Small Businesses Must Make Data Privacy a Priority

Small Businesses Must Make Data Privacy a Priority

photo credit: Creative Commons Five Data Privacy Principles from Mozilla by Ann Wuyts is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Society’s concern with data and privacy (or the lack thereof) has been brought to the forefront due to the FBI-Apple controversy. In short, the FBI wants Apple’s help breaking into an iPhone that belonged to one of the attackers in the December mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif. Apple is refusing to comply, since it would essentially be hacking its own products.

In a separate case involving Apple, a judge recently ruled that the U.S. government could not use the All Writs Act of 1789 to force Apple to produce data connected to an iPhone seized in connection with a drug case. The All Writs Act is also at the center of Apple’s fight with the FBI over the iPhone.

We can debate the merits of both sides of these cases, but that’s not the focus of this article. The crux of the issue, as it relates to owners of businesses small or large, is the importance of safeguarding data.

The letter of the law

The topic of securing data can be overwhelming. A good place for businesses to start is the Federal Trade Commission. It has an entire section devoted to data security that covers everything from passwords to copiers to mobile apps.

Privacy goes hand in hand with protecting consumer data. The Small Business Administration (SBA) provides a wealth of information on privacy, including articles and links to government sites.

Businesses not only have an ethical/moral obligation to protect consumer information, they are legally obligated to do so. The American Bar Association gives a great overview of safeguarding confidential information. This article also distinguishes differences among various state laws.

Cybersecurity a serious matter

 Internet hackers pose a credible threat to businesses and to their customers. In addition to exposing individuals to possible identity theft, security breaches also expose companies to negative PR. Companies often offer affected customers a free year of security monitoring, but that can’t undo the damage already done. Once a company has violated a customer’s trust — either directly or indirectly — it is difficult to restore that trust.

The actual cost to a company also can be quite real. Last holiday season, Target reported the theft of 40 million credit card accounts affecting 70 million customers. Target not only spent $240 million to replace customers’ cards, but sales and the company’s stock price took a major hit from the resulting public fallout.

Businesses aren’t the only institutions susceptible to security breaches. Colleges, too, have been victims of cyber attacks. The University of Central Florida announced earlier this year that the Social Security numbers of 63,000 individuals were compromised in a hacking incident. Two former students have filed a civil suit against the university in response, which illustrates another cost that companies face in the wake of such breaches: related attorney and court fees.

How can you prevent your business and customers from being victimized? Start with these tips on cybersecurity from the Federal Communications Commission (FTC). The SBA also provides many resources on online business law.

Want more information? Go to OnGuardOnline.gov, the federal government’s website to help businesses operate safely, securely and responsibly online.

The FTC manages the site, in partnership with the other federal agencies. OnGuardOnline.gov is a partner in the Stop Think Connect campaign, led by the Department of Homeland Security, and part of the National Initiative for Cybersecurity Education, led by the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

Resources for small businesses

 The Commercial Privacy Bill of Rights Act of 2011 empowers the FTC to require collectors of personally identifiable information to provide, among other thingsnotice to individuals on collection practices and the purpose of such collection. This is why any company conducting business online must have a privacy policy.

 For companies that don’t already have a privacy policy, there’s no need to start from scratch. With the free online Privacy Policy Generator, you can generate your own privacy policy in minutes.

 Other online tools will let you know if your website is vulnerable to attacks and even provide firewall protection:

  •  Qualys FreeScan provides 10 unique security scans of Internet-accessible assets on a business network and recommends patches to correct vulnerabilities.
  • CloudFare offers a basic plan that’s free; it includes secure socket layer (SSL), the standard security technology for establishing an encrypted link between a web server and a browser.
  • Cloud-based Tripwire SecureScan provides free vulnerability scanning for up to 100 Internet protocol (IP) addresses on an internal network.

When it comes to online security, business owners can’t stick their head in the proverbial sand. If they do so, it’s likely to become quicksand. Businesses must be proactive, protecting customer data — and their own reputations.

Darcy GrabensteinDarcy Grabenstein began her career as an editor at The Orlando Sentinel and still gets an adrenaline rush from deadline pressure. She “defected” to advertising, ending up in suburban Philly where she wrote for Nabisco, M&M/Mars, Johnson & Johnson, Warner Lambert, and more. It’s also where she learned what an ice scraper was. Her passion is PR, and she holds professional accreditation from the Public Relations Society of America and the International Association of Business Communicators. While she will never acquire a taste for scrapple, and still calls a hoagie a sub, she does enjoy a good cheesesteak.

Five Tips for Using Local Networking Groups to Grow Your Business

In today’s digital world, the hot topics in the small business marketing industry tend to be things like SEO, responsive web design, pay-per-click advertising, and of course whatever the latest fad in social media happens to be in any particular week. Of course all of these things are important and have a role to play in successfully marketing a small business, but while all of these constantly changing and evolving areas have been dominating the conversation, one time-tested marketing tactic has continued to quietly provide good results for those relatively few small business owners who have truly mastered it.

I’m talking about good, old-fashioned networking, which—especially at the local level—is still one of the most cost effective marketing methods available to a small business. Unfortunately, it’s also something that very few people are good at. Just visit any chamber of commerce luncheon and in no time you’ll quickly see numerous examples of bad networking. I’m talking about the guy who passes out business cards to everyone in the room and yet couldn’t tell you the name of a single person he talked to an hour later…or the woman who is clearly more interested in the desert tray than in any meaningful business-related conversation. It’s no wonder many people concentrate on other marketing tactics when their “networking” experiences involve examples like these.

Just to be perfectly clear, this superficial type of networking is not what I’m recommending as a way to grow your business. What I am recommending is developing long-term, meaningful relationships with quality business professionals who are ready and willing to help you accomplish your business goals. If that last sentence sounded familiar to you, it might be because it’s taken from the mission statement of the world’s largest small business networking and referral organization, BNI (Business Network International). By participating in local business networking groups like BNI, business owners can not only improve their networking skills, they can also meet strategic partners and get referrals—lots of referrals. In a second, I’ll give you five specific ways that local networking groups can help grow a small business, but first I want to define exactly what kind of groups I’m talking about.

Local business networking groups defined

When I use the term “local business networking groups”, the first thing that might come to mind might be the chamber of commerce, Rotary Club, or Lion’s Club. These are all fine organizations that serve a useful purpose, but they are not what I am referring to. For the purpose of this article, when I say “local business networking group” I am referring to a group that meets the following criteria:

  • The group only allows one representative from each profession to join a chapter.
  • New members must go through an application and screening process to join the group (i.e., they don’t simply allow anybody who can pay the membership fee to join).
  • The primary purpose of the group is to facilitate the exchange of business referrals between members.
  • The group meets in person on a regular basis (weekly or bi-weekly).
  • Meetings have a structured format so that members get equal consideration and do not have to fight for attention.
  • Members are expected to adhere to a code of ethics and/or meet quality standards.

Of course, BNI is by far the largest and most well-known example of this type of organization, but there are many other similar groups, such as LeTip and Biz to Biz. Within any of these groups you’ll find chapters that are healthy and very effective, and chapters that are run very poorly and are not effective at all. For the purposes of this article, I’m referring to a healthy, well-run chapter of a local networking group meeting the above criteria.

Now that we’ve got that straightened out, let’s get to those five specific tips for getting the most out of these groups once you are a member.

Tip #1: Be specific when you request referrals

One common characteristic of the type of networking group I described is that members will have the opportunity to ask for referrals. In fact, members are expected to refer business to each other, but that doesn’t mean that those referrals will turn into customers. In order to get the most out of your membership in local networking groups, be as specific as possible when you ask for referrals.

For example, here’s a specific referral request that an attorney in a local networking group might make of his fellow members:

“I’m looking for an introduction to Mr. John Smith from John Smith’s Lawn Care Service. I know Mr. Smith has his business organized as a sole proprietorship right now, and I don’t think he realizes that he is putting his personal assets at risk by doing that. If someone could introduce me to Mr. Smith so that I could educate him about the benefits of organizing his business as a limited liability company, I’d greatly appreciate it.”

This will be much, much more effective than a generic request such as “I’d like to meet small business owners who have sole proprietorships.” Vague referral requests like that will get you lots of bad referrals—if they get you any referrals at all.

Tip #2: Don’t forget about strategic partners

The only thing better than getting a personal introduction to a new customer is getting a personal introduction to someone who can send you lots of new customers—i.e., a strategic partner. Unfortunately, all too often people in local networking groups tend to focus only on asking for referrals to new customers. This is probably because referrals to strategic partners take more time and energy before they result in cash flow. Don’t miss out on this potential gold mine for new customers. Ask members of your local networking group for referrals to strategic partners, or better yet, join a chapter that already has a few potential strategic partners in it.

Tip #3: Use your group to help promote your content

Sometimes, it might be hard for other members of a group to refer business to you, but they might be able to help you out in other ways. For example, let’s say you have a blog that you post an educational article to at least once or twice a month (which you should). Why not ask your fellow members to share it on their personal Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, or LinkedIn profiles? Typical chapters of local networking groups have between 20-30 people. If each of those people has a few hundred “friends” on Facebook, and even half of them share your article with their followers, you’ll get tons of free exposure, at least a few clicks to your website, and—with a little bit of luck—maybe even a new customer or two.

Tip #4: Have members of your group write you a review (and vice versa)

Positive online reviews for a local business on sites like Google, Yelp, and Facebook are very important, but getting them from customers can be a challenge. Once you have gotten to know members of your local networking group fairly well, ask if they’d be willing to write you a review or LinkedIn recommendation from the perspective of a business associate. In some cases, this can be even more powerful than a review from a customer, because it’s coming from someone who has a long-term relationship with you. Of course, when you make this request you should offer to do the same for them in return.

Tip #5: Use your networking group to help your customers

This last tip will apply more to B2B businesses than B2C businesses. For those of you who have clients who are small business owners, think about who in your local networking group might be a potential customer for them. Then, invite them to attend a meeting with you as your guest and introduce them to that member. It may or may not lead to a new customer for them, but even if it doesn’t, they’ll probably appreciate the fact that you are thinking about them and trying to help them out. Who knows—if they’re impressed by your group, they may even become a member and turn into a source of referrals for you and the other members!

Now that you know how to get the most out of local business networking groups, it’s time to take action. Make a commitment to find a group in your area and pay them a visit sometime within the next month. Don’t be shy about reaching out—these groups LOVE visitors and treat them like royalty, because they know that every visitor is either a potential customer or referral source for them. Just contact the chapter president and let them know you’d like to visit the group, and they’ll let you know what to do.

If you’re already a member of a local networking group and aren’t using all of the above ideas, then start! Just don’t be surprised if other members of your group start copying you once they see what great results you’re getting.

About Kevin Jordan

kevin JordanKevin Jordan is a small business marketing consultant and member of the Duct Tape Marketing Consultant Network. He’s also the president of the newly chartered Bridge to Success BNI Chapter in Farmville, VA. You’re invited to visit his chapter the next time you happen to be in central Virginia on a Thursday morning at 8 am.