Online business presence, reputation must be managed correctly

It's also a great anchor to highlight several important technology trends that will probably get bigger in 2009:

* Reputation will become even more important. TV comedian Stephen Colbert uses the word "truthiness" to describe something that people think they know intuitively, without actually having evidence or intellectual arguments to back it up. Colbert was trying to satirize the Bush administration's appeal to "gut instinct" about the war in Iraq, but the term has taken on a life of its own. Especially in the online world, perception and reputation really do create reality.

Consider the example of that "interesting times" saying. Most people believe that it's actually an ancient Chinese curse. However, the self-appointed pundits at Wikipedia say that origin is pretty doubtful. Truthiness is a moving target and you have to stay on top of it.

If you're a big firm, such as EnCana, Telus or Shaw, you should check your Wikipedia page for possible tampering. If you're too small to rate a Wikipedia page, you can still have a corporate presence on Facebook.

Telus has an official Facebook page that features its cute critters, and boasts 9,199 so-called "fans.”

Of course, there is also an 86-member "I hate Telus" Facebook group, and one called "Encana Lies.”

Having an online image cuts both ways, and requires constant vigilance.

* Well-executed web advertising will be a key tool for all kinds of businesses. Internet advertising initially got a bad name as companies flooded potential customers with pop-ups, spam, and annoying flashing boxes. An air of civility has descended, with Google setting the pace with discreet ads on its Gmail and YouTube services.

As I opened my inbox today, the little advertising line pointed me to the Chinese language learning website of Praxis Language. I usually ignore online ads, but since I am trying to learn Mandarin, I checked it out. The fact that it hooked me suggests that tactful web advertising is really starting to do its job, especially for a business that is fishing in the big ocean of Gmail users for people who might pay to learn a language.

* New delivery methods are emerging to communicate and do business. Clicking on the Chinese course link, I discovered that it offers a free sample, which is becoming the dominant business model for virtual commerce. It costs them nothing to give us a free taste. Praxis, like many others - including CBC and CTV - have discovered the power of Apple's iTunes store as a distribution channel for both free and paid-for content.

The moral of the Praxis story is you don't really need a pricey IT expert to set up an online business, just something to sell that people want, and an account on iTunes, Amazon or eBay. If you don't explore these channels, rest assured that your competitors will.

* Social networking will move from being cute to a must-have. New York-based advertising agency J. Walter Thompson (JWT) put "Social Networking for Jobseekers" on its list of Top Tech Trends for 2009. Even if you're fortunate enough to have a job, astute use of networks like LinkedIn, Xing, Plaxo, and perhaps even MySpace and Facebook will probably become more important to you in 2009. You'll know it's too late when all your business contacts are inviting you to link up to them online. Get there first.

* The decline of email and the rise of immediacy. A related trend identified in the JWT report is the decline of email, as spam piles up and the younger generation drops it for more immediate gratification. We'll still be staring at our BlackBerry or iPhone, using it to post messages on services like Facebook and Twitter, a microblogging site where people continually update their status.

Twitter was in the news recently when Denver plane crash survivor Mike Wilson used it to tell the world about his experience. Wilson's prose wasn't timeless but it certainly was timely. His description of what sounds like a chaotic scene probably didn't endear him to Continental Airlines, which was keeping the passengers holed up in the President's Club lounge.

* "Buy what your neighbor grows.”

This is the slogan on the website of the Essex County Associated Growers in southwestern Ontario. It's a portal that allows Ontario customers to purchase farm-fresh produce online. At this time of the year, the pickings are slim (apples) but it highlights two important trends. One is aggregation - smart little guys getting together to tackle a broader market than their traditional farm gate and market sales. The other is "locality," wanting to support those near to you. If times get tougher, we may well see a lot more impetus to buy local to keep our neighbors solvent.

* Oops, I didn't mean to do that. Technology to protect us from technology goes way back, from the first anti-virus programs to password-protected files. But, more and more, we are the enemy, as we accidentally delete important files and send ill-considered emails that we later regret. Web backup services such as ElephantDrive and online environments such as Apple's MobileMe can protect data from loss.

As for problems caused by our own stupidity, drunkenness or tiredness, Google has introduced Google Mail Goggles. This clever features helps you reconsider sending that email to the boss or significant other that you may regret by forcing you to answer some simple math questions.

This not only checks your level of sobriety, it also provides time for sober second thought. By default, the feature is activated from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. on weekend nights because, Google says, "that is the time you're most likely to need it.”

If you go on ill-considered email binges at other times, you can adjust that setting.

The way 2009 is looking, we're going to need all the help we can get.

(Tom Keenan is a professor at the University of Calgary and an expert on technology and its social implications. He can be reached at keenan@businessedge.ca)