Consumers are no longer relying solely on the advice of sales clerks and recommendations from friends for purchases, whether theyre buying natural health products, cars or the latest tech gadgets.
A whopping 73 percent of Americans and 60 percent of global shoppers research online before buying health and beauty products, clothes, shoes and toys, according to a 2012 survey by PricewaterhouseCoopers.
And they believe what they read. Seventy-two percent of buyers trust online reviews and 70 percent trust consumer opinions posted online, according to a recent Nielsen Global Trust in Advertising Survey.
If you want to be in the game, its important to ensure people are saying good things about your products and company online, whether its on websites that encourage user reviews, such as Google+ Local, or social networking sites, such as Facebook and Twitter.
Sadly, disparaging reviews and comments can be unwarranted. A competitor looking to hurt your reputation, a disgruntled employee, or a customer who chooses to rant to the public before bringing his complaint to you can all cost you dearly in future business.
Others may be based on very real complaints, which are no less troubling!
What can you do to protect yourself?
First, be proactive.
· Make sure you always have plenty of positive reviews and comments: Lots of good reviews can out-shout one negative one. Make a practice of asking your happy customers to post their reviewsa good goal to shoot for is a minimum of 10, but this should be a continuous process. Ask them to post to one of the following: Google+ Local, Yelp, CitySearch, SuperPages, YP.com, your Facebook business page, etc.
· Be on the lookout for negative reviews: Regularly check all reviews. Google Alerts can help, but also look in the local directories too, since theyre not picked up by Google Alerts. If you find a negative review, quickly post a comment. If its valid, apologize and share the steps youve already taken or plan to take to address the problem. Be professional and show genuine concern.
Of course, you must also ensure that any testimonials and reviews you appear to endorse comply with FDA's rules about marketing language for natural health supplements. They cannot use disease words such as arthritis, cancer, cold or flu, and cant talk of the supplement being a remedy or cure, or even helping them recover. Only drugs treat, prevent and cure illness, according to the, so unless your product is an FDA-approved drug for that use, dont use or endorse the use of such language.
The FDA actively monitors for violations, and it will earn you a letter of warning; more than 60 companies received them last year. Failure to comply with the warning could cause them to seize your productsyou could even lose your business.
Even liking" such a testimonial on Facebook can get you a letter of warning, as attorney Claire J. Mitchell of Stoel Rives Attorneys at Law shared recently.
In December 2012, FDA cited a dietary supplements company for improper use of social media after it liked" this testimonial:
[Product] has done wonders for me. I take it intravenously 2x a week and it has helped me tremendously. It enabled me to keep cancer at bay without the use of chemo and radiation."
Mitchell wrote, This is not the first time FDA has scrutinized a companys use of social media. In the past two years, over a dozen companies have been cited by FDA for making improper claims on the company or product Facebook page or Twitter account. However, this is the first time FDA has interpreted that a like implies endorsement of an unapproved claim."
If you find a comment or review that includes language in violation of FDAs marketing rules for food and beauty product supplements, you might post a response like this:
As a natural health supplement manufacturer, Im not allowed to make that claim. But thank you for your endorsement of our product. Im so glad it worked for you."
On your own web pages and social media accounts, you can also simply remove the statement and send a private message to the post-er explaining why. While it might hurt to delete a glowing testimonial, it can spare you greater pain in the long run.
If youre delving into social media on behalf of your company for the first time, establish policies and procedures before you start posting to avoid problems such as these. Decide who on your staff can speak" for the company in posts, who will be responsible for monitoring negative comments and complaints, and how you will respond to those.
Remember, the idea of social networking is to attract followers, which creates visibility for your company. (One-third of Americans follow brands on social media, according to a Pricewaterhouse survey.) They wont follow yours if you do nothing but pitch products! Provide useful information such as links to articles and commentary on relevant news, issues and trends. You can create polls, hold contests and share announcements about events. Get creative!
Provide great content and before you know it, youll have a host of loyal followers providing great press" for you online.
Marsha Friedman is a 23-year veteran of the public relations industry. She is the CEO of EMSI Public Relations , a national firm that provides PR strategy and publicity services specializing in the natural health industry. Marsha is the author of "Celebritize Yourself," and she can also be heard weekly on her Blog Talk Radio Show, EMSIs PR Insider every Thursday at 3:00 PM EST. Follow her on Twitter: @marshafriedman .