Brian Solis is the author of the new book, The End of Business as Usual. He is also a principal analyst at Altimeter Group. AT&T has sponsored the following blog post.

Social media offers many opportunities for small businesses. But, more often than not, what small businesses need to do make social media work is unclear. From Facebook to Twitter to Youtube, where do you start, why, and what can you expect?

So what is Yelp and the like all about? It’s part online local directory, information service, social network, and also a repository for customer reviews. Organized by city, every business receives an online listing where people can search for options based on locale, keywords, or customer ratings. Why is this important? People are increasingly relying on these services to find solutions whether it’s for a particular restaurant, service provider or simply to see what’s new around them. Additionally, these services now appear in Google search results, often rising above the websites of related businesses. In Yelp for example, reviewers can also gain influence. The more reviews one writes and the more connections they have, experiences with your business can reverberate not only through Yelp but to other social networks including Twitter and Facebook. Regardless, it is these experiences that weigh heavily in the decision-making cycles of customers.

It’s important to note, that while some businesses wish Yelp would wither away, consumers find great value in the service. Compete, an online website tracking company, recently found that visits to the site are only increasing over time with no sign of slowing down.

 

Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos once said that your brand is what people say about you when you’re not in the room. While many business owners feared that social review sites would force them to lose control, these networks in fact offer a form of control. People will always talk. They will always have opinions. They will always share their impressions and experiences. The difference is that you now have the ability to see and learn from them. And, you also have the ability to engage with customers. Doing so shifts negative into positive experiences. Smart engagement also reinforces your value proposition to improve relationships and expand your reach through digital word of mouth.

If you’re worried that people will just share negative reviews because they have nothing better to do, think again. They will simply share what they experience because they want to invest in the communities where they in turn get value from the experiences of others. More importantly, people will go out of their way to share good experiences. Your job now is deliver great products, services AND experiences. And, to do so takes design and intention. Don’t fear reviews, embrace them. Encourage them!

To help you master Yelp and other review sites, here is a list of 10 things to do and not do to improve customer experiences and relationships:

1. Claim your business on every site possible.

Yelp, Foursquare and the like allow for businesses to claim their page to update or customize information, add special offers, and include photos and other relevant content.  Be as complete as possible. Everything that is displayed here factors into decision-making.

Here’s an example shared by Tom Humbarger of a diner in Huntington Beach that shows how the diner customized its page on Yelp.

2. Become part of the community.

Not only are you in business, but you are also part of a community. Get the hang of the service by also reviewing some of the businesses that you frequent. Recommend businesses. Take the time to make connections and to get to know others who may one day also become your customer. These are social networks too, so network! Build a digital and real world community around you and your business.

3. Encourage your best customers to share their experiences.

Your customers already love you. That’s why they keep coming back. Ask them to share an honest review on their site of choice and feel free to offer them an incentive or reward for doing so. Don’t push for positive…just honest reviews. Don’t stop doing this…ever. Customer reviews are marketing now.

4. Promote offers and news.

Use Yelp and other networks to promote what it is you do very well and encourage new business by offering dedicated specials and incentives. As per the example in number 1, you can highlight offers specific to each community. Yelp, Foursquare and other services offer business dashboards that not only allow you to update your information, but also to introduce offers and promotions. Do so regularly as your connected customers are learning to expect them and as such, they’ll reward you with repeat business and word of mouth.

5. Make them a deal they can’t refuse.

Yelp offers a paid Deals product, which is a form of incentive-based advertising. Essentially, Deals offer the ability for a business to publish a one-time special offer as a form of marketing and new customer acquisition. Many businesses will introduce a product or service at a substantial discount to create excitement and lure new customers. Yelp takes 30% of all transactions to cover the cost of promotion. This is not unlike what you may see with Groupon and Living Social. These custom offers can extend beyond the reach of your business page or even Yelp. Great offers are shared from person to person through social networks and good ole fashioned email.

5. Don’t feed the flames!

If you get a negative review, DO NOT flame your critics by challenging their experience or worse threat of a lawsuit. Instead, kill them with kindness. Show that you’re listening and acknowledge their concern. Commit to doing something about it. Offer to improve the experience and ask for another chance.

Glenn Reit received a negative review on Yelp for his dental practice in New York. As a result, his daily new appointment calls dropped almost in half. Rather than try to learn from the situation or try to make it better, Reit attempted to sue Yelp and the reviewer. Reit ultimately lost the case and the bad PR the followed didn’t help his business either.

There are countless stories where businesses engaged with customers to learn more about negative experiences. Through transparent, public interactions in Yelp for example, the mere demonstration of empathy and sincerity will often earn a second chance and the support of the community. You just have to care, take the time to try to make things right (even if you disagree), and change the experience for the better.

6. Check-in to the mobile experience.

I’m sure you heard the expression, “there’s an app for that.” And, indeed there is. Each social review site offers a mobile version of its network for smartphones and tablets. For example, Yelp and Foursquare offer users the ability to check in to a business. When a user checks-in, an alert is sent to their friends to let them know where they are. It also alerts businesses when customers are there. Consider creating a “check-in offer” to incentivize people to try or visit your business more often. The more they check-in, the more they promote you.

One last thing….think about what happens if someone clicks through to your website from their phone or tablet. Is your site also presentable on the small screen? If not, make sure!

7. Listen. Learn. Adapt.

The business dashboards in Yelp, Foursquare and others provide a great deal of valuable insights within one view. Among them is the ability to see how many people are viewing your page, new comments or reviews and also total check-ins (and who’s checking in). Listen to experiences and find recurring patterns, both good and bad. Learn from this activity and adapt over time. Stay engaged. Stay informed. Stay relevant.

8. Wear the badge of honor!

You do need stinkin’ badges! Yelp, Foursquare and others offer decals to place in your business for a passerby or repeat patrons to see. Wear them proudly. And, don’t forget about the digital badges that each service offers. Place them on your website as well!

9. Advertise.

While most of this list is comprised of free, organized or subsidized marketing and services, each network offers a form of advertising that helps you stand out above the fray. When people search for related keywords or locales, your business can shoot right to the top. And, in some cases, you can choose which reviews to feature when someone clicks through to your page. Prices vary by network.

10. Be the H.E.R.O!

Remember that transparency and sincerity always win. When in doubt, be the hero!

Be…Helpful

Be…Empathetic

Be…Responsive

Be creative in your…Offers

Doing so will help you earn the attention, support, and repeat business of your communities online and in the real world!