Category Archives: Online Content

Allow customers to see your authentic side through writing

Adam Smith, the father of modern economics and author of The Wealth of Nations (1776), identified writing as one of the three most important inventions of mankind – the other two being money and economic tables.

Photo courtesy of Small Biz Trends

Photo courtesy of Small Biz Trends

More than two centuries later, the Internet has powered the written word to levels unimagined only a generation ago, let alone during Smith’s era.  It is the driving force behind a handy new-media maxim, “Content is King.

In an era when content is king, if you want to connect with customers competitively and stay connected, you have to produce more written words than ever before. But not just any words – authentic words.

After all, today we’re consumers of many kinds of online content. From streaming audio and video to multi-media formats on iTunes and YouTube. In the midst of all it, the most popular content — hence the Kingly content — still remains most popular in its graphic form, like what Smith would have used.

Since 1999 – long before blogs and social media – two things I’ve encouraged small business owners to do is:

  1. develop better writing skills
  2. publish more of their own words online that communicate to and connect with customers.

Since 2010,  prospects and customers want to read about the stuff you sell before they meet you. But they want more than marketing messaging; they want authentic, straight-from-the-horse’s-mouth information that delivers three things that are increasingly a big deal to customers:

1. the voice,

2. the vision, and

3. the values of the human beings behind the stuff, as unartful and unscripted as they may be.

So don’t worry if you’re not a professional wordsmith. When you need fancy words for strategic marketing messaging, online or otherwise, hire a pro.

But you must become comfortable with conveying your vision and values online, in your own words – the voice – about a variety of issues from explaining how to use a product you sell to a local cause you care about to your philosophy on serving customers. And it’s just fine if some of these authentic words also come from your employees who customers will get to know.

In the Age of the Customer®, now armed with as much information as the businesses they patronize, customers expect to be treated more like insiders. And the good news is that no one makes this connection as effectively and authentically as a small business. Congratulations.

Let customers read about your authentic side with your voice, vision, and values.

Create online customer communities for your small business

A “craze” is something that takes popular culture by storm. A “fad” is a craze that doesn’t last. Social media is currently a craze, but it’s not a fad. And the question is not whether this craze will last, but rather, what will it look like over time and why should a small business care? Consequently, let’s establish a few “social media” points.

Strictly speaking, “social media” is the technology that makes online community building possible, not the community itself. It allows for the creation of and service to online communities, where dialogue and interaction among community founders and members are possible. Ultimately, the term “social media” in a business application should become the more accurate term, “online customer communities.”

Photo courtesy of MySocialAgency.com

Photo courtesy of MySocialAgency.com

In defining community, Webster uses words like association, fellowship, like-mindedness and shared interests. When building online customer communities, we should remember these words. Every small business should create online customer communities, of which there are two primary examples:

1. A company’s profile pages on sites like Facebook, Twitter, etc. Your company leverages these companies’ platforms. These sites are free but have limited flexibility.

2. Communities founded and hosted by your company, oriented around relationships with customers and prospects. An online community is established when customers subscribe to one or more of your channel offerings in order to receive your information.

A channel is a syndication tool or method of content delivery and service to a community. For example, real simple syndication (RSS), a blog, an email newsletter (ezine), a text blast and Twitter are channel tool examples, through which businesses and their communities exchange information.

Merely having a website isn’t practicing community building any more than owning a piano makes you a musician. But a website can become a platform from which you launch and serve online communities.

There is one critically important thing for a founding company to understand about both of the online customer community types: the company cannot control community behavior. Members – customers and prospects – control the community. A founding company can only create the community and influence it by establishing community values, then serving it via the channels and information it offers, which are requested by members.

Always remember: Customers control online communities, not companies.

 

The Age of the Customer®, Part 3: The values of online customer communities

Photo courtesy of Mansa Systems

Photo courtesy of Mansa Systems

This is the second of two articles about finding and staying connected to customers as the marketplace continues to evolve.  Last week we talked about creating online communities as a way to find relevance with social media.

Going forward, connecting with prospects and customers will be less about 20th century marketing strategies and more about having at least one type of online relationship with them, including information delivered in one of the online channels like email, texting, even Twitter. And you haven’t created a true online community until members can comment on every aspect of their experience with your business.

Increasingly, prospects will turn into customers more because they’re attracted to the values of your online community than because of what you sell.  Your community values should have three elements:

1.  Brand elements – brand promise and brand image.

2.  Quality information delivered to the community.

3.  The tone of connection the business wants to set with its community. Your “tone” is how brand messages are included in information you deliver to the community, and it can be anywhere from crassly commercial to so subtle it’s almost subliminal.  The “volume” of your tone will depend on your ROI patience.

Establishing community values is a critical element of community growth not only because that’s what attracts members to connect with you, but it also causes them to encourage members of other communities to which they belong to join them in your community. Indeed, the most viral element of any online community is the feeling members have for the community values, which could range from devotion to derision.

In order to foster community longevity and quality, a business should create its own social media platform and technologies, rather than counting on public sites, like Facebook or LinkedIn. Here are a few guidelines:

1.  Establish compelling community values.

2.  Create an environment where communities can flourish around these values.

3.  Acquire the technology that makes online community building possible.

4.  Protect community values and control how the community is served, while accepting that the community founder cannot control member activity.

Ultimately, as a result of their experiences with your online community, members will turn into customers and possibly your best salespeople.

Write this on a rock… Get connected – and stay connected with customers through online communities.

The Age of the Customer®, Part 1: Can social media be dangerous?

Infographic courtesy of Digital Sherpa.

Infographic courtesy of Digital Sherpa

Can social media actually be dangerous to your small business? Absolutely.

“Blasphemy!” you cry. “Heretic!” you say.

Guilty as charged. Remember, Martin Luther was a heretic with a blasphemous message. Today’s heretic might be tomorrow’s prophet.

Being successful with any of the social media communities is as easy as falling off of a log – for individuals; but for small businesses – not so much.

The goals of these two groups are very different: Individuals use social media primarily to connect and share. Businesses participate in social media communities to pursue a marketing strategy in these target-rich environments.

For professional services providers, like consultants, trainers, writers or any venture that sells information and ideas, social media is pretty intuitive, completely logical and often highly effective. But many classicMain Street small businesses, like a restaurant, dry cleaners, contractor, etc., often struggle to create an effective social media strategy.

Unfortunately, some business owners, especially start-ups, get caught up in the social media whirlwind and, since it’s all the rage, actually believe that spending time “connecting” online will cause sales dollars to roll in. This is where the danger lies because social media activity can become a thief that steals time from effective marketing practices.  Effective means those strategies that are known to result in sales.

Even so, social media, with all the attendant sites and applications, may be a craze, but it isn’t a fad. It is real, and it will last. And just like the evolution of websites, in time businesses will figure our how to use social media as an effective tool. But for the time being, some businesses have figured it out, while many are still uncertain about how to produce a social media return on investment.

In order to actually have a social media strategy that isn’t dangerous, practice both/and rather than either/or. Continue to execute your traditional marketing strategy, while simultaneously getting involved in and learning about the 21st century social media universe.

Get a Facebook page and use it, but don’t live there. Acquire a Twitter and do some following, but don’t get sucked into the time drain. Link up on LinkedIn, but don’t forget to unlink.

Allow me to demonstrate that I’m an equal opportunity heretic: As obnoxious as it may be today, social media will increasingly become a significant element of any successful small business marketing strategy.

Write this on a rock… Use social media like any other business tool — prudently.

 

Your values and customer communities

Last time we talked about focusing on developing customer communities as a way to find relevance through your online strategy, including website and social media. Now let’s strengthen this relevance by focusing on values.

ONLINE_SHOPPING_toppick_cropIncreasingly, prospects will turn into customers, and customers will become loyal, because they’re attracted to what your company stands for. They are looking for evidence of your values in your online elements. For example:

1.Are your brand elements – brand promise and image – all about you and your stuff, or do they sound like something that would benefit your customer community?

2. When delivering information to the community, is it all about you, or does it contribute to helping customers?

3. What is the tone of your marketing message? “Tone” is how brand messages are incorporated as you serve the community, from crassly commercial to almost subliminal. You should strike a tone balance between making a sale and serving the community.

In a world where everything you sell is a commodity, value – product, price, service – is the threshold of a customer community, but values are the foundation. Anyone can find value, but when customers like your values, they tell their friends. Indeed, the most dynamic and potentially viral element of any online community is the feeling members have about your values. But remember, that “feeling” can go either way – positive or negative.

Here are a few guidelines for establishing compelling values online that match your values offline:

1. Acquire and use the technology that makes online community building possible.

2. Create an environment where an online community can flourish around the value you deliver and the values you demonstrate.

3. Serve and protect your customer community, while accepting that you cannot control it. As customer members come and go, and say what’s on their minds, maximize the positive and repair the negative.

Once community members find your value and like your values, prospects will turn into customers and customers will turn into your best salespeople.

Write this on a rock…

Build and serve customer communities by delivering value and demonstrating values.

Disregard the “Nu-uh!” Effect at your own peril

Once upon a time, but not that long ago, a brand message could be successful even if it was close to a work of fiction.

Created by Madison Avenue wordsmiths, copy for an ad or brochure was crafted to manipulate and motivate using puffery, a legal term referring to acceptable marketing exaggeration. And most of the time it worked.

FolgersIn fact, generations of consumers allowed themselves to be manipulated by puffery that became part of the sound track of our lives. For examples:

“Plop, plop, fizz, fizz, oh, what a relief it is.”

“Put a tiger in your tank.”

“The best part of waking up is Folgers in your cup.”

Here’s a local example:

“Largest inventory in the tri-state area.”

In the past, I’ve revealed how the 10,000-year-old Age of the Seller paradigm has shifted in favor of the Age of the Customer. The differentiator is control of the information, and your customer now owns that advantage, including the truth about your products, services, and marketplace behavior. This control is derived in part from something called user generated content, or UGC.

UGC is word-of-mouth on digital steroids; the commercial equivalent of political fact-checking. Today a successful brand message will look less like Madison Avenue manipulation and more like the good, the bad, and the ugly of your business discussed by customers in online communities, like Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube. You’ll benefit from good UGC one day and try to recover from negative UGC the next.

Negative UGC produces what I call the “Nu-uh!” Effect. It’s what someone posts online when your brand message doesn’t meet their expectations. If you say you have the freshest salad bar in town and one person writes “Nu-uh!” on Facebook or Yelp, that’s your new brand message until you find a way to redeem yourself.

A “Nu-uh!” could refute your claim in any number of ways, from a well-written critique to “Dude! Seriously?!” Either way, if you’re getting responses like this to your brand messaging, anyone who gives you a “Nu-uh!” raspberry is, at that moment, the co-owner of your brand.

Since no business, product, service, or relationship is perfect, the over-arching goal of your brand strategy in the Age of the Customer is to have more positive UGC than negative and, if possible, leave no ”Nu-uh!” unresolved.

UGC represents the two-edged sword by which brands large and small will either flourish or die.

Disregard the power of UGC and the “Nu-uh!” effect at your own peril.

Are you an Internet dynamo or a dinosaur?

Sometime during the spring of 1995, you and I were given access to the Internet for the first time.

Since then, related innovations have produced a new marketplace where businesses of all sizes turn prospects into customers in a virtual, parallel universe. Here is a short list of the significant innovations:

  • E-commerce – the ability to buy and sell online
  • High-speed internet replaced dial-up
  • Search engines indexing a gazillion online offerings
  • Mobile computing from convergence of mobile networks and smartphones
  • Social media transcending websites by connecting participants in online communities

After 10,000 years of the traditional marketplace, these innovations have at once produced unprecedented opportunity and disruption in less than 20 years. But here’s good news for small business: Part and parcel with the new capability is the incrementalization of virtual resources, which means they’re available in units and pricing that fit our focused (niche) applications and diminutive budgets.

We wanted to know how well small businesses are adopting the handy and affordable virtual marketplace tools, so in our online poll we asked: “How much of your sales can you attribute directly or indirectly to your online strategy?” Here’s what we learned:

Only 5% of our sample reported that 100% of their business resulted from an online strategy, while double that percentage said they did “more than half” of their business in the virtual marketplace. Just a few more, 12%, allowed that they got “about half” of their revenue from the Cloud, while our big group, 55%, said “less than half” of their business came from the Internet. And finally, almost one-in-five said the Internet produced “zero” business for them.

It’s good news that 81% of our respondents are experiencing some business from their online strategy. Twenty years after the telephone was introduced in 1877, I wonder how many businesses had adopted that proto killer app?

But another way to look at small business’s virtual marketplace adoption is that almost three-fourths of our folks still associate less than half of their business in any way to an online strategy. Sadly, that troubling news could foretell the unnecessary extinction of way too many small businesses.

After almost 20 years, customer expectations are increasingly evolving in the direction of more virtual interaction. Which way is your business trending?

Don’t act like a dinosaur – execute an online strategy.

What is a blog and why should small business care?

At this point in The Age of the Customer, many people would think that defining a blog is an elementary task tantamount to explaining the wheel.

But here in the real world, where Main Street small businesses live, some folks actually still have un-Tweeted thoughts. Consequently, since a blog for most small businesses is at once a powerful yet under-used customer connection tool, perhaps a little background and illumination would be beneficial.

Describing his online journaling, early Internet adopter Jorn Barger first coined the term “weblog” in 1997. As the practice became more widespread, the inevitable contraction, “blog,” made speaking about it handier and spawned at least two more new terms, “to blog” and “blogging.”

As blogging grew, innovators hastened to create new tools to make it easier to record and distribute ideas in the emerging—wait for it—blogosphere. Today blog readers can receive new posts over multiple platforms, plus begin commenting threads with the blogger and other recipients who have a point of view or question about the topic of the blog post.

Back to that “powerful but under-used” thing: Small business owners must appreciate the power of these three facts:

  1. Small business owners are experts on what they sell, how it’s used, the industry, etc.
  2. Customers want access to what experts know.
  3. Increasingly, customers expect a closer connection to experts.

Alas, even though blogs deliver all of this, we still hear two whiney blogging excuses:

Excuse 1: “I’m not a good writer.”

Truth: Research shows customers prefer the thoughts and benefit from the experience and wisdom of the non-professional writer they know—that’s you—than those of a smart alec wordsmith like me.

Excuse 2: “Don’t have time.”

Truth: Once your blog platform is set up (you won’t believe how easy it is), new posts and responding to customer comments takes minutes a week. Remember, a blog post doesn’t have to be an article.

Practically speaking, a blog can be better than a website because your posts can be added more easily, making your expertise more compelling. And here’s the blogging goose’s golden egg: Blogging about what you know delivers your authentic expertise, which helps you build online communities where you connect with current and future customers in a way that’s increasingly more relevant to them than your website.

Don’t worry; you still need your beautiful website.

Start your blog this week and let the relevance begin.

Are you hidebound or visionary?

Since 1995, control of the three major elements of your customer relationships – product, information, and buying decision – has been shifting from business to customer. As you may remember, I’ve identified this shift as a marketplace transition from the original age to the new one – the 10,000 year-old Age of the Seller is being replaced by the Age of the Customer.

As this shift plays out, two types of businesses – Hidebound Sellers and Visionary Sellers – currently exist in parallel universes, but not for long. Which one are you?

Hidebound Sellers

These companies are so invested and entrenched in the old order of control that they deny the reality in front of them. They can be identified by the following markers:

  • Misplaced frustration: As performance goals get harder to accomplish, frustration makes those who deny the new realities think their pain is caused by a failure to execute.
  • Bad strategies: It is said that armies prepare for the next war by training for the last one. So it is with Hidebound Sellers. Not only do Age of the Customer influences make them think they’re being attacked, but they persist in using Age of the Seller countermeasures.
  • Destructive pressure: Convinced of execution failure, pressure brought to bear by management results in an employee casualty list instead of a growing customer list.
  • Equity erosion: Defiance in the face of overwhelming evidence sustains the deniers only until they run out of Customers with old expectations, and/or equity and access to credit are depleted.

Visionary Sellers

These businesses are adjusting their plans to conform to the new reality of more control by customers. Visionary Sellers are identified by these markers:

  • Acceptance: They accept that the customer is now in control and make appropriate adjustments to this reality.
  • Modern sales force: They hire and train their sales force to serve increasingly informed and empowered customers.
  • Technology adoption: They offer technology options that allow customers to find, connect, and do business using their preferences.
  • Relevance over competitiveness: They recognize that while being competitive is still important, today it’s just table stakes and is being replaced in customer priority by the new coin of the realm: relevance.

In the Age of the Customer, Hidebound Sellers are dinosaurs waiting for extinction. Visionary Sellers are finding success by orienting operations and strategies around a more informed and empowered customer.

So what’s the verdict? Are you Hidebound or Visionary?

Let customers read about your authentic side

Adam Smith, the father of modern economics and author of The Wealth of Nations (1776), identified writing as one of the three most important inventions of mankind – the other two being money and economic tables.

More than two centuries later, the Internet has powered the written word to levels unimagined only a generation ago, let alone during Smith’s era. Indeed, it is the driving force behind a handy new-media maxim, “Content is King.”

Today we’re consumers of many kinds of online content, including streaming audio and video. But even in the face of such multi-media majesty as iTunes and YouTube, most of the kingly content is still in the graphic form so highly regarded by Smith.

Untitled-1So what does all of this mean for small business owners? It’s simple: In an era when content is king, if you want to connect with customers competitively and stay connected, you have to produce more written words than ever before. But not just any words – authentic words.

Since 1999 – long before blogs and social media – two of the things I’ve encouraged small business owners to do is: 1) develop better writing skills and 2) publish more of their own words online that communicate to and connect with customers.

In the 2nd decade of the 21st century, prospects and customers want to read about the stuff you sell before they meet you. But they want more than marketing messaging; they want authentic, straight-from-the-horse’s-mouth information that delivers three things that are increasingly a big deal to customers: the voice, vision and values of the human beings behind the stuff, as unartful and unscripted as they may be.

So don’t worry if you’re not a professional wordsmith. When you need fancy words for strategic marketing messaging, online or otherwise, hire a pro. But you must become comfortable with conveying your vision and values online, in your own words – the voice – about a variety of issues from explaining how to use a product you sell to a local cause you care about to your philosophy on serving customers. And it’s just fine if some of these authentic words come from employees.

In The Age of the Customer®, now armed with as much information as the businesses they patronize, customers expect to be treated more like insiders. The good news is that no one makes this connection as effectively and authentically as a small business.

Let customers read about the authentic side of you and your business.