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5 tips on building an authentic online presence



When Shawn Walchef, owner and founder of Cali BBQ Media and Cali Comfort BBQ, tells his business’s story, he doesn’t sit in front of the camera talking about barbeque. He shows customers video footage that’s raw and real: 15 seconds of Cali Comfort’s pitmaster, Bernice, putting ribs on the smoker, for example. 

With two podcasts (Digital Hospitality and Restaurant Influencers), a blog, and a profile on every social media platform you can think of, Shawn is an expert at highlighting his brand and engaging with his audience. And he’s found that viewers respond best to authenticity—content that showcases the humanity of his brand, the people behind his business, and behind-the-scenes moments customers don’t normally see. 

“A guest on one of my previous podcast episodes said, ‘Be the show and not the commercial,’” Shawn said. “So many [business owners] want to be a commercial. They want to post a perfect Instagram feed… But that doesn’t look true. It doesn’t look authentic. Yet when a restaurant owner posts a video of their business, showing me how they made their recipe, it doesn’t have to be perfect—it’s real! It jumps out at me.”

Since more than half of social media users research products and services online, it’s crucial for businesses to create content that engages those customers. Below, Shawn shares five tips for building an authentic digital reputation.

1. Find your medium

You don’t have to be everywhere all the time to make an impact on social media. Each platform has a unique audience with different possibilities for your business. But as Shawn has found, video gets the highest rates of engagement, whether it’s on TikTok, Facebook, LinkedIn, or Instagram.

“You have to know how to share your story. You’ve got to know how to do it online. [The podcast Restaurant Influencers] has allowed us to pick the best of the best on Tiktok, on YouTube, on Medium, on podcasting—no matter which platform it is. If it’s an app in the app store and somebody is dominating digitally, we want to hear their story and figure out how they’re driving new, different types of revenue to their profit and loss statement.”

2. Create content that’s ‘professionally raw’

Internet users crave authentic content, and they can tell when you’re trying to mislead them. Create professional-looking videos, but don’t overthink it. Highlight the people of your business doing what they do best without going for the hard sell.

“The problem that I see with most business owners is that we want quality,” Shawn said. “We want to be the commercial. We want the best image, the best foot forward for our brand. It’s our baby; we want it to be the best. But what the internet wants is authenticity. The internet wants raw—professionally raw—and you have the greatest tool that allows you to do that: the camera app on your smartphone.”

3. Make social media part of your daily routine

Authenticity is important, but consistency is key to keeping viewers engaged. If you want to build a relationship with your audience, start regularly recording moments behind the scenes. For example, Shawn makes capturing and posting social media videos part of his daily routine.

“The same way that I check email, the same way that I check text messages—wherever I am is an opportunity for me to give access to the people that follow us a sneak peek into the life of being a barbecue restaurant owner, a podcaster, of me going to Vegas to give a speech to other restaurant owners,” Shawn said. “I’m bringing people into the story. And by bringing people into the story, more people are invested in our brand, and it gives us more opportunity.”

4. Be open to customer feedback 

There will always be someone on the internet who expresses criticism, often in the form of a negative comment or review. Try to read reviews objectively and discern any patterns. If multiple people have the same criticism, that’s a golden opportunity for improvement.

“It’s devastating when somebody takes the time to write a 1-star review, attacking all of the things that you believe in,” Shawn said. “And if one person’s saying it, then maybe other people have experienced it and just haven’t taken the time to write it. Now, if multiple people are saying it, operationally, we can look at it and go, ‘Well, maybe we have a problem, and maybe we can investigate that problem.’

5. Be a human and respond as a human

Owning a business is personal. It’s okay to show your viewers and customers how emotional the experience can be. When reviewers take the time to leave feedback about your business online, let them know there’s a human on the other end taking the time to read, reply, and thank them for their review. 

“When you talk about your business, your family, your baby, it is raw and it is emotional,” Shawn said. “For me, it’s one life. I don’t have a business life and a personal life. I have one life, and every day I have an opportunity to do the thing that I love to do, which is grow my business and make an impact for my family, for my community, for our customers, for all the people that we get to touch base with on a global scale now because of the internet.”

Interviews by Emily Washcovick and editorial contributions from Kristi Lindahl


These lessons come from an episode of Behind the Review, Yelp & Entrepreneur Media’s weekly podcast. Listen below to hear from Shawn, or visit the episode page to read more, subscribe to the show, and explore other episodes.

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The information above is provided for educational and informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice and may not be suitable for your circumstances. Unless stated otherwise, references to third-party links, services, or products do not constitute endorsement by Yelp.

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