to social media channels such as Twitter, Pinterest and Facebook reaching audiences of a billion plus.  When social media started to include businesses, it was generally with local brands such as neighborhood stores and Retail outlets. Why? We are social creatures. We choose to live together and find ways to share our experiences. This becomes a challenge and your opportunity.  Some might call this your brand.

However, Social Identity is much more than brand.  Brands are products or services that you put out under a given name.  It’s all about you the business owner.  Social Identity encompasses brand and includes the opinions, feelings and feedback that a wide audience (and not necessarily your customers) has about you.  It’s a conversation between acquaintances.

As an independent retailer some may equate you, the owner, to the business itself. Whether you are a one or a 50-person operation, this is not the reality that customers experience.  Your Social Identity is tied to the experience they have when interact with everyone around you, including other customers.  It’s up to you to curate that identity.  If you don’t, the consequences can be severe.

Social Identity defines who you are, your credibility and the ability for people (potentially millions) to connect to you and your brand network both literally and figuratively. Today, “Social Identity” as found in Facebook, Pinterest and popular media is woven into the fabric of society.

Here are some steps to help you curate your social identity.

1.       Define It: “Living our Values”

What are your values and how do you want to be experienced? Make your messaging and values simple and ensure everyone who in the company knows them. Ensure that everyone knows and uses the same tone and phrasing.  One method is to create a list of common phrases that identity your business (“First Time Right,” “The best fit,” “Convenient shopping for working parents”) and then turn them into hash tags.  Hash tags (e.g., #BestFit) are phrases starting with the # symbol.  This lets online media sites link these phrases together for easy searching.  They are memorable and give your identity weight and depth. There is no need for perfection, try different messaging often enough to absorb the feedback and move on.

Have everyone write in the same voice.

2.      Make it Authentic

Once you start writing it’s easy to turn every interaction with a customer into a pitch. “We have the largest selection of artisan cheeses in the Midwest.”  Perhaps you do but this sounds like every other pitch.  Try giving a 140-character description of the newest cheese you’ve brought in, or suggest a helpful hint such as food pairing.  This goes along way online and we get republished (pinned, re-tweeted) by fans and unknown foodies alike.

By being as authentic online as you are in-store, you being to do something very key to your social identity.  Your identity and voice are established such that when people hear something about you, they can make a judgment if this “sounds like something Mindy’s Knitting and Supplies would say.”

Some food for thought.  Recently, the US economy experienced a 143-point drop in the Dow Jones Industrial Average.  Hackers sent a message from the Twitter feed of the Associated Press (AP), saying two explosions had hit the White House and that President Obama was injured. The power of 140 characters impacted millions of lives, because the social identity of the source (AP) is so well established.

Associated Press employees immediately corrected the fake tweet and the market recovered within 48 hours. Consider what would have happened if AP had no social identity or was known for frequent inaccuracies.  The corrected tweet would have sown doubt, potentially making things worse.

3.      Practice Social Listening

Sam, a local lawn care service owner got a call from a friend. There were “horrible reviews” about his company posted to Yelp, an online business review site.  Sam looked up the reviews; “poor service,” “show up at odd hours,” “lawn bags left in the yard.”  The problem, none of these reviews were from customers he recognized.  After some poking around, Sam found that a work crew was taking equipment home over the weekend. They were lining their own pockets and destroying his reputation.

People will talk about you and you cannot and should not try to control it.  Just as you listen to in-store feedback, make it a point to listen first.  Social media is a dialogue; make it simple to connect with you. Setting up email or a Twitter handle allows everyone to have a common way to communicate with you and other customers. Your customers are your biggest advocates and they will defend you online once you’ve gained their trust.

Online services such as Visible Technologies, Radian6 and HootSuite ( provide a common dashboard of social media sites for you to listen to the conversations and respond.  Most of HootSuite’s services are free and you can search for topics, handles and hash tags.  You can provide a lot of far reaching customer services for a very low cost.  It’s also easy to get sucked in to spending hours reviewing and responding.  Budget time every day or week to manage your social identity.

By making your social identity authentic you don’t need to respond to every customer complaint or request.  Sometimes your network will do it for you.

4.      Identify Your Network

There are a lot of clichés about being known by the company you keep. Just as location, location, location was important when you chose the site for your store; you are identified by many factors.  Neighborhood, clientele, business partners, sub-contractors and the type of goods you sell.

Take an inventory and map out all of those relationships.  There’s a common technique known as “mind mapping” where you start with a theme in the center and draw linked bubbles to other ideas.  Place the picture in a place is easily seen by everyone managing your Social Identity.

Your network can both help and hinder your identity.  One of the best support structures is your local chamber of commerce.  Chambers have been doing this type of social identity management long before the Internet.

5.      Manage it. Don’t try to control it

Start small and focused.  Registering for online social media sites is easy and generally free, the natural reaction is to set up as many as possible.  People hear that results from LinkedIn, a business network site, are like “drinking from fire hose.”  It’s easy to get doused and do a poor job trying to manage too many channels.  Start with one or two at first; don’t be afraid to shut some down until you are able to master the nuances of each one.  Some businesses hire agencies or others to help them.

Knowing whom to trust with your identity and partnering with them in a way that is meaningful to you is equally important.  Recently, Mountain Dew commissioned rapper Tyler, the Creator to develop a TV commercial for them. PepsiCo (Mountain Dew’s parent company) let Tyler run unchecked. PepsiCo was forced to apologize after reviewers branded the commercial as misogynistic and racist. Dew loyalists were mixed on Facebook and Twitter. While many criticized, many still remained loyal to the brand.  Over the years, Mountain Dew has established an edgy identity that brought loyal fans to its defense.  Had PepsiCo jumped in themselves and tried to justify or ignore the feedback, the long-term results might have been severe.

6.      Curate Your Data Privacy

Data privacy is your ability to control sensitive information about your business.  No matter the size or scale, your business has some secret sauce or other information that should be kept private.  In todays always on, always-connected world managing your privacy is more difficult than ever.

With smartphones our location, meetings and relationships are often in the public domain and easily retrieved.  Think about when and if you need to “check in” or tweet out your location.  The same goes for your employees when on company business. Go back to item 1 regarding your online identity.

Final Thoughts 

Curating your identity allows you to better control what information release and when.

Think you can’t manage your Social Identity? Mega-coffee house Starbucks manages their social identity with five people, as reportedly by the Seattle Times.  As an independent retailer, you’ve chosen the uncommon path to success; this is only one more step along your journey.

Contributed to Retail Minded by Lawrence I Lerner, a global change agent, who is President of LLBC,llc.  Lawrence engineers opportunity through change and can be contacted through his website  Follow him on Twitter @RevInnovator. 

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