By Rieva Lesonsky

One of the oldest and most effective ways of marketing your business is by word-of-mouth. But today, word-of-mouth has taken on a whole new meaning. Customers are spreading the word about your business, not only in personal interactions with friends and family, but also online on social media websites, on businesses’ websites and on third-party ratings and review sites such as Yelp!.com.

There’s good news and bad news about this, of course. The bad news is that a single negative comment, post or review has the power to hurt your business. But the good news—and there’s more good news than bad–is that positive mentions of your business can help even more.

A recent study by Bazaarvoice surveyed consumers about what influenced their decisions to buy products and found that, among all age groups, the opinions of others expressed online were very important in making purchasing decisions. This held true whether the opinions were those of their friends and family, or complete strangers making comments or posting reviews online. And while younger consumers were somewhat more reliant on online opinions, even Baby Boomers were heavily influenced by them.

Many small business owners fear getting involved in social media or staking out a presence for their companies on Yelp! will unleash floodgates of critical consumers ready to rip their companies to shreds. If that’s you, you need to get over your fears. Word-of-mouth has always been a primary way that customers learn about businesses. And as this research shows, it’s becoming even more important.

So how to stop worrying and start loving the world of online opinions? Think of social media, reviews and rating sites as just another channel for getting your customers to talk about you. Sure, you hope most of what they say will be positive—but if it isn’t, wouldn’t you rather hear the truth so you can fix the problems?

If your business is not already involved in social media, I urge you to at least get your feet wet. Check out Facebook for business, set up a Twitter account (you don’t have to tweet at first—just listen in), and create a LinkedIn presence. There are many other social media sites out there, from Google+ to Pinterest and Tumblr. You don’t have to use them all—but you do need to get a sense of what’s out there, and which one might help your company grow.

Next, be sure your business has a presence on review and rating sites, like Yelp!.com, Google Places or local search engines where customers post their impressions of businesses. It’s simple to “claim” your listing and make sure the information presented about your business is correct. Then encourage your customers to review you. In other words, start the conversation going.

Want the easiest way to listen in? Go to and set up a “Google Alert” on your name and your business name. That way, you’ll be notified whenever your company is mentioned online. It’s a little step, but it’s a start to listening into the conversation that’s going on all around you.