Small Business and Big Social Media
The simple reality is, there simply are not enough hours in a day to manage your business AND be your own online marketer. Between a business website, blogging, Facebook, TikTok, Twitter, Instagram and the myriad of others, most small business owners lack the time and/or know how to make a splash in the crowded online world. As a result, many businesses outsource their online marketing, social media and cloud-based services to someone else, whether it be an employee or a third-party provider.
Now don’t get us wrong; being able to properly delegate tasks is one of the most useful skills in business. But delegating your web presence requires some forethought that many small businesses fail to realize until its too late. In this article, I want to warn you about issues that can crop up when using anyone — whether employees or independent contractors — for online marketing, cloud-based services, social media and more. It’s not a legal issue per say, although as a law firm, we’re seeing this problem time and again. (For more information on third party vendors, see our August article entitled Don’t Get Screwed – Managing Website Vendors, which addresses the issues of hiring independent contractors for your website.)
Outsourcing and Delegating
What am I talking about? Business owners get busy. Between juggling the demands of their customers and payroll, they are too busy to pay attention to their online efforts and cloud-based activities. So, the business owner delegates these responsibilities. Delegating is good! Proper delegation is both art and science, and it’s an invaluable tool for small business owners who recognize their strengths and weaknesses. However, it’s wise to have a system of checks and balances to avoid instances of corporate theft.
Many business owners have tons of precautions and check and balances in place when it comes to their money, but fail to take the same precautions in other, often equally important areas. Yes, I am referring to your Internet presence. Oftentimes, business leaders delegate Internet-related tasks with little to no oversight. So, when something goes wrong (and it will), critical accounts, systems and channels are usually disrupted — spelling a loss of revenue and/or reputation.
For example; what happens if the employee you have delegated to manage your Facebook takes off without telling you the passwords? What happens if your third-party website builder royally screws up and drops off the face of the Earth? Can your business handle the ‘Social Media Divorce’?
The Social Media Divorce
Take for example, one of our clients. They are in broadcasting, and started learning how to make significant revenue by posting their videos on YouTube.com. Unsurprisingly it takes quite a bit of work to establish and manage a number of channels. YouTube makes it quite difficult to manage a large number of different channels with the same YouTube account. So our client entrusted their employees to create and manage different accounts for its different YouTube channels. Those employees worked diligently, creating several emails to manage the many accounts, sometimes using personal or “dummy” email accounts setup specifically for this purpose. Unfortunately, between YouTube changing ownership and changing account information, and the natural cycle of employees out of the company, our client found themselves locked out of their own account. Things were further complicated when our client ultimately lost access to the email addresses that were used as the underlying basis for some of its YouTube accounts. Ultimately, when our client eventually forgot a few passwords, it became literally impossible to gain access to important YouTube channels. Now that YouTube is part of the Google colossus, it practically takes an act of Congress to get them to change a lost email address associated with an account.
As another example, a client of ours has a significant brick-and-mortar chain of retail stores in Illinois. This client also started doing business on the Internet and, over time, their Internet business started bringing in more revenue than any single retail store they owned. The Internet business was managed by a few key employees and facilitated by a robust advertising campaign through a number of providers, a robust social media campaign and more. However, those key employees decided to go into business for themselves by setting up similar Internet storefronts for other retail establishments. The problem is, they left in a hurry, and didn’t provide any sort of transition plan for their employer. Worse, they used a hodgepodge of accounts and underlying email addresses to setup the vendor relationships, social media accounts and more. And worst still, some of the most important social media accounts to our client were actually “personal accounts” of their employees, which their employees “took with them” when they left their employment. This had a dramatic and immediate impact of reducing the overall “SEO placement” and online reputation of our client, significantly reducing their online sales and consequently, revenue.
Social Media Oversight
Doing business on the Internet is great, and you your business will be better because of it (see our article, No matter the size of your business, be online now). However, understand how difficult a ‘Social Media Divorce’ can be and don’t abdicate your oversight role when you do business on the Internet. Make sure you institute commonsense policies to prevent disruptions to your business. Treat your online activities like check-writing, and make sure you know what’s going on.
We recommend you consider adopting the following policies around your online activities including but not limited to online marketing, cloud-based services, social media and more:
- Use Your Own Domain Name – Are you using an email address that ends in @gmail.com, @yahoo.com, @aol.com, @hotmail.com or similar? If so, stop. You MUST get your own domain name and create email addresses using that domain name.
- Own Your Domain Name(s) – Do you own your own domain name? Are you (or your company) listed as the “Registrant?” If not, fix this immediately. NEVER let anyone, other then yourself or your business, own your company’s domain name. Google the word “whois”, go to a reputable vendor, and type in your company’s domain name(s) to check.
- Use Company Email Addresses for all Online, Cloud-based and Vendor Accounts – Make it a policy that all accounts are “associated with” or “owned” using a company-based email address. This is NOT an email address that ends with @gmail.com, @yahoo.com, @aol.com, @hotmail.com, etc, but an email address that ends in the domain name your company owns (see the first bullet above). Don’t let employees or contractors use their personal emails for company business or company accounts.
- Make Sure You Know How to Log Into Your Email Service – This is pretty straightforward. No matter how your email and domain name are managed, make sure you know what vendor or online service provides your email services, and make sure you know how to log-in, check, add and remove email addresses for your company.
- Never Use Personal Accounts for Business Needs – Make sure all social media accounts, online advertising accounts, online marketing accounts, cloud-based services and more, are all business accounts that are owned by your business. This is often hard for small business, because business accounts may cost more for some services, than they do for personal or individual accounts. Avoid the urge, and make sure your business is listed as the owner and use your company’s email addresses for the “owner,” “manager” or “main contact.” Don’t rely on an employee’s personal account to help with your business or your company. For example, don’t allow a personal employee to use their personal Facebook account to promote the business (other than a like). While this could help you in the short-term, that help will only last while they are your employee, and if you have a falling out that account can then be used against your company.
- Document Everything – Make it a habit for employees to report the accounts being used and keep the login credentials in a safe place. If you’re using “email aliases,” “email forwards,” or other similar mechanisms, please document this so you know why they are being used and what accounts rely on those forwards.
- Conduct Periodic Audits – Every month or quarter, spend time checking out your online accounts. Do they have the right contact information listed? Are there any warnings, logs or notices that need to be addressed?
- Pretend You are a Prospect – Try to find yourself on Google and Yahoo. What do prospective customers see? Are your ratings and reviews positive? Are all listings accurate with the correct contact information to reach your business? Are you missing anything? Also, when you search, consider these search strategies:
- Search for your company name directly. If you use DBA’s or abbreviations, try those too.
- Search for the products or services you sell. Without using your company’s name, can you find your company if you search for the products and/or services you offer?
- Search for key industry terms. What are the key industry terms used in your business, without mentioning your company’s names and the products and/or services you offer?
- Search for your competitors. Does your company come up as well? Are you shown in a similar light or is your company otherwise well represented?
By following the above policies and guidelines, you will minimize interruptions to your revenue and disruptions to your online presence. You will also potentially reduce your legal fees, by making it unnecessary to hire a firm such as L4SB to send out demand letters or otherwise attempt to wrest control of an important online account from a rogue employee or rogue business partner.
Still Have Questions?
Law 4 Small Business (L4SB). A little law now can save a lot later. A Slingshot company.